In February, President Christina Paxson P’19 P’MD’20 spoke at the Hillel International Israel Summit East 2023, a gathering of pro-Israel speakers and students. Paxson’s speech focused on important values: protecting free speech, promoting healthy discourse and opposing antisemitism in all its forms. But the summit notably contained few voices with progressive views on Israel-Palestine at a time when those perspectives are needed more than ever. As threats to Israeli democracy and Palestinian human rights grow, the Jewish community at Brown must boldly stand up for democracy and justice.
It is common for Jewish leaders to point to pictures of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as proof of the fact that we, as Jews, have stood on the right side of history. This is a powerful and inspiring legacy. But today the Jewish community must do more to live up to Heschel’s progressive vision. Not only do citizens of our American Jewish communities fail each other by excluding progressive voices from the Israel-Palestine discourse, but we fail ourselves by not holding our institutions accountable to our progressive values. We as Jews hold a stake in the future of Israel. It is our responsibility to push the government of Israel to be more democratic, just and humane.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition have taken drastic steps to deepen Israeli control over occupied territory and isolate Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank. His government has legalized nine outposts that were illegal even under Israeli law and approved over 7,000 new housing units in settlements. The far-right government has shielded and emboldened extremists in the West Bank, as well. On Feb. 26th, Israeli settlers in the West Bank town of Hawara went on a violent rampage, killing one Palestinian and setting fire to cars and homes — an incident that a member of the Netanyahu government praised. Incidents of settler violence had already been increasing over the past few years. And while the Israeli government has been putting Palestinian communities in peril for decades, the Netanyahu government is now openly pursuing the de facto annexation of the West Bank.
In addition to the abuses it continually commits against Palestinians, the Netanyahu government is committed to undermining the fabric of Israeli democracy. It remains committed to its radical plans to gut the independence of the Israeli Supreme Court, a key pillar of the country’s liberal democracy. The Supreme Court is also one of the only institutions that could stand in the way of the government’s plans in occupied territory. As the government works to undermine the court’s independence, this so-called attempt at judicial reform to “strengthen the legal system” must be understood as part and parcel of the right’s annexationist agenda. The U.S. government and American Jewish communities must intervene at this crucial moment to stand against occupation and in defense of Israeli democracy.
In its moves toward annexation, Netanyahu’s extremist coalition is demonstrating that it will not be stopped by polite protestations by American leaders. Only by setting clear redlines and tangible consequences can the U.S. hope to deter this government. We, as Jewish students, voters and future political leaders have a responsibility to not just preach empty words, but to stand up for human rights, international law and the pursuit of lasting peace and to push our communities and elected representatives to do the same.
How can we do so?
For one, students can engage with one of many organizations (like J Street U) that engage Jews in progressive conversation around Israel-Palestine. American Jews can also push Congress to promote a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians. We can ask our elected representatives to sign on to progressive endeavors like this March’s Schakowsky-McGovern-DeLauro letter, which urged the Biden Administration to use “all diplomatic tools” available to push the Israeli government to halt its moves towards annexation and its judicial overhaul. J Street U Brown encouraged Rep. David Cicilline ’83 (D-R.I.) to sign on to the letter, and we were very glad to see him do so. Progressive Jews can make effective change when we join together and call on our elected officials to take action.
There are many ways for American Jews and all Americans who believe in peace and democracy to make a difference, and the time to start is now. We stand at a crossroads, with the future of Israelis and Palestinians hanging in the balance. We must use our voices to join progressive organizations, call our representatives and call on our institutions to uphold the democratic values they were founded upon.
Michael Farrell-Rosen ’24 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maize Cline ’26 can be reached at email@example.com. Georgia Turman ’26 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. They are all members of Brown’s J Street U chapter. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.