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By Emily Tamkin

American-Jewish groups, institutions, outlets, and individuals have, with varying degrees of fanfare, marked 75 years since the establishment of the State of Israel over the last month. There have been numerous concerts and movie screenings. There have been podcast episodes and op-eds. And there have been public meetings, convenings, and panel discussions.

This year, though, the events have commenced at a tumultuous time in Israel, when citizens have been protesting en masse against their government’s proposed plans to gut judicial independence and push through a series of religious and nationalist policies. As hundreds of thousands of Israelis mobilized into a self-described “democracy” movement, American-Jewish groups tried to thread the needle between commemoration, festivity, and sober observation of Israel’s reality today.

“There’s definitely been a shift in tone… because of the judicial overhaul protests,” Eva Borgwardt, political director of IfNotNow, a group whose mission is “to end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system and demand equality, justice, and a thriving future for all.”


‘Jewish communal unity is a myth’

One element that has complicated this year’s Israel commemorations is that many American Jews grew up believing, and may still believe, that it is not their place to criticize Israel in public, and certainly not while marking its 75th anniversary. That said, Waxman said, “I don’t think it’s true American Jews have been silent on this,” referring to the judicial reforms and the far-right government, and noting there have indeed been protests and open letters from the community.

Still, he conceded, for some individuals, and particularly older American Jews, it’s “a difficult shift for them to make” to go from sending money and defending Israel, to speaking out about Israel not just privately, but publicly. Some, at least, would have American Jews speak up only about the judicial reform —which is to say, not about the occupation, and certainly not about the country’s founding.

Nonetheless, Waxman was struck by the number of Israelis who came to his center’s event, “not because they wanted to celebrate Israel’s birthday, but because of the judicial overhaul.” He also noted that protests — specifically in Los Angeles — have brought together Israelis and American Jews “in a way that doesn’t often happen.”

“We will look back on this as a moment to mark, literally, disillusionment,” said Waxman. The “degree of anguish” being felt over the current Israeli government, he added “does open up potential for a broader rethinking of some aspects of Israel’s history.”

He is not the only one who thinks so. “I am feeling hopeful about Jews in the diaspora being able to look at Israel critically,” said Arielle Stein, a rabbinic student, “no matter if that’s from a Zionist or non-Zionist perspective.”

But the dissonance Waxman described between Israel in the minds of American Jews and Israel as it exists hasgrown wider and more salient. “I feel like when liberal Zionists are
confronted with these hard issues, they just disengage,” said El Kurd. “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m being ungenerous. It just seems like what’s happening is that establishment organizations are becoming more right-wing to adapt to the fact that liberals are disengaging from Israel.”

The Reform rabbi partly echoed El Kurd’s thoughts. Within the next decade, they said, liberal Zionism will exist in America “akin to governments in exile,” and in liberal Jewish communities, people may try to “steer away from talking about it at all,” focusing instead on social justice.

Others agreed that establishment Jewish groups would become more right-wing. “While the Israeli government has become more openly racist and oppressive, rather than adjust to that reality … [American-Jewish institutions] have decided to hang onto [their] positions regardless of the worsening reality on ground. That has inevitably moved them rightward,” said Sophie Ellman-Golan, director of strategic communications at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) in New York. “They’ve not gotten off that bus. They’re staying on it for the ride.”

Read the full piece at 972 Magazine