A Jewish organization sent out a news release this month with the emphatic tag line, “Israeli government must crack down against ‘price tag’ attacks.”
It went on to describe the vandalism carried out by “extremist Israeli Jews” against Muslim and Christian holy sites and property — apparently as retribution for government efforts to, well, you name it: evacuate illegal settlements, pursue peace talks, or even arrest perpetrators of previous attacks.
The statement welcomed “the commitment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pursue the perpetrators,” but it also implicitly criticized the steps he has taken so far: “[W]e share the frustration of many Israelis about the lack of progress thus far in apprehending and bringing the perpetrators to justice,” wrote the organization’s leader. “Price tag attacks represent a growing disregard for the law by Jewish extremists, and vigorous and ongoing action by Israeli law enforcement officials is needed to quell these abhorrent acts of hate.”
The tone and target of the statement bear all the hallmarks of one of the left-leaning American-Jewish groups — perhaps J Street, or Meretz, or the New Israel Fund. Would it surprise you to know that the statement came from the Anti-Defamation League, a decidedly centrist group, and its national director, Abraham Foxman?
Spasms of conscience like the above seem to fog what has been a long-standing and even tedious debate among American Jews — that is, is it ever okay for a Jewish group to criticize Israel? Just this month, analyst Mitchell Bard wrote in the Huffington Post that a true friend of Israel “[r]espects Israeli democracy and does not substitute their judgment for Israeli voters’.” Such a friend, he writes, only criticizes Israel “within the family,” and understands the difference between pro-Israel and anti-Israel audiences.
Rabbi Richard A. Block, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, leaves even less room for Jewish leaders to speak critically of Israel. In an op-ed for JTA, he argues that pulpit rabbis have the obligation to tell the good news about Israel and defend it from attack, but otherwise should avoid criticism of Israeli policies.
Bard is specifically writing about the role of Jewish organizations, Block about the role of a rabbi. But both seem to prescribe a very limited role for Diaspora Jewry — more cheerleader for the sitting Israeli government than a partner in Jewish peoplehood.
Granted, it seems chutzpahdik to flout the will of Israeli voters — until you remember that a democracy is defined by all of its citizens, not just the majority who won the last election (and given Israel’s parliamentary system, it doesn’t have to be a majority). Silence also consigns American Jews to a marginal intellectual engagement in the singular Jewish achievement of the modern era. Israel is many things, to the world and to the Jews: An epochal return and rebirth of a people in their homeland. A technological marvel. A miracle of immigrant energy. It’s a testing ground for Western democracy, and a beachhead in the war against regional religious extremism.
All these things are true and worth celebrating. But when history looks back on this era, it will focus on one issue above all: the solution, or not, to the Palestinian question. If the two sides cannot agree on a just division of the land that Israel currently controls, Israel will have to choose among a unilateral withdrawal, maintaining a status quo that leaves it in control of millions of antagonistic non-citizens, or creating — as both the far Left and far Right agree — a single state for two people. The fate of the settlements is central to this conversation, and pretending otherwise is, frankly, Mrs. Lincoln, beside the point.
Refusing to talk about these existential issues — and incidents that have a significant impact on it, like the “price tag” attacks — makes us mere spectators to Israel’s national drama and mute witnesses to a political conversation in Washington and other world capitals that will go on whether we participate or not. Except we’re never really innocent bystanders: So long as American Jews are expected to rally and fundraise and lobby and advocate for Israel, what they don’t say is every bit as significant as what they do say.
Bard is right about our need to respect Israeli democracy. We do so when our communal conversation reflects the robust internal debate within Israel itself. There is a long tradition of Diaspora support of Israeli streams across the political spectrum — in fact, the only difference between “support” and “criticism” is whether the party you are supporting is in power. There should be no shame or reluctance in declaring that you support the ideas of Israel’s Right, Left, or Center — or share Israelis’ “frustration” with a policy of their government. Doing so is intellectually honest, socially responsible, and, 66 years after the birth of the Jewish state, a declaration of peoplehood. And in the absence of evidence that such debate actually hurts Israel – as opposed to the feelings of those who disagree – it’s an obligation.
Abe Foxman said this more bluntly than I, commenting on the vote that kept J Street, a frequent critic of the current Israeli government, out of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I find it somewhat bizarre,” Foxman told an interviewer, “that there is more tolerance for dissent and different [points of view] in the state of Israel…than there is in the American-Jewish community which is supportive of Israel and its viability. So J Street would be akin to Meretz or to the Labor Party. And their views are okay to be heard in Israel and the Knesset, but their views would not be okay to be heard in the Conference of Presidents?”