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Israeli Democracy Vs Jewish Theocracy



The regular readers of my blog posts know very well that I cannot be accused of lacking in criticizing Israel and its policies. As a matter of fact, they had accused me not once, and not so gently, of criticizing Israel too much and too harshly. However, with all my voiced objections to Israel’s policies, especially when it comes to the continuing occupation and settlement of the West Bank, and its current government’s refusal – the way I see it, as an Israeli and an American citizen – to compromise and make peace with the Palestinians, I was always proud of the Israeli democracy. And the fact that, with all its wars and battles for survival – living in a predominantly hostile and undemocratic neighborhood of the world – Israel has kept its democracy intact.

By a law of the Knesset, Israel is defined as a Jewish and a democratic state. (There is no need, therefore, to add an almost insurmountable obstacle to the difficult peace negotiations with the Palestinians as is, and demand of them to approve that, too. The U.N., with resolution 181, had also recognized the “Jewish” state.) There is a separation of state and religion in Israel, indeed sometimes blurry and problematic, but in spite of all holding on nicely. Last but not least, the citizens of the state go to the polls every four years (sometimes earlier, depend on political circumstances), and elect their representatives and leaders. They demonstrate, they protest, they campaign and they vote. And, to a very large degree, they speak their minds openly and freely.

Unfortunately, that is not the case here in the diaspora; mainly when it comes to the American Jewish people, communities, religious congregations and establishments. For whatever reason, many of them still equate criticism of Israel with bashing of Israel, or with being anti-Israeli, not to mention their favorite phrase of accusation: anti- Semitic. Why such is the case is beyond me. It’s almost like the case of the prodigal son. Yes, he might be wild and woolly; promiscuous and abusive; and yes, even criminal – but he is my son, and therefore cannot be criticized. Which is, of course, nonsensical. Two miracles have happened to the Jewish people – so I’ve heard the Israeli journalist, and author of the book “My Promised Land” Ari Shavit saying lately – going hand in hand following the Holocaust: the establishment of the state of Israel, and the prominent role the American Jewish people have played in securing the success and existence of the Jewish state. Why is it, then, that we cannot speak our minds freely here when it comes to Israel, even when we think it is on a self-destructive road?

Case in point: yours truly. I always spoke my mind freely here in America on Israel, its affairs and polices. I still do. Not without difficulties and criticism, mind you, especially when it comes to my conservative congregation. Last year I had started a program here in Sacramento, a discussion-group called “The Israel Forum,” with the help and support of the programing director and rabbi. It was very successful for a while, and people were able to voice their opinions openly and freely on all matters related to Israel; left, right and center. Everything was on the table, and everything was discussed openly. However, from the get go, the forces from the right – the “Defenders of Israel,” as they so fancy themselves – and other self-appointed communal gatekeepers, had continually launched deceitful attacks on our discussion-group, doing all they can to derail it, and squash freedom of expression when it comes to Israel and its policies.

Lately and finally, they succeeded, when the afford-mentioned well-meaning rabbi and program director had crumbled under their continuous pressure and threats (financial, I’m sure, and otherwise), and had decided to postponed the program under all kinds of disguises and strange (to choose a gentle word) maneuvering. But the bottom line is – as it has always been – the refusal to allow, and tolerate, free exchange of views and ideas about Israel in its Jewish congregation. Or, as Marc Rosenstein, rabbi and blogger puts it: “flag-waving patriotism trumps critical debate.” But not to worry, the program – and the essence of its free exchange of ideas – will continue in a more hospitable, freedom of speech supporting, less theocratic yet nonetheless Jewish environment. However, in the final analysis, in my conservative congregation, Jewish theocracy could not sustain, and tolerate Israeli-like democracy and free speech.

In light of this, it is interesting to note these new developments – but a few among many – occurring lately, as reported in the general media. One: “If you want to engage young people with this country, you have to teach them that it’s about wrestling as well as hugging Israel,” said Jewish Agency Director-General Alan Hoffmann in an interview with Haaretz newspaper. “If the message is that you can only hug Israel, you will lose these young people.” And by way of a response, here’s number two: “We believe that this policy censors and delegitimizes the diverse range of personal and political opinions held by Jewish students,” the Vassar Jewish Union said in its statement, as it declared itself an “Open Hillel”. ”We believe that fostering a pluralistic community and supporting all Jewish life on campus cannot be achieved with Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines in place.” And number three: Naftaly Bennett, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister, has voiced this radical suggestion lately to make the Jewish people of the diaspora “semi-citizens” of the state of Israel, with more say and participation in its affairs. The main battle to achieve that won’t come from the Israelis, I believe, but from the close-mindedness of Jewish bureaucracy and theocracy here in America.

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