For many of my American friends and former colleagues in the media, I am the Israeli they know and therefore a go-to person on Israeli affairs. They contact me with questions on Israeli politics, Jerusalem restaurants, Hebrew slang and Israeli popular culture.
Recently, their curiosity is turning into bewilderment and astonishment. Their lovingly inquisitive approach toward Israel is turning into exasperation. Their focus now is on trying to decipher Israel’s shifting character, on its changing face, on the fading vision of the Israel they grew up loving and hoped to see thriving — a state that embodies progressive, democratic, pluralistic, tolerant values.
“What the hell is going on there,” I’m often asked, “have they totally lost it?”
Well, my friends, what seems like collective madness in Israel is not. What you are witnessing these days in Israel — the witch hunt against progressive non-profits and liberal culture icons, the efforts to quash dissent through legislation, the campaign to thrust chauvinistic content (including straight-out lies) into the civics curriculum, attempts to exclude and demean Israel’s Arab citizens, lobbing accusations of treason at those who publicly oppose or even criticize government policies — all these are manifestations of war.
This is a culture war, a civil war, Israel-style. A war that is fought from right to left. It’s an all-out attack by the conservative, nationalistic Israeli right against what it considers as the “old elites,” and against everyone and everything that challenges its hegemony. This is asymmetrical warfare, both because the right is in power and because it has no qualms about abusing this power in ways that are blatantly undemocratic.
This vicious assault cannot be dismissed as a natural reaction to the fear that all Israelis feel as they face the threat of stabbers and gunmen on street corners and extremist militias on Israel’s borders. Rather, it’s a campaign that feeds off these fears and cynically abuses them to generate consent or apathy among many Israelis who otherwise would reject these methods.
The assault on freedom, pluralism and legitimate dissent is an assault on a set of values. It’s an assault on the worldview that most Americans who care about Israel grew up wishing to see embodied and thriving in Israel. It’s an assault on what most American Jews consider “Jewish values.”
American friends of Israel have admirably come to help her at past times of crisis, particularly at times of war. My friends, this is a time of war. True, Israel is not fighting for its survival against external threat. Its economy is solid and its military unchallenged. But there is a war being fought against what most American Jews consider to be “their” Israel. And, painful as it may be to acknowledge, this war is led by members of Israel’s own government, those entrusted with caring for the liberties of all Israelis, for their wellbeing and for the wellbeing of the state.
Now, you can say that Israelis got the government they voted for. You can say that what happens among Israelis or even between Israel and the world does not concern you. You can say that change in Israel should come from within, or that it’s not your responsibility to extinguish fires overseas. Fine. But then can you really claim to be a caring friend of Israel?
Some say that even if American friends of Israel do speak up, their criticism has no influence. “Israelis don’t care what we say or what we do,” they say. That is blatantly wrong. Just look at the impact of American Jewish pressure to allow women to worship at the Western Wall. Yes, it took time and persistence. At times it got ugly. But it worked.
American Jews’ interest in Israel goes much beyond the Wall. Caring about Israel means caring about the entire structure. If you indeed care about Israel, it is time to speak up and act. Your natural allies in Israel need you.
Ori Nir, a former Washington bureau chief of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper and the Forward, is now with Americans for Peace Now, the sister-organization of Israel’s Peace Now movement.