Israel Gave Us the Finger; We Did Not Turn a Blind Eye
by Avraham Spraragen
American Jewish youth are overwhelmingly progressive in their political orientation, politically conscientious, and committed to universal human rights protections in accordance with their Jewish values. PEP, or “Progressive except for Palestine,” is increasingly becoming anathema to young Jews in the U.S., who refuse to set their progressive social justice principles aside in defense of Israeli Occupation of Palestinians. As the project for maximum Israeli territorial expansionism, “Judaization” of all the land from the River to the Sea, and total Palestinian erasure becomes even more inconsistent with the values of progressive U.S. Jewry, Progressive Israel Network organizations and others have declared loud and clear, “not in our name.”
Neither did progressive American Jewish youth turn a blind eye when Israeli settlers carried out a pogrom in the Palestinian village of Hawara, praying (an odious cooptation of Jewish prayer) as they watched the village burn, with the support of Israeli settler minister Bezalel Smotrich who subsequently called for Hawara to be “wiped out.” Furthermore, when a member of the Jerusalem City Council paraded through Palestinian East Jerusalem warning of a “second Nakba” or when Smotrich threatened Palestinians from the Knesset podium with “finishing the job” that David Ben-Gurion started, we young American Jews insisted that these are not our values. Instead, the young American Jewish progressive activists of IfNotNow reclaimed the Jewish prayer from the pogromists at the 2023 Israel Bonds Conference in Washington, DC where Smotrich was a featured speaker:
“The group prayed Ma’ariv in protest, as a reminder of the way the settlers who led a pogrom desecrated the Jewish people by praying as the town burned. In the words of the activists: ‘Today we mark the distinction not just between day and night, but between right and wrong.’” (IfNotNow 3/13/23)
The reaction of far-right Israeli Jewry and their representatives in Israeli government to the opposition from within the progressive American Jewish community was captured in a viral moment caught on camera at the 2023 Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City. Amichai Chikli, the Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs and the Minister for Social Equality, participated in the NYC parade and was photographed giving the middle finger to “pro-democracy” counterprotestors. This offensive gesture by Chikli, whom Ha’aretz subsequently dubbed the Minister of “Offending the Diaspora,” encapsulates Israeli attitudes toward diaspora Jews. The growing public sentiment among Jewish progressives in the United States, especially within my Generation Z, seems to be that Israel looks down upon the diaspora, considers diaspora Jewry to be inferior to Israeli Jewry, and deems life in the diaspora as lesser than, unworthy of preservation, and even heretical to the Jewish national project. It has also become clear to American Jewish progressive youth that their values of equality, justice, and peace are not reflected in Israeli leadership or society. In fact, the alliances forged between Israel and far-right actors worldwide, from Donald Trump in the U.S. to Viktor Orbán in Hungary and beyond, as well as the continued Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, the Israeli governmental assault on human rights activism and other fundamental freedoms demonstrate that modern Israel, sadly, is not a progressive ally.
With every Israeli forced evacuation, home demolition, construction of settlements, arbitrary Palestinian detention and killing, the trust between Israel and American Jewish progressive youth is further eroded. When commemorations of the Palestinian Nakba are censored, including the resistance poetry of Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, the Nakba film Farha, and the Joint Palestinian-Israeli Nakba Remembrance Ceremony, Israel is also betraying young progressive American Jews. Every time a Palestinian flag is forcibly removed from a “pro-democracy” protest or the anti-Occupation bloc within the protest movement is otherwise demonized, the gap between Israeli Jews and American Jews widens.
Each of these betrayals of our values is another “middle finger” to the large swaths of young American Jews who are staunchly opposed to the Occupation. The so-called Diaspora Minister of Israel while at a parade in the Jewish diaspora literally gave us the middle finger, an encapsulation of the state of Israel-diaspora relations. Behind his middle finger is a long history of espousing offensive views, antithetical to U.S. Jewish progressivism, from Chikli’s public disdain for Reform Jews, the largest denomination in America, to his discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community (Chikli previously described Pride as “disgraceful vulgarity”). This intolerance from Diaspora Minister Chikli prompted three Jewish student leaders from the UK and Ireland, Austrlia, and South Africa to pen an op-ed in Ha’aretz, “We Jewish Students Reject Israel’s Racist, Bigoted Diaspora Minister.” Representing over 160,000 Jewish students, the authors wrote, “Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs does not speak for the Diaspora.”
The publication of this op-ed came after a string of discriminatory statements from Minister Chikli, including his likening of Israeli “pro-democracy” protestors to the biblical enemy Amalek, labeling of the Jewish progressive lobbying group J Street as “hostile,” accusing George Soros of “hating humanity,” and dismissing the eminent American Jewish historian of the Holocaust and Biden antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt as a “leftist.” Had Chikli not made an offensive gesture at us during a parade in New York, these offenses themselves would have sufficed to say: young American Jewish progressives do not matter.
My generation of U.S. Jews have been sending a message in return, by protesting Simcha Rothman (chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee), the far-right Knesset figure most identified with the ongoing Israeli judicial coup, during his visit to the United States, and concurrently by organizing solidarity protests in several major U.S. cities to demonstrate American Jewish support for the pro-democracy movement in Israel. Jewish youth in the UK are similarly up in arms in opposition to mainstream Jewish organizational support of a British Government bill that would prevent them from supporting human rights campaigns around the world.
This increasing rupture in Israel-diaspora relations, characterized by Israeli abandonment of liberal diaspora Jewry in favor of illiberal Christian Zionists, forces to the forefront the question of whether Israel continues to see itself as the state of all Jewish people, or as the state of illiberal Jewry and their Christian allies only. The prioritization of Christian loyalists over Jews perceived variously as traitors, self-hating, and “un-Jewish,” was also on display in Canada during a visit earlier this month by the Israeli Diaspora Minister. Chikli again betrayed the Jewish diaspora by serving as a keynote speaker at a far-right evangelical college, a breeding ground for religious bigotries, including antisemitism. Despite the real threat posed by the college to diaspora Jews, Chikli accepted this invitation to speak at an evangelical Christian celebration of the 75th Israeli Independence Day, indicating clearly he is more concerned with advancing his far-right Zionist political aims than with protecting the safety of diaspora Jewry. My fellow American Jewish young progressives and I insist that our own safety and the safety of Palestinians under Occupation matter, whether Israel believes it or not. We reject wholesale the chants of “Jews, not Arabs” heard in Jerusalem during the recent far-right Flag March attended by Israeli government officials. The related chant, “Death to Arabs,” echoed throughout Israel today, will also be the death of our Jewish values.
Avraham Spraragen is a dual JD-MA Arab Studies degree candidate at Georgetown University. He previously studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University.