Published in The Jerusalem Post on December 21, 1997
Have you ever heard of a place where ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘gangs’ in a ‘surging tide of extremism’, ‘spit’, ‘beat’, ‘vandalize’, ‘assault’, ‘attack’, ‘fight’ and ‘brutally abuse’ innocent people?
Are you familiar with a country (mention Afghanistan and Iran to hint at its nature) where ‘religious extremists’ seek to ‘turn back the clock’ (mention this three times for emphasis), notoriously practice ‘discrimination’ (repeat 4 times), and otherwise seek to ‘impose’, ‘intimidate’, ‘demand’, ‘repress’, ‘coerce’ and ‘dictate’ (9 repetitions) their ‘intolerant’ views on a beleaguered society?
Well, welcome to the State of Israel according to the New Israel Fund (NIF). A country that ‘shows the world a repugnant face of Judaism’, where it is not safe to walk down the street without being ‘set upon by a gang of angry, enraged men’ — religious extremists running rampant.
No, I’m not making-up all this hyperbolic, radical imagery. It’s all in a direct-mail piece, pitching me for money, that I recently received from the NIF. The letter plaints 12 times about ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘extremists’, and employs terms depicting violence 14 times over. Emblazoned on the mailing envelope exterior in bold letters is the following teaser: ‘Warning: There is no religious freedom for Jews in Israel’. Just like cigarettes; think of Israel and think of cancer.
Another NIF fundraising ad that ran recently in American Jewish publications begins thus: ‘Christians living in Israel have more freedom to choose how to live a religious life than Jews’. Didya know? Methinks that Mr. and Mrs. New Israel Fundraiser have gone much too far.
The NIF partnership between Israeli and Diaspora Jews “in support of democracy, pluralism, tolerance and social justice” generally is a wonderful thing. They’ve made a signal contribution to equality, government accountability and the culture of democratic advocacy in Israel. Consider and appreciate, for example, NIF’s longstanding support for the Association for Civil Rights.
But to spuriously malign Israel as medieval, fundamentalist Iran in order to raise a buck is beyond the pale. The use of gross exaggeration and overwrought language laced with hate to boost organizational income — is just plain wrong. It’s also not smart.
This paper has reported a twenty percent increase in NIF income over the past year, on the basis of the nasty and combative ‘religious freedom in Israel’ campaign. Problem is that what’s good for fundraising is not necessarily good for Israel or for Jewry. The end (religious pluralism) does not justify the means (bad-mouthing Israel).
The danger in this campaign is alienation. Who in their right mind wants to be associated with such a retrogressive, thuggish place? And what happens if the good guys don’t succeed in stopping the alleged hordes of Jewish ayatollahs? What if the Conversion Law is passed and Conservative and Reform rabbis are not accorded full and equal recognition by the Orthodox in Israel? What kind of relationship with Israel, if any, will NIF donors be left with?
In painting the situation in such dire and apocalyptic terms, the NIF is cutting away the limb – love for, and identification with, Israel – upon which all pro-Israel Jewish community activity is based. Throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Many years ago, the UJA was accused of similarly besmirching Israel, unintentionally, because it was good for the campaign. In their ads, Israel was the poor, undeveloped, ‘nebechel’ state, whose people lacked basic goods and life was a daily struggle. Later, Israel was the embattled, endangered victim-state, where bombs went off daily and people were dying. No wonder relatively few American Jews have ever come to visit or to live here. Who wants to live in a ‘pushka’ (charity box) or visit a war zone?
But the NIF campaign themes are more corrosive, because they relate to the character of Israel; our soul that’s being corrupted, as it were. They’re out to save us from rot, and will ‘battle’, ‘struggle’ and fight-on until we realize just how good for Israel American-style religious pluralism really is.
Well, maybe and maybe not. For the sake of argument, and to take some of the absolutist, fundamentalist self-assurance out of NIF sails, let it be noted that American Jewish pluralism may not be the right model for this country. In maintaining Orthodoxy as the established religious stream, it is possible that Israelis are not so much being denied the great privilege of American-style religious pluralism; perhaps they’re opting out of it. Great Britain has an established Church, and is no less a democracy for it.
So, be a little humble, our dear friends in the NIF, before imperialistically attempting to impose value-systems and religious standards on an unconvinced, even disinterested, Israeli society. Cool the heated rhetoric. And ask yourselves – what are the models of Israel-Diaspora partnership that will allow you to continue to love an Israel that doesn’t sign onto one very particular definition of religious pluralism?