Myths and facts about an ‘illiberal’ Israel


If American Jews are unhappy with Israel, it may not be so much a function of the new nation-state law as the growing consensus that it is “illiberal.”

In articles in both secular and Jewish media, the critique has not been so much about the law as the notion that Israel no longer represents liberal Jewish values that Diaspora Jews consider integral to their identity. Sometimes this thesis is put forward from those who consider themselves Zionists, and sometimes from those who make the case that Zionism is itself illiberal. But the consistent theme is that contemporary Israel no longer fits with the way most American Jews think, and that the fault lies squarely with Israel.

What makes Israel illiberal in the eyes of American Jews?

A lot of the focus in recent months has been on religious pluralism in Israel. While the complaints are largely justified, most American Jews don’t understand that the problem is a function of the enormous clout of Israel’s Orthodox political parties, the complete lack of such clout on the part of the Conservative and Reform movements, and the general indifference of most secular and traditional Israelis to non-Orthodox movements.

But this critique of Israel is about more than pluralism. For many Diaspora Jews, it’s more a matter of what they see as a decline of Israeli democracy. The failure of the nation-state law’s authors to mention democracy and equal rights for all the country’s citizens is viewed as a betrayal of the Declaration of Independence, which mentioned both while still affirming that Israel was a Jewish state.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back for many Americans is that most Israelis like President Donald Trump, whom the vast majority of American Jews despise. The fact that Israelis prefer Trump to Obama, who won overwhelming majorities of the Jewish vote in 2008 and 2012, and are grateful to Trump for changing U.S. policy on Jerusalem, the peace process and relations with Iran, has created a political chasm that’s hard to bridge.

There are two major problems with this narrative. The first is that Israel isn’t as illiberal as its critics think. The other is that American Jewish perceptions of these issues is a function of a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood in a rapidly assimilating population.

The notion that Israel is becoming less democratic is simply false. To the contrary, the country’s critics really don’t like is the fact that it is democratic — which is to say, the majority of Israelis consistent rejected their left-wing parties. Most Israelis understand that their nation must defend itself against those pledged to their destruction and see territorial withdrawals without a Palestinian peace partner as insane. The majority also sees nothing wrong with reaffirming the truth that the country is a Jewish state and understand that minority rights are already protected by other basic laws.

Far from being illiberal, Israel is a diverse, chaotic nation in which the contradictions between its religious roots and largely secular reality are still being sorted out 70 years later. It may not be the embodiment of its founders’ romantic dreams, but it has remained remarkably democratic despite never knowing a moment of complete peace.

Perhaps what critics dislike the most is that Israel has become a stable, prosperous and largely secure nation without comprehensive peace being reached, in the face of constant jeremiads from the left about all this being impossible.

Reasonable people can disagree about peace, settlements, borders, religious pluralism and even the nation-state law. However, the disillusionment that we hear is primarily driven by the sense on the part of many in the Diaspora that any country whose identity is primarily ethno-religious, rather than strictly pluralistic, is inherently racist.

An American Jewish community that defines itself primarily by liberal politics, food or humor — the factors that surveys of American Jews tell us are the strongest aspects of Jewish identity these days — is bound to have difficulty understanding any kind of Jewish nationalism, even if it’s tied to a deeply democratic form of government.

That, and not Netanyahu’s or Trump’s behavior, is the source of much of the support for anti-Israel groups among Jews.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.