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Rabbi Deborah Waxman co-authors op-ed on xenophobic dangers and democratic hopes in Israel and U.S.

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By Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Libby Lenkinski on behalf of the Progressive Israel Network

Originally published in the Forward on July 24, 2019

For American Jews, the recent resurgence of American nativism recalls the worst moments of the last century. American nativism brought us the Immigration Act of 1924, a racist law that closed America’s borders to Jews and other “undesirables,” and that ultimately barred our forebears from escaping the Nazis and finding refuge in America.

Jews then were considered by nativists to be dirty, racially inferior, and unassimilable. We were not welcome on American shores. President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hearkens to those times, and his cruel immigration policies are inspired by them. This is not what democracy looks like.

It is for this reason that last June, we helped form the Progressive Israel Network — a coalition of ten leading organizations committed to building a vision of a democratic and progressive future for Israel. This week, we are laying out an affirmative, values-based vision to guide the Israel-America relationship into a strong, free and democratic future.

President Trump’s nativism is not new, but it recently found newfound furor, as he cast aspersions on the loyalty of whole categories of American citizens — women of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims. Dangerously, he has attempted to drag Jews and the State of Israel into his racist tirades.

For Trump, Jews are synonymous with Israel, and Israel is synonymous with a right-wing expansionist vision shared by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies. That’s why Trump referred to Israel in a roomful of American Jews as “your country” and to Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister.” It is how he could say that he was defending Israel as he engaged in a racist screed against those four Democratic Congresswomen of color last Wednesday.

Trump has fashioned the terms “anti-Jewish,” “anti-Semite,” and “anti-American” into a political weapon to use in the service of his neo-populism and then handed off that blunt cudgel to his right-wing base to use with reckless abandon.

On a visit to America, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, noted that, “From the first, Americans everywhere have understood Israel’s democratic hopes and ambitions.” But a White House with a narrow, corrosive vision of citizenship that threatens the core of American democracy is not a vantage point for understanding and furthering “Israel’s democratic hopes and ambitions.” Quite the contrary. Trump’s vile racism is a toxin as poisonous to the American body politic as it is for Israel’s democracy.

Benjamin Netanyahu has joined the list of illiberal populists around the world seeking to dismantle multi-racial, liberal democracy piece by piece. This has included inciting against human rights organizations, passing legislation that creates inequality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, and pursuing legislation that would restrict the power of the Supreme Court and that would prohibit the removal of a sitting Prime Minister (as Netanyahu is facing indictment on multiple corruption charges).

This list of xenophobic, fearmongering leaders certainly includes Trump, but it neither starts nor ends with him. Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, Morawiecki in Poland, Salvini in Italy, and Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdogan in Turkey are all birds of a single populist feather.

These demagogues sow fear and stoke racial tension. They promote an exclusivist, chauvinist white nationalism. But they will not win. Jewish history teaches us that tyranny cannot sustain itself. From Pharaoh to the Roman Emperors to the monarchs who expelled us from multiple parts of Europe, Jews have outlasted the tyrants who have sought our destruction. And we American Jews know that the only way for the Israel-America friendship to survive — and not be tossed out along with these demagogues — is to center our democratic values.

We encourage all presidential candidates to stand behind these values and articulate a proactive and constructive vision of the best of what each nation can be, and what the most robust partnership between them can advance.

We hope that they will gather the fortitude to speak clearly and confidently on this issue, and not stand idly by while two troubled democracies continue down the same disturbing path. We believe that a clear-eyed, values-based alliance between America and Israel demands the following:

— A recognition that Trump-era policies have damaged prospects for peace and that any new American president will need to repair.

— An end to Israel’s 52-year occupation of the West Bank and a recommitment to the rights of all citizens who deserve justice, dignity and equality.

— Strong US leadership towards a two-state solution and opposition to any unilateral steps by Israel that would annex parts of the West Bank and thereby formalize two separate and unequal legal systems.

— Reinforcement of our countries’ common democratic institutions - a strong judiciary, a strong civil society, and free and fair elections - such that both countries are empowered to resist the erosion of these institutions by xenophobic and populist movements and leaders.

American democracy today is in uncharted waters. And American Jews know, in our bones, that when the government conditions civil rights for some, the civil rights of all are at risk. We know what is at stake. This is the governing principle that keeps us all safe: strong protections for minority and individual rights.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Rabbi Deborah Waxman Ph.D. is the President of Reconstructing Judaism. Libby Lenkinski is the Vice President for Public Engagement at the New Israel Fund.

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