I have the best job in the world. I get to talk about what I love – the people and state of Israel.
I could talk all day about Yisrael Hayafah (beautiful Israel) – the fabulous beaches, amazing archaeological parks, the stunning scenery, how Israel has made the desert bloom, the Israeli-developed microchips running our laptop computers, the Nobel Prize-winning scientists, and the treatments for deadly diseases developed at Hadassah Hospital.
Unfortunately, the media and Israel’s detractors want to focus on Israel flaws – some real, others imagined. The drumbeat of negativity confuses many Americans, especially young people ignorant about Israel’s history, politics and culture.
I tell students that we’re part of the AIDF – the American Israel Defense Forces. We don’t have to serve in the military or go to terrible places such as Gaza to perform difficult and dangerous jobs to defend the lives of Israeli citizens. But we have an obligation to serve in a different kind of army for Israel – one that educates our peers.
Israeli diplomats have the job of defending government actions; the duty of American supporters is different. We don’t have to agree with every Israel policy, but we do have an obligation to clarify the issues and put them in context. It is possible to have different personal views of settlements or targeted killings, and we should not hesitate to discuss them among other lovers of Israel. This audience understands that criticism is meant to improve the state, as distinguished from the detractors who wish Israel to disappear.
One often hears the specious argument that Israelis are critical of their government; therefore, American Jews have no reason to restrain themselves. A huge difference exists, however, between Israelis criticizing their own government and outsiders doing it. First, Israelis can vote for change if they don’t like the policies. Second, Israelis must live with the consequences of the government’s decisions; it is their children who must serve in the army. Third, most Israelis have a common education and life experience; they have studied their own history and they have lived through the traumas of the last 80 years. Israelis understand that most domestic critics want to improve their state.
The situation in the United States is completely different. Few people, including Jews, know the history of Israel. They don’t have to live with any of the consequences of the policies they advocate. The audiences they address often will know nothing about Israel beyond what they’ve heard through the media or what the speaker tells them, so if a speaker criticizes Israel, even if that critique is valid, it does not educate the audience about the complexity of Israel; rather, it only provides a one-dimensional picture.
Anyone can be a public critic of Israel. In fact, the quickest way to fame in America is to be the Jew who attacks Israel. As Alan Dershowitz says, Jews speak through a megaphone that amplifies what they say. Non-Jews often interpret the public criticism of Israel as “what American Jews think.” Thus, Jewish students from anti-Israel groups can stand up in front of a student government advocating divestment from Israel and claim to represent “the Jews.” Israel’s detractors often taken advantage of Jews whose views are outside the community consensus to suggest that “even the Jews agree with us.” Even friends of Israel can take advantage of criticism by using it as cover for their own complaints about Israeli policy.
Unless other Jews stand up and make clear that Israel’s critics represent a tiny minority of the community, it is easy for the broader public to be misled. At Berkeley a few years ago, Jewish students spoke at a student government meeting claiming to represent “the Jews” and calling for the university to divest from Israel. Fortunately, pro-Israel student groups mobilized by the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor Hanan Alexander, Hillel Director Adam Naftalin-Kelman and others, spoke out for the majority of Jewish students who view divestment campaigns as divisive on campus and counterproductive to the pursuit of peace. AICE circulated a statement signed by 61 international organizations – from right to left, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular – opposing the delegitimization of Israel and demonstrating the consensus in the international Jewish community. Ultimately, reason prevailed over propaganda and the divestment resolution was defeated.
For the last few years, nearly every Jewish conference has had a sterile debate about the “big tent” and who should be in it and who should not. One strength of the pro-Israel community vis-a-vis the Arab lobby has been its unity, even while holding a range of views, but not all opinions are equally valid nor is their impact neutral.
The guiding principal for the Jewish community has been that it is up to the democratically elected government of Israel to determine policies related to war and peace because they must live with the consequences and Israeli children are the ones who must fight and sometimes die to defend those policies. Jews 6,000 miles away are in no position to determine what is best for Israel. Criticism that confuses the American public or government officials about the views of the Israeli people, or calls on the United States to impose the views of a minority of American Jews on Israel is undemocratic and paternalistic. These Jews threaten to pull the entire tent down.
By all means, let every Jew have their opinion, but let’s not pretend they are all equal or innocuous. Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt expressed a formula that encapsulates my view of how we should express our concerns with Israeli policies: “Our criticism should never be as loud as our expressions of love.”
Mitchell Bard is the author of The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East (HarperCollins) and Israel Matters (Behrman House).