May 21, 2012
Why American Jews need to criticize Israel
When a family member behaves self-destructively, what do you do? Do you become an apologist, an enabler, or do you call him out? Do you blame everyone else but him, or do you intervene? Do you sit back and just hope things will improve on their own, or do you take urgent action?
Israel is our family member. Most American Jews feel that way. My parents, Ethel and Philip Klutznick, instilled in their children a concern for and support of the young and emerging State of Israel. They first took my brothers and me there in 1959, when I was 16 years old. I remember meeting David Ben- Gurion, Israel’s founder and first prime minister. I have always been proud of the Jewish state. But it must be said: Israel’s leaders are giving Israelis—and American Jews—less and less of which to be proud and increasingly more to be concerned about.
Take democracy and the rule of law. Like most American Jews, I’ve always admired Israel’s democratic institutions. It has a Supreme Court that for years served as an international beacon of jurisprudence. When an Israeli prime minister strays, he is forced to resign, and when a president is found guilty, he goes to prison. They are not above the law.
Yes, it is a relatively young democracy and it is operating under stress. But nothing can excuse the current Israeli government’s disdain for both the letter and the spirit of the law when it comes to unauthorized construction of settlements in the West Bank, in violation of Israeli law, often on land privately owned by Palestinians. Never before has an Israeli government so openly thumbed its nose at the law and at the Supreme Court in an effort to launder illegal actions of the settlers. Last week the Netanyahu government’s actions prompted leading Israeli jurists to sign a petition titled “the demise of the rule of law.”
Take Israel’s active and robust civil society. Groups such as Peace Now, who fight for peace, or groups that fight for Israeli minority rights or for Palestinian human rights, are faced with an avalanche of bills and laws, some endorsed by the government and some passed by the Knesset, which target Israeli non-profit groups that criticize government policies. Some bills target Israel’s Arab minority. Other bills target freedom of speech and even the authority of the Supreme Court.
Israel’s ruling coalition came to power through elections and presumes to represent most Israelis. An Israeli government, however, that is trying to turn majority rule into majority tyranny undermines democracy. Don’t take my word for it. Visit the website of the Israeli Democracy Institute or the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
Or take the government’s lackadaisical approach to reining in militant settlers who attack not only Palestinian civilians but also senior Israeli officers in the West Bank. It is the extremist settlers’ way of deterring the removal of settlement outposts that were built in violation of Israeli law, and it works. Israeli officials have said repeatedly that they are reluctant to enforce the law in the West Bank because they fear the violent wrath of the settlers.
Israel faces many challenges, and I know there is no silver bullet to address them all. But I also know that Israel’s most appalling failure is not ridding itself of the occupation and achieving a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians. Sure, the Palestinians bear a part of the responsibility for the diplomatic stalemate, but as President Shimon Peres and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin said recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu could have struck a two-state deal with Palestinian Authority President Abbas but chose not to. By denying Israelis the peace they deserve, Netanyahu and his government are bringing the Jewish state closer to becoming a binational state, closer to the destruction of the Zionist dream: a Jewish, democratic state in the land of Israel.
American Jews don’t pay taxes in Israel. We don’t serve in its army. We don’t vote there. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a say. We have not only the right but the duty to support our brothers and sisters in Israel, such as Peace Now (Shalom Achshav), who disagree with the path their leaders are charting for them. We are our bothers’ keepers. We must act accordingly.
(James B. Klutznick, the co-founder and vice chairman of the Chicago-based Senior Lifestyle Corp., is the new chair of Americans for Peace Now.)