For several weeks, we have seen column after column focusing on controversial comments made by Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) – comments whether intentionally or not invoking reprehensible anti-Semitic tropes. Politicians, scholars, celebrities, and ordinary Americans have, rightfully, debated and commented upon her actions from numerous angles, arriving at various conclusions. The controversy feeds into an increasingly familiar refrain – that the Democratic Party does not support Israel, especially compared to their GOP rivals.
While many Americans are expressing indignation at these statements made by Representative Omar, comments posted on Instagram by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fueling a very different debate.
In response to a post by Israeli actor and TV host Rotem Sela, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that, “Israel is not a state for all its citizens. According to a basic law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people and the Jewish people only.”
To be clear, I am not comparing the actions of Representative Omar and Prime Minister Netanyahu, rather, I bring them up as examples of the challenges facing democratic-loving, Democratic Party-supporting, Zionist, American Jews like me.
The Prime Minister’s statement, and the law he references, appear antithetical to a fairly foundational value of a healthy democratic state – that all citizens within a nation’s borders are full and equal citizens of that country.
Representative Omar’s various statements hark back to century old anti-Semitic claims fueled by ignorance and hate. I do not believe Representative Omar subscribes to any of these stereotypes, nor do I believe she knowingly sought to employ anti-Semitic language or concepts in expressing her opinions. I nevertheless do believe many were deeply disturbed by her actions and rightfully vociferously condemned them.
These two – I say again very different – events leave me in the unfortunately familiar state for Jews, a state of wandering, searching this time for political clarity as opposed to a land of milk and honey.
I am a proud and life-long Democrat who is concerned by elements within the party who fail to distinguish between criticizing Israel and criticizing the policies of the current Israeli government. I am equally a life-long Zionist and firm believer in the promise of democratic government who is disappointed by Netanyahu’s comments and the ‘nation-state’ law his government recently passed.
This wandering is not purposeless. These two challenges must motivate action, not rudderless complacency. I resolve to work within the Progressive movement to encourage greater understanding and nuance in the party’s relationship with Israel, the policies of the government of Israel, and with Jewish Americans. The foundational premise must be unequivocal support for the right of Israel to exist as a nation and home for the Jewish people. By no means, however, should this affirmation preclude criticism of Israeli policy decisions, but it should ensure that wherever we stand as a party on individual policy decisions, at the end of the day we stand with the hard-won concept of the state of Israel.
I equally resolve to speak out against actions taken by the Israeli government that I disagree with. As a Jew with family in Israel, as an American whose country is so connected to events in the Middle East, and as a firm believer in liberal democracy it is an imperative that I not let my support for the country silence my sincere opposition to some of the ruling coalition’s actions.
In his youth, my grandfather believed that Jews could disagree with the Israeli government, as he often did, but only in the privacy of their own homes. He feared public condemnation would undermine support for the state, which his generation and generations before had labored so hard to establish. His view was also undoubtedly shaped by the presence of American antiSemitism, which was a visible reality for much of his life. My grandfather dispensed with this restraint on public criticism before he passed, feeling more comfortable in America’s support for Israel, in the place of American Jews in society, and more disillusioned with the right-wing politics of Netanyahu.
Since these disagreeable policies remain, I journey forth carrying my grandfather’s torch of involvement in Israeli politics and a refusal to temper condemnation of policy decisions. And with questions raised about the wisdom of voicing such criticism in the public sphere, I am equally determined to work within the Democratic party to support actions and leaders who will help to ensure that we will never again have to fear expressing our opinions publicly on this critical topic.
I just hope this wandering includes less manna and years traversing an unforgiving desert.