When “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot stood up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she continued a tradition of Jewish humanism that transcends the right-wing Zionist nationalism propagated by Netanyahu himself.
The controversy began when, according to NBC News, Netanyahu wrote that “Israel is not a state for all its citizens. According to the nation-state law that we passed, Israel is the state of the Jewish people — and belongs to them alone.”
The reference to the “nation-state law” is not inconsequential here. Passed last year, the law states that only Jewish citizens of Israel possess the right of self-determination and downgraded the status of Arabic as an official language. Its passage has been harshly criticized, including by many in Israel, who see it as yet another violation of the human rights of Arabs who live in lands under Israeli control. One of those critics was model and actor Rotem Sela, a friend of Gadot’s — and it was Sela’s Instagram post supporting the rights of Israeli Arabs that prompted Netanyahu to write his statement about “slightly confused people.”
That was where Gadot stepped into the fray.
“Love thy neighbor,” Gadot wrote on Instagram. “It is not a matter of right or left, Arabs or Jews, secular or religious. It is a matter of dialogue, of dialogue for peace, and of our tolerance for each other. It is our responsibility to shine hope and light for a better future for our children.”
Gadot’s response couldn’t help but remind me of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ actions last week, as Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., faced considerable backlash, including accusations of anti-Semitism, for her comments criticizing American supporters of Israel. Sanders privately contacted Omar to offer his support — and then, more importantly, became the first major Democratic presidential candidate to support her in public. He issued a statement which read:
Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world. We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel. Rather, we must develop an even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace.
There is more connecting the actions of Gadot and Sanders than simply their willingness to criticize Israeli policy. Jews have long been disproportionately liberal, from their instrumental role in founding socialist and pro-labor political movements in the 19th century to their activity in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That history continues to the present day, where roughly 70 percent of Jews can be expected to support Democrats and where Bernie Sanders — the first Jewish candidate to be a serious presidential contender — is also the most progressive major candidate in decades. Jewish Americans overwhelmingly self-identify as either liberal or moderate, and consistently hold more liberal views on major political issues than other Americans.
There are two ways to interpreting this Jewish trend toward liberal views and positions. Some conservatives, including right-wing Jews, seek to portray it as an aberration or anomaly, perhaps related to the secularization of Jewish life in the United States. Another view would be that a group that has experienced intense persecution for millennia is more inclined to sympathize with the oppressed with the oppressor — even in complex situations such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, when Jewish people or Jewish-run institutions may be the oppressors.
As I wrote in 2017 when discussing the 50-year anniversary of the Six-Day War (in a piece that criticized Gal Gadot, ironically enough), Zionism is inextricably linked to the nationalist movements of the 19th century. While it is without question a specifically Jewish political movement, it in many ways runs athwart the larger sweep of Jewish history, with its tendency to traffic in nationalist tropes as self-rationalization instead of being rooted in universal, humanist ideals. By the same logic which dictates one should be able to criticize Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism, one must be able to acknowledge that an institution like Zionism, closely associated with Jewish history, is not inextricably linked to the broader concepts of Jewish identity.
That’s why these recent statements by Sanders and Gadot carry so much weight. At a time when people like Netanyahu strive to inextricably link Jewishness with right-wing Zionism, Sanders and Gadot have asserted the importance of Jewish liberalism as a vital force.