Responding Constructively and Effectively to Israel’s New Government

Martin J. Raffel

Martin J. Raffel

The Israel-American Jewish relationship is severely challenged these days by the new Netanyahu-led government in Jerusalem.

This government includes ministers inspired by the hateful ideology and politics of the late Meir Kahane. It has a stated policy agenda, which could threaten the country’s democratic structure of checks and balances by stripping the Israeli Supreme Court of its independence and undermining the delicate relations between the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens. The minister in charge of “Jewish identity” and an important segment of Israel’s educational system is a proud homophobe. Also, the government plans to disqualify for state recognition all non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.

And, to top it off, the new government is poised to increase Jewish settlement in the West Bank to an extent that achievement of a negotiated two-state outcome becomes all but impossible. Israel cannot continue to control the lives of millions of stateless Palestinians in perpetuity and remain a full democracy. That is why polls show that most American Jews oppose settlements and favor the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In other words, this Israeli government is abhorrent to a sizable majority of American Jews. So, what are we to think and do?

First, do not walk away. It took two millennia of horrific persecution and a 20th-century genocide until we, the Jewish people, finally managed to reconstitute ourselves as a sovereign nation-state in our ancient homeland. Our commitment to Israel must be unbreakable. If anything, this is a time to intensify our engagement with Israel.

Second, the Netanyahu government was elected fair and square, and the wishes of Israel’s voters must be respected. That said, do not conflate the Netanyahu government with the state of Israel. Don’t let anyone get away with the accusation that criticism of Israel’s policies is anti-Israel, any more than criticism by Israelis and other foreigners of our policies is anti-American. To criticize from a place of love is not only your right; it’s an obligation. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, not only its citizens. That includes us.

Third, look for ways to express yourself constructively and effectively. Get involved with those American Jewish organizations that reflect your values. Some criticize Israeli policies even as they work to strengthen Israel’s security, including through active support of the two-state outcome. Yes, it is clear this outcome won’t be achieved anytime soon. But many steps can be taken in the meantime to preserve conditions that, hopefully, will make it possible in the future.

Also, directly support organizations in Israel that fight for democracy, pluralism and human rights. You also can have an impact as an individual. Write a personal email or letter with your feelings about what’s happening in Israel and send it to the Israeli consul general in New York City, at the consulate with jurisdiction over Philadelphia. If he receives a large number of communications, rest assured that the message will get back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.

Fourth, share your opinions openly and honestly with elected officials, especially members of Congress. Let them know that they will not be seen by most in our community as anti-Israel if they, too, voice criticism of Israeli policies.

Here it gets a little tricky. Some in Congress, I suspect a very small number, may want to exact a tangible price for Israeli government policies that conflict with U.S. values and interests, including even reducing our military assistance. Punishing the Israeli government for its actions is not the way to go. It will only feed the forces of extremism in Israel. Moreover, Israel’s very real enemies in the region – such as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — need to recognize that while we may criticize, America’s fundamental support for Israel’s defense continues to be rock solid.

Fifth, pay special attention to the young American Jewish generation. Surveys consistently show that emotional attachment to Israel is weakest among this population. That is understandable. They are furthest removed from the Holocaust, Israel’s birth and the epic struggles for survival.

Young Jews are in need not only of enhanced education about Israel; they also must be provided with a safe environment to raise all their questions and concerns candidly, without fear. That is especially necessary during this period of strain in Israel-American Jewish relations.

Sixth, recognize that there are critics of Israel who do not come from a place of love for the Jewish state. Much ink has been spilled on the controversy surrounding BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions. Do I believe some who advocate the boycott or sanction of Israel do so in good faith with the intent to affect its policies? I do, even as I also think such a path is misguided.

But we need to guard against those who use BDS as a tactic to undermine Israel’s core legitimacy as a Jewish state. This problem is most acute on college campuses.
The special U.S.-Israel relationship is based in significant part on common strategic interests. But it has always been rooted more deeply in “shared values,” especially the commitment to democracy. These shared values now appear to be in grave jeopardy. We can hope for the best but need to prepare for the worst.

Martin J. Raffel is the former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the agency’s lead professional on Israel.


  1. Our shared, Israeli and American, value of democracy is not in jeopardy by the installation of what you wrongly call a Kahanist government. Get over yourselves, Israel is still a democracy even though they voted in a party that you consider homophobic, and any other canards that comes into your mind. I really don’t follow Israeli politics that closely, so I’m not comfortable rebutting these extreme charges, but if the politics resembles what’s going on here, and I’m sure it does, the left goes into pearl clutching anytime someone dares to believe differently than them. Sorry, there’s not going to be a two-state solution any time soon since the Palestinians have rejected it numerous times and are still preaching the killing of Jews in their schools and media. Since the Palestinians refuse to negotiate in good faith, continue to name streets and schools after terrorists who murder our fellow Jews, and then pay them large sums after they do so, what is Israel to do in response? If the Palestinians continue to shoot rockets into civilian areas of Israel, continue to murder innocent civilians, shouldn’t they pay a price? I too hope for peace, hope for a stoppage of terror, hope for a negotiated solution, but the reality is at this point and for many years in the future is this not about to happen. In the meantime, let’s get real and stop the attacks on our fellow Jews in Israel for the crime of trying to deal with a very difficult situation. Israeli democracy still works and if their polices go too far to the right, as they have gone too far to the left in the past, democracy will deal with the problem.

  2. Hi Martin…think of you often and of course my best to Maris as well…haven’t seen her since 1984? Hope you and everyone is well…Only have the best thoughts about you…I see your picture and think of your dad…and I smile, and I’m sad…hard to believe our lifetimes have scampered by…I’m an American Citizen; this can’t happen to me…I thought of you because of the flood…I was scared. Just be well…We have been close with Michael Stein out of the Radnor area…perhaps you know him…a mensch… but see him less frequently. So its an effort
    to touch base.. say hello…Love Michael


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