What Don’t We Talk About When We Talk About Israel's Security

Israel’s physical security is critical, but it is not the only security we need.
03/26/2017 10:39 am ET
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks via a satellite television feed during the American Israel Public Affairs Co
SAUL LOEB via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks via a satellite television feed during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference, March 22, 2016.

When Israeli and American Jews talk about “Israel’s security” they are thinking about the Holocaust and about extermination. That is the reason they choose the narrowest possible definition of “security,” a strip. Israel’s “security” is what we safeguard with tanks, jets, and nuclear weapons.

The American Israel Political Action Committee’s annual Policy Conference taking place this week in Washington is one example of this type of discourse. The estimable speakers will say that Israel’s strategic interests in the United States can be reduced to deterring our dangerous regional enemies.

It’s as if we’ve all adopted Alexander Haig’s definition of Israel from 35 years ago. “Israel,” he said, “is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.”

Israel’s physical security is critical, but it is not the only security we need.

The discourse on Israel’s military might is so important that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is flying to Washington for the express purpose of delivering a single address to AIPAC’s thousands of attendees.

I can even guess what he’ll say: that Israel is small but just, that the world is hypocritical, that anti-Semitism exists, that our enemies are implacable warmongers and that the eternal people will meet its challenges with the help of our allies.

The problem with this predicable speech is that it neglects to mention the dangers lurking within Israel, threatening its democracy and eating away at the bedrock of values that has always been the basis of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

It is incumbent upon Israel’s true friends to safeguard the state’s democratic values alongside its borders.

We are more than just an aircraft carrier. We are also partners in the values of equality, tolerance, pluralism that are enshrined in the American Bill of Rights.

If Israel turns away from these values it also puts into play the commitment of an American public that believes in them.  

How can American Jews and non-Jews embrace Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East” if it stops behaving like a democracy?

It is incumbent upon Israel’s true friends to safeguard the state’s democratic values alongside its borders.

A blatant example of state-sanctioned discrimination is the norm at Israel’s number one tourist magnet, Jerusalem’s Western Wall. There, discrimination against women has been legalized.

This is a matter close to my heart.

For almost 30 years, I have led a struggle for women’s equality at the Western Wall. The site—Judaism’s holiest place—has been handed over by the Israeli government to a group of ultra-Orthodox extremists who govern it by diktat and who have turned women’s prayers service into a criminal act.

Members of the Women of the Wall take part in prayers on February 27, 2017, during a prayer service at the Western Wall
MENAHEM KAHANA via Getty Images
Members of the Women of the Wall take part in prayers on February 27, 2017, during a prayer service at the Western Wall plaza, in the Old city of Jerusalem.

Every month we come to the Kotel, as it is known in Hebrew, and experience in the most intimate way what discrimination, humiliation and violence are. In this, we are not alone. The largest movements of American Jewry are equally discriminated against at the Kotel. Anyone who does not adhere to the prayer book of Shumel Rabonowitz, the Western Wall rabbi, is subject to incitement.

The incitement comes from the mouths of ministers in Mr. Netanyahu’s government and from members of his legislative caucus.

In the best of cases, the police lacks motivation. In the worse, it is hostile. The way things stand now, bloodshed at the Western Wall is only a matter of time.

The thousands of people attending AIPAC’s conference, among them many stakeholders in the wellbeing of the only Jewish state on earth, should urgently be discussing this.

The way we handle the place that is most sacred to us is a microcosm of our values as a whole.

It is high time we talk about equality, tolerance and pluralism as crucial parts of the security of the State of Israel.

In a line memorized by every Israeli schoolchild, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, said: “the State of Israel will prove itself not by material wealth, not by military might or technical achievement, but by its moral character and human values.”

All those gathering at AIPAC’s conference this week should ask if Israel has met that burden of proof. What are Israel’s moral character and human values in 2017?

The only people capable of change are those capable of internalizing criticism. Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Those who love and support Israel should demand new discourse from him this year at AIPAC.

Anat Hoffman is a founder and the Board Chair of Women of the Wall, an organization that has fought for women’s freedom of worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall since 1988.

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