We just returned from an inspiring JCPA leadership mission to Israel, and my head is still spinning. Participating in a high level JCPA mission can be a bit like plopping yourself in the middle of somebody else’s heated family dinner discussion. You hear familiar tropes. You instinctively agree with some comments and disagree with others. But you have this sinking feeling that you are missing critical context. You are not entirely sure what happened in previous family dinners that may have given rise to the dispute.
So it is with the complex discussions taking place in Israel. The longer you are in Israel the more you understand–and the more you know what you don’t know. Before you know it, you fit right in!
One such “Israeli family dinner” we were treated to was the Knesset discussion over the removal of a controversial West Bank outpost. We met with Knesset members and witnessed an impassioned Knesset debate. This was not the first time a JCPA delegation found itself in the middle of such a controversy.
Last year, when the JCPA delegation was in Israel, the issue de jure was the NGO bill, which would have applied stifling regulations on NGOs that receive a majority funding from outside Israel, namely Israeli human rights groups. Opponents told us that the bill was emblematic of the growing assault on Israel’s democracy. Many on the trip, myself included, were concerned. As with so many of these bills, however, the NGO bill became so watered down during the legislative process it ceased to do much of anything. Thankfully, reports of the death of Israel’s democracy were premature.
This year’s imminent threat was a bill that would provide retroactive legitimacy to settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land. It was sparked by a controversy over the West Bank outpost Amona, which the Israeli Supreme Court ruled was illegally built on Palestinian land and must be removed by December 25th.The legislation in its original form would have allowed the government to claim the land and compensate the owners, thereby effectively overruling the Supreme Court decision mandating Amona’s removal. Democracy advocates worried that the bill would undercut the authority of the Supreme Court. The legislation was eventually modified so that it applied to future situations, allowing the government to change the status of outposts without running afoul of the court. I am told the still pending legislation would be subject to numerous legal hurdles.
Meanwhile, I read a report that Israeli border police are rehearsing the imminent removal of settlers from Amona.
It can feel ominous to those of us who parachute into such a heated debate. We hear from activists who give us the worst-case scenario, and may feel that the fate of Israel’s democracy stands on the precipice while we are sitting helplessly in the Knesset. Having heard such dire prognostications in the past, it can sound like the boy who cried wolf. Be that as it may, there are indeed right wing forces attempting to weaken Israeli democratic norms and, absent a serious counter-effort, the wolf may eventually make its dreaded appearance.
In the face of efforts to weaken liberal democracy, can one be vigilant and resolute, without becoming overwrought? I hope so. That might be precisely the mindset we need in confronting the current American political challenges as well.
JCPA missions do not shy away from such controversies. There’s not a point of view that you won’t hear. You talk to the players who are conducting the discussion and setting the course. You talk to the people who wish they were but aren’t, but might in the future. You become inspired, angry and confused, all at the same time!
Speaking of dinner discussions, the food and wine in Israel have become really, really good. It’s as if Israelis took all of that dynamic creativity, combined with equal parts eastern and western culture, and put it on a plate. We had many a memorable meal.
When you return from a JCPA mission, you will be not only be well fed, you will be a more thoughtful and nuanced advocate for the Jewish state, able to translate your experience in the American context.
So here’s an early invitation: Join the JCPA for dinner in December or January (specific dates forthcoming) in Israel! You will return hungry for more.