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Pride and Prejudice in the Jewish State

Recent events—from Pride in Beersheba to Netanyahu scrapping plans for an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel—serve as a reminder to fight for the Israel you want to see

Yair Rosenberg
June 26, 2017
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
The city of Jerusalem with the Western Wall (L), the Dome of the Rock (C) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (R).Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
The city of Jerusalem with the Western Wall (L), the Dome of the Rock (C) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (R).Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last few days, two seemingly opposite events transpired in Israel. On Thursday, Be’er Sheva held its first Pride Parade. Such displays have been annual occurrences in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where hundreds of thousands regularly march, but the parade was the first of its kind in the Jewish state’s southern city. Thousands took to the streets to celebrate and top Israeli artists performed in the city square. The event marked a victory for Israel’s LGBT community, as organizers overcame previous local objections that had scuttled the parade in 2016. As the city’s mayor put it in a statement marking the occasion, “Be’er Sheva is for everyone … united, accepting and tolerant.”

Then, on Sunday, the Israeli government shelved a plan to build an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall for the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. The move was an effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to placate the ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition, even as the majority of Israelis support greater recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism. The outcry was swift and brutal. Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz authored a scathing indictment titled “Netanyahu to millions of Jews: We don’t really want you.” Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Richard Jacobs dubbed the move a “betrayal.” And leaders of multiple Israeli parties, from Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union to the right-wing Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beytenu, denounced the decision. Kulanu MK Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to the U.S. and current deputy minister, declared, “This despicable decision sends a sharp message of division and alienation to Diaspora Jewry. The State of Israel defines itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people. It must start behaving like it.”

These ostensibly contradictory occurrences might seem confusing, but only to those who see the Jewish state as one thing, collapsing it into a convenient category or label. In actuality, however, Israel is not a “conservative” or “progressive” issue. It is not a religious or secular cause. Israel is a country: a diverse, complicated, and chaotic one trying to figure itself out. It is a state, not a symbol.

Too often, though, outsiders reduce Israel into a political and ideological monolith, instead of recognizing it as a real place filled with real people. Meanwhile, those people—Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, secular, traditional, religious, and ultra-Orthodox—continue to struggle within the framework of Israel’s democracy and civil society to define what Israel is. Typecasting Israel and reducing it to a monoculture—whether positive or negative—elides this roiling diversity and debate, and obscures more than it explains.

This sort of dumbed-down discourse is convenient for those who want to laud Israel unconditionally or deride it unreservedly, but it is not honest or constructive. Because when we collapse the conversation surrounding the Jewish state into a question of “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel,” we too often neglect the equally important question of “what kind of Israel?”

The lesson of the past week, however, is that there is not one Israel, but many competing Israels. Given this reality, the best response that true friends of Israel can marshal to recent events is to double down on supporting their vision for Jewish statehood.

If you hope for a two-state solution, fund the myriad of coexistence-building organizations that work to build human connections between Palestinians and Israelis. If you want to bolster the forces of religious pluralism, donate your money and time to the many non-Orthodox Jewish teachers and learning institutions behind the country’s secular Jewish renaissance. And if liberal Jewish denominations want to impact Israeli democracy at the ballot box, they would do well to follow the advice of Hebrew Union College professor Michael Pitkowsky and fund young non-Orthodox Jews who want to make aliyah. In all cases, whether the issue is peace or pluralism, if one isn’t on the playing field, one is ceding it to the opposition.

Countless American and diaspora Jews care deeply about the Jewish state and its future. It’s time for them to fight for the Israel they want to see—for more pride and less prejudice.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.