What does it mean to be pro-Israel?


Last Shabbat, right after Israeli elections, an engaged millennial approached me with a tallit question. With so much Israeli iconography on his bar mitzvah prayer shawl, and so much embarrassment and ambivalence over Israel’s actions today, how could he unwrap his spirituality from the Holy Land?

I’m not there. I still embrace both halves of the phrase “progressive Zionist,” along with the medinah/state being both “Jewish and democratic.” But it’s ever harder, even for folks like me with confirmed connection. Those with less history are simply drifting away. Israel itself — and those who insist that “pro-Israel” means unqualified support — only deepen the challenge.
The Israeli electorate narrowly retained a prime minister mired in corruption scandals which affect the nation’s security. But worse, a slight majority stuck with a status quo rife with anti-democratic threats, emanating from the very top. These
tunnel-vision, ethno-nationalist trends are what endanger Israel’s broad enduring support — in world standing, in Congress and even among American Jewry.

It’s past time to redefine what “pro-Israel” means.

Democrat and Republican leaders alike express their “strong support” at AIPAC and elsewhere. They rightly name the
serious external dangers that Israel faces, from efforts to delegitimize the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, to countries such as Iran that support violence and terrorism.


But what of the significant menaces Israel faces from within? The current (and presumptive next) government has slid toward the extreme right, bolstering a narrow vision of Israel’s Jewishness at the expense of its democracy. Annexing West Bank settlements, really?!

Such steps, rejected by most Americans (including ¾ of American Jews) despite the Trump administration’s
extreme stance, threaten Israel’s long-standing “special relationship” with the United States.

Long term, to be “pro-Israel” means supporting a two-state solution. (Pithily put, “friends don’t let friends build settlements.”)

Pro-Israel means full enfranchisement of minorities, of civil society and of religious freedom for all. Pro-Israel means uniting against racist nationalism, even if it comes from the prime minister’s office or cabinet. Human and civil rights for all are a
Jewish and civic imperative. Pro-Israel means connecting with its denizens of all ethnicities and faiths, taking in the whole complicated reality from Jerusalem to Ramallah, Tel Aviv to Hebron, Gaza to the Golan.

Pro-Israel means shoring up the shared democratic values on which, along with strategic interests, the special U.S.-Israel relationship is founded. Pro-Israel means doing so even —especially! — when the current governments of both these
beloved countries stray so egregiously from long-held norms.

Communities like mine work hard to strengthen the Israel-diaspora relationship, among folks who deeply embrace humanistic values (a.k.a. Jewish values). Alienated by Israel’s rhetoric and regression, it’s not just our young people whose patience and connectedness are wearing thin. In the general population, Israel’s standing is yet more precarious.

If we’re truly vested in Israel’s survival as a democratic and Jewish state, we must cease acting as though all is business-
as-usual. Between an unhinged Trump and an emboldened indicted Netanyahu, it’s not.

So it’s past time for pro-Israel representatives, rabbis, reporters and the rest of us to step up and speak out. True pro-Israel leadership, in Congress or congregations, can no longer mean just toeing the governmental line, expressing unequivocal support. Real pro-Israel leaders will forthrightly address the existential threats that Israel faces
from within.

We support a democratic-and-Jewish Israel, because only such an Israel will thrive. How is it “pro-Israel” to enable its drift toward an intolerant and narrow nationalism, losing what friends it has, and exacerbating its internal divisions? Instead, even as we continue to learn from and connect with Israel, let us help our cousins and friends there to see the view from here — which might just be “the bigger picture.”

Let all who are “pro-Israel” help Israel itself to prevent “pro-Israel” from becoming a narrow right-wing cause. The “special relationship” depends on it.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda; the views expressed here are his own.

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  1. If you want to know why the Left has been in power in Israel for only eight years since 1977–read this article.


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