Opinion: Right now, to love Israel is to denounce it

Protesters with Palestinian flags clash with security forces on a hill.
Protesters clash with Israeli security forces at the entrance to the Palestinan village of Hawara on March 3.
(Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images)

When my maternal grandmother was around 7 years old, she was nearly the victim of a pogrom. It was the late 1930s. Europe was a stretched rubber band, soon to snap. My grandma was visiting family in a small Polish town. One day, the non-Jewish inhabitants wielded knives and sticks as they pursued Jews. My grandma ran, closed the blinds, hid and waited.

I’ve heard this story of the pogrom in two related contexts. First, as proof of antisemitism — even absent Nazi compulsion. Second, as part of the need for a state where Jews can be safe.

Last week, Jewish settlers conducted a pogrom of a Palestinian village named Hawara. They set fire to houses and cars. They threw stones. In one sickening video, the settlers pray with the village smoking in the background, as if their violence honors God rather than desecrating holy commandments and the rule of law alike.

I have never felt so ashamed to be Israeli. I have never felt as angry as I did watching these settlers pervert past Jewish victimhood into a right to harm innocent people, contorting Jewish practice into their colonial ambitions to create a carte blanche for abuses.

The collapse of the two-state solution and the threat to democracy from a new governing coalition have made Israel unrecognizable now.

Feb. 18, 2023

While the settlers’ actions were extreme, they cannot be categorized as fringe. Not when Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said afterward that Hawara should be “wiped out” by the state of Israel. Not when National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir legitimizes illegal settlements and speaks of crushing enemies “one by one.” Like the Trump years in the United States, government actions and statements, no matter how unrepresentative of popular will, still carry the weight of institutional endorsement.

My grandma just celebrated her 92nd birthday. She resides in Haifa at an assisted living facility. When I speak with her, she is despondent at the state of the country — settler pogroms, racist government officials and a judicial coup being led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet she is insistent that Jews must still have a country.

The antisemitism my grandma experienced in her youth has not gone away. Globally and in the United States, hatred of Jews is rising, seen recently in antisemitic fliers in Maryland, Montana and Ohio and a plot to kill Jewish elected officials in Michigan. Anti-Jewish hate crimes in California are at a record high.

This is only part of the heartbreak. At a time when Jews feel less safe in our communities, Israel no longer feels like a safe option. As countries around the world trend toward autocracy, Israel is part of the data set rather than an exception. But most of all: seeing that some members of a group that has experienced so much persecution can brazenly inflict pain on others.

In a lecture he gave at Stanford in January 2007, the late Israeli author Amos Oz spoke about the nature of dreams.

Israel, he said, is “a fulfillment of a dream, perhaps it is a fulfillment of many dreams. As such it is flawed by definition and has the sour taste of a disappointment.” Oz said this isn’t about the nature of the state of Israel, but about the nature of dreams.

I disagree. Because national dreams, like personal choices, are not projectiles whose trajectories are set at the moment of release. They are hulking tankers, whose weight leaves them vulnerable to inertia but can nevertheless be steered. Israel will always be flawed in some ways. But it does not have to be flawed the way it is today.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting against autocracy and racism, and for democracy, equal rights and common dignity — for a better Israel. “Where were you in Hawara?” they chant to the security forces. They hold up banners depicting Netanyahu as “Crime Minister.”

They understand that right now, to love Israel is to denounce it. That external threats such as Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah cannot destroy Israel the way that Jews can internally. American Jewish leaders, some of whom have been historically reticent to publicly criticize Israel, should fight for an Israel they can be proud of, not just the one that exists now.

Some in the new Netanyahu government aim to expel Arabs or, more insidiously, to make life so miserable that many choose to leave.

Feb. 1, 2023

My late grandfather from my father’s side escaped near-certain death as a teenager when he was deported to Siberia by the Soviets. Soon after, the Nazis murdered 90% of the Jews in his native Lithuania. He eventually escaped the gulag, spent a few years in postwar Germany and moved to Israel in 1949.

In the weeks before he died, my dad asked him what Israel meant to him for one of my class writing projects:

“In one word … mine.”

“And in two words?” my dad asked.

“That I feel like my fate is in my own hands, that I’m not a foreigner.”

My grandfather found a new home in Israel. He felt a sense of personal self-determination — a freedom from the historical forces that yanked him from Lithuania to the gulag — made possible by the collective self-determination of a nation.

His wife, my other grandmother, recently celebrated her 90th birthday. She’s gone to the recent protests with other family members. Because right now, Israel is betraying my late grandfather. It is betraying the memory of past Jews and the prospects of future ones. And it is betraying Jews in Israel and Jews abroad.

So, shame on the settlers, on Netanyahu, on Ben-Gvir, on Smotrich, on their hundreds of thousands of supporters and the seething hatred they espouse. To deal with these racists and autocrats, we must learn from our experience with antisemites and show no compromise, tolerance or legitimization of their policies and actions. We must fight and shame them, for as long as it takes.

Nadav Ziv is a writer whose work includes essays about Judaism, antisemitism and Israel. @nadavsziv