With Chanukah just behind us and continuing Middle East tensions always before us, I can't help thinking about Israeli politics. In the old days when the Maccabees defeated King Antiochus and reclaimed the holy temple in Jerusalem where today the Wailing Wall stands, the oppression of the Jewish people came from (Syrian) outsiders. Today, more than 2,000 years later, those who would defeat modern Israel seem to be coming from within.
In a worrisome editorial by Thomas Friedman that appeared in December in The New York Times, Friedman (like me, a Jew) decried the American Jewish lobby's unconditional support of Israel, right or wrong. He also cited Republican bids for the lobby's vote as dangerous and deluded. Is America just supposed to "applaud whatever Israel does, serve as its ATM, and shut up?" he asked.
Friedman's concern is legitimate. More than two and a half million Palestinians live in the Israeli-occupied West Bank with no statehood in sight while charges of an apartheid Israel loom large. There are segregated roads and settlements, numerous checkpoints to maneuver, and restricted movements for the Palestinians. Some restrictions even mean less access to natural resources like water, or the judicial system. (Human Rights Watch has said that Israel operates a "two-tier" judicial system in the occupied Palestinian territories.)
The wall of fences and trenches built by the Israeli Government along the West Bank, ostensibly to keep terrorists out of Israel, has been condemned by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. Both bodies are among those that have ruled Israel's policy of establishing settlements in occupied territories illegal.
It gets worse: Last year the Israeli parliament passed a law criminalizing participation in boycotts of Israeli settlements, drawing marked criticism from Europe and the U.S. Israeli officials also admit there is a policy in place that allows for assassination of individuals in the name of preventing acts of terrorism. Thousands of Palestinians are held in Israeli jails as political prisoners and many of them are tortured according to Amnesty International.
Now Israeli civilians have entered the fray, turning on their own. Recently, right-wing Jewish settlers attacked an Israeli army base in the West Bank, stoning soldiers for removing illegal settlements.
There are other ominous signs of what is happening within Israel. For example, recently an 8-year old girl in an orthodox community was spat upon on her way to school by men who deemed her to be less than modestly attired (even though she was appropriately covered). Attempts by the ultra-orthodox to segregate buses in some communities have meant that women are increasingly required to sit in the back of the bus. Women have also been made to cross the street when men are present where they are walking. Some would argue that these restrictions are okay as long as they apply only to orthodox enclaves. But such divisions diminish true democratic ideals and set troubling precedents. Just as there is no such thing as being a little bit pregnant, nations dedicated to true democracy don't allow just a little bit of limitation on selected citizens.
New and proposed laws seem aimed at stifling dissent, weakening minority rights, restricting freedom of speech, and "emasculating the judiciary," according to Friedman, who says many Jews, both in and outside of Israel, are worried or, in the case of younger Jews, simply tuning out because they are confused.
In a further sign of Israel's dangerous and misguided swing to the right, none other than Glenn Beck recently received high praise when he addressed the Israeli parliament, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Vladimir Putin that the Russian elections, which brought crowds of protesters into the streets, was "fair, free and democratic." Liberal Israeli journalist Gideon Levy calls such events "a culture war" in which "the very character of the state" is at stake.
Let me be clear: I am a secular but deeply identified Jew. I take pride in, and feel sadness for, the history of my people, including my grandparents who fled Russian pogroms. I believe profoundly in the right of Israel to exist without threat of attack or extinction. Having been there, I understand, at least to some degree, its fears and its hopes. But I also understand the threat from within, having been subjected to verbal barrages by orthodox Jews for my dress, and by conservative secular Jews for my politics.
I want desperately for Israel to exist as a democracy all Jews can feel proud of. But like Thomas Friedman, I am "deeply worried about where Israel is going today." The American Jewish lobby needs to be worried too, and to think carefully about where it stands when it comes to Israel's place in a 21st century world. To that end, it would do well to think twice before writing any more checks.