By an accident of circumstance, my visit to Jerusalem this year to visit family in Israel happened to fall on the day my fellow Americans and I — for no particularly good reason, as the Smithsonian blog pointed out today — celebrate the birth of our country. Partially as a consequence of that accident, I was quite struck that the first thing I saw after being dropped off in city center to meet a friend and colleague was a poster that (it seemed) shouted: “Welcome Mr. President; time to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel’s capital.”
A leftover from President Trump’s visit here in late May, the banner’s message is unambiguous. What makes it somewhat interesting is that immediately to its left we saw another banner that depicts (in a clownish and offensive way reminiscent of the Cleveland MLB team’s infamous logo) an American Indian who says, “Ask me about ‘Land for Peace.’”
The juxtaposition of these two banners presents a remarkably crass, bold and immoral message to Americans, especially Jewish Americans, and most especially Jewish Americans who are opposed to the occupation, and support Palestinian statehood (or “even” a single pluralist, democratic state in all of Israel-Palestine). For, the building owner who decided to place these two banners alongside one another is saying in one breath one of two things. Either: it was good for the United States to have treated “land for peace” agreements with the American Indians to legitimize Israel’s similar behavior by recognizing Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel, beyond the 1967 borders. Or: it was bad for the United States to dispossess the American Indians in this dishonorable and immoral fashion, but it should recognize Israel’s similar behavior this fact notwithstanding. Regardless, especially given that the banners were in English directly across the street from what is, literally, the home of Conservative Judaism in Jerusalem and in Israel, the Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism, the imputation seemed clear: you diasporic Jews, and especially Jewish Americans, can either get over your moralistic lecturing to us about the occupation, or spend your time justifying your own complicity in genocide.
This message especially struck home because of the recent maelstrom over what might well be the last gasps of pluralism in Israeli official civil society, this time occasioned by a truly callow decision by Israel’s Prime Minister to refuse a planned space for Reform and Conservative Jews to worship in unisex fashion at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, as Isabel Kershner reported recently in the New York Times. The Wall has multiples saliences and references, with and without consideration of the “other” wall we often find ourselves talking about when contentious news is coming from Israel-Palestine. But, I believe, this story’s deep salience rests beneath all those controversies, and has to do not with worship at the Wall or Netanyahu’s decision to roll back the plan for greater inclusiveness. Rather, as Kershner’s piece points out, what is really striking is that the “ultra-Orthodox politicians’ response to the outcry has been dismissive. Yaakov Litzman, the health minister and a member of the United Torah Judaism party, said the politicians were merely upholding a status quo that has existed since the foundation of Israel. An editorial published by an ultra-Orthodox news site, described Reform Judaism as “perhaps a kind of religion, but a foreign religion like Christianity and Islam.”
But actually, Kershner has understated the degree of vitriol and exclusionary rhetoric “mainstream” Haredi (or “ultra-Orthodox”) voices speak with. Indeed, if you read the entirety of the editorial she refers to, the authors go beyond merely declaring Jews like myself “foreigners.” Indeed, the authors bestialize the “Reformers” on a number of occasions, likening them to beasts and to crows (think “vultures” in our idiom, I’d say). The point being, not only are “they” not Jews; they are not “even” aliens, like Christians or Muslims — let alone, one might remark, persons of non-Abrahamic faiths, or no confession at all. No, they are less than that: subhuman. Interestingly, Conservative Jews — like myself, I suppose, for what that’s worth — disappear entirely from the radar. For the editors of B’Haderei Haredim, the battle is between the zeroes (Reform Jews) and the heroes (Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox); there is no salient middle ground, there is no room for compromise, and as they insist in multiple formulations in different places, there will be no “unity of the people,” not of the Jewish people, not of the Israeli people, and not of the Jewish and the Israeli peoples.
Of course, one can — and ought to — question the unstated premise of the piece: that the Jewish People and the Israeli People are the only salient categories here, and that the Israelis who are really Israelis are Haredi Jews and their supporters. These starting points are both wrong, both in the sense that they are factually incorrect and in the sense that they are morally repugnant. But appeals to universal norms and the international community will be pointless here. Ultimately, this is a conversation “we” must settle among ourselves in order to have any place within the international community, and the conversation will necessarily include the stakeholders who would, in the same breath, castigate the United States over the genocide of the American Indians and call upon the President of the United States to make a gesture whose sole purpose is to recognize and to legitimize the conquest and occupation of Palestinian lands by the State of Israel after 1967. It is not sustainable any longer, if it ever was, for Jewish Americans (in particular) to present one face to our fellow Americans and the world when it comes to US policy and international affairs in general, and another face to Israel and (when need be) others when it comes to US policy on Israel. We have to come to terms, or come apart, it seems.
This brings us back to where we began, and where my visit to Jerusalem began today. There is a debate to engage in concerning Israelis and their neighbors; there is a debate about confessional identities within Israel; and there is a debate about how Jewish identity and the practice of Judaism (the two being tightly related but far from the same, for complex reasons) can or ought to relate to democratic sovereignty both in Israel and in the diaspora. But alongside those debates, or ideally prior to them, Jews and Israelis (with all our permutating identities and nationalities) must articulate for ourselves and one another what, if anything, it is that we share and is worth striving for in solidarity. As an American writing on Independence Day, I feel the seductive charm of distancing myself from a culture and a history that so often fall short of the ideals I was taught to believe in — as the banner about “Land for Peace” is designed to make me, and other Americans, remember. But I also believe quite strongly that there is no positive prospect for us humans if Americans don’t engage and struggle together with one another over what, if anything, constitutes “the unity of the people.” In just the same way, diasporic (but especially American) Jews and Israelis (Jewish and otherwise) must engage and struggle together about what, if anything, constitutes the unity of the people in the State of Israel, if there is to be any hope for constructive relations between Israelis and Palestinians. B’Haderei Haredim might be right about the seeming hopelessness of the prospect, but they are quite mistaken if they believe the solution is to simply enshrine one (sizable and vocal) community as the arbiters of official civil society.