For the past two months or so, thousands of Israelis have been holding weekly protests against the extremism of the newly elected Israeli administration, focusing in particular on the new government’s proposals to gut the power of the Israeli judiciary. While many American Jewish institutions have been predictably loath to publicly criticize the new Israeli government, liberal Zionist organizations in the US such as J St., the New Israel Fund (NIF) and T’ruah have been openly supportive of the protests. But as heartening as these statements may seem on the surface, there is a deeply problematic contradiction at the heart of this new movement to “save Israeli democracy.”
This contradiction was in full force during a widely shared sermon recently delivered by Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of the Los Angeles synagogue, Ikar. In her stirring and passionately delivered remarks, Brous rightly criticized the American Jewish community for its silence over the policies proposed by the new Israeli administration. Calling for a “reckoning,” she went on to identify several “myths” about Israel/Palestine that the Jewish community “needs to smash.” With respect, however, I believe that Brous herself perpetuated numerous problematic myths herself during the course of her sermon.
These most prominent: the oft-invoked myth of the “endangered Israeli democracy.” This is, of course, a well-known Liberal Zionist trope and Brous drove it home early in her remarks when she stated “we believe not only in the legitimacy, but the necessity of a Jewish state….We believe in the vision of a state that is both Jewish and democratic, as envisioned by (Israel’s Declaration of Independence.)” She continued, warning that this “precious, beautiful dream” is currently under threat from extreme, undemocratic political forces in the current Israeli government.
Brous reinforced the “threat to Israeli democracy” myth when she curiously referred to the Israeli Supreme Court as the “great defender of the abuse of human rights” while there is ample evidence that demonstrates it is precisely the opposite. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has in fact, referred to the Israeli Supreme Court as “the Supreme Court of the Occupation” and has documented it’s systemic enabling of Israel’s ongoing human rights abuses in numerous reports:
When it comes to violation of Palestinians’ rights, Israel’s Supreme Court neither holds effective judicial review nor keeps the security forces in check. It is willing to sanction almost any injustice based on unreasonable legal interpretation, and systemically ignores the context: that the appellants come from an unrepresented population governed by a strict military regime for more than 50 years, denied political rights and excluded from basic decision-making. The court thereby sanctions not only violations – but the occupation itself.
Brous rightly went on to state that Israel’s “march toward illiberalism, ultra-nationalism and extremism has been building for decades.” However she undermined that very argument by claiming this march began when we “got comfortable with the language of ‘us and them.'” In truth, however, the rhetoric of “us and them” has been deeply rooted in the culture of the Zionist project since before the founding of the state. That is because the very idea of a Jewish state predicated on a demographic Jewish majority is itself inherently illiberal.
Similarly, Brous did well to raise the odious ideology of “Jewish Supremacy” inbred in Israeli culture. But this this ideology is not, as she put it, the product of a “marginal, fringe group” whose ideas have moved “into the mainstream.” Yes, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are most certainly extremists who espouse patently undemocratic ideas. But they are also expressing an inconvenient truth: that the notion of a majority Jewish nation state is itself intrinsically undemocratic – and that to maintain a Jewish majority, Israel has been ethnically cleansing and expelling Palestinians from their homes since its origin.
I was heartened when Brous later addressed the “myth of moral equivalency,” correctly stating that we cannot condemn the recent killing of Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem without also condemning the Israeli military’s killing of 35 Palestinians during the month of January (including a 6 year old boy and a 61 year old woman). I likewise appreciated the way she connected the dots between the young Palestinian gunman’s personal story to his grandfather who was murdered by a Jewish settler who has never held accountable (by yes, an Israeli court).
But while Brous invited us to “interrogate why there is so much violence,” she herself sadly failed in this regard when she neglected to interrogate the crucial role played by Israeli state violence and militarism in the structural oppression of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, she notably romanticized Israeli militarism earlier in her sermon when she spoke about the father of an Israeli friend who was “born with the state” and had served as “an IDF commander in two wars.” As she put it, “these are the ones who dedicated themselves to building the state so precious, so beautiful, so fragile. And they see it being transformed before their very eyes into something utterly recognizable.”
But perhaps the most problematic myth perpetuated by Brous was the Liberal Zionist trope of a “shared future.” She raised this issue at the end of her remarks when she concluded, “If you’re feeling helpless about what’s unfolding over there, the way forward is to follow the lead of Israelis and Palestinians in the streets who are speaking a language of shared destiny.”
This is, in fact, a complete misrepresentation of the current demonstrations. As Israeli journalist Haggai Matar has pointed out:
Palestinians, for their part, have so far mostly been sitting this one out. While many Jewish Israelis are mourning, terrified, or enraged over the barrage of illiberal legislation that they see as signifying the “end of Israeli democracy,” most Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line never saw the regime as a democracy to begin with. In the words of MK Ahmad Tibi, “this is a Jewish Democracy: democratic for Jews, and Jewish for Arabs.”
Or as another Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy has powerfully put it:
The current protests are thus intended to defend only the rights of Israel’s already privileged Jewish citizens, while ignoring the rights of the oppressed who lack citizenship and civil rights. The thousands of Israeli flags waved by protesters symbolize what is bad about these demonstrations: They are intended for Jews only.
It is indeed difficult to ignore the overwhelming preponderance of Israeli flags of these demonstrations, underscoring the reality that these protests are less about justice for Palestinians than they are about saving the Zionist enterprise. As Brous quoted her friend’s parents at the beginning of her sermon, “we have no other home, no other loyalty but to Zion.”
Moreover, Brous is crucially silent over the precise nature of this “shared future.” Is she advocating a two-state solution that even J St. admits is now all but impossible? Or is she promoting equal rights for all who live in the land – a move that would inevitably spell the end of her “precious, beautiful, miraculous dream?” As long as she refuses to address this critical question, I can’t help but view her call for a “shared future” as an empty and disingenuous gesture.
Brous ended her sermon by invoking the Torah portion Beshallach, which recounts the Israelites crossing over the Sea following their Exodus from Egypt. She powerfully and poetically compared the Exodus story to a birth moment, calling upon us all to “amplify the voices” of our “Palestinian and Israeli friends and their calls for a just and equal society, to remind them to breathe and push, to breathe and push and then to be with them on the other side, to join hands and sing together a song of freedom, of liberation, of justice and a song of love.”
Like Rabbi Brous, I also find a profound resonance to the Exodus story in this current moment – but it isn’t in the myth of Palestinians and Israelis joining hands and singing a song of liberation. Rather, it is through the painful admission, at long last, that Zionism represents a present day Pharaoh – and that we will only make it to the other side when we dismantle and transform Israel’s systemic oppression of the Palestinians into a truly Promised Land for all who live between the river and the sea.