It seems that nowadays not only do we disagree about Israel, but we disagree about disagreeing about Israel. There is a constant tension between those who maintain the ‘accepted’ view of the Israeli government, a story of vibrant, untarnished success, and those who feel the imperative to speak out about the mistakes Israel, like any other country, makes.
Criticism of Israel is a requirement for anyone who believes they have an invested stake in the beleaguered country’s survival and continued success. That the Israeli government fails in areas of life is not something to hide or to be ashamed of. Every government in the world fails sometimes.
But, in the past 24 hours, two pieces of news, not necessarily related, have made this issue more pertinent. The first is the revelation that on November 26, 2013, the UN General Assembly condemned Israel in six resolutions. The second is an article written by two American students, Eli Philip and a good friend of mine, Catie Stewart. Stewart and Philip’s article advocates coherently against those who do not accept criticism of the status quo in Israel.
It seems to me that these two actions say something profound about the argument that is currently raging about Israel. On the one hand, intelligent, rational, engaged people are speaking up about the best ways to support Israel. On the other hand, the world is simply not listening.
So when I say that criticism of Israel is a requirement for anyone who has an invested stake in the country, there is one crucial caveat to that statement: this criticism should not be voiced in front of the world. By all means, debate with other pro- and anti-Israel organizations, with the Israeli government, with your peers who also care about the Israelis and the Palestinians. But whatever you do, do not simply shout bad things about Israel to anyone who will listen.
I shall give an analogy based on my experiences at university. I go to a college where I am surrounded by people who mostly do not understand Judaism or have never even met a Jew. They ask me questions about kashrut, about Shabbat, about faith and God and all the central beliefs of Judaism. When answering these questions, I explain to my friends what the beliefs and practices of Judaism are. I do not explain to them that I disagree with some of these practices, that I find some of them contrary to my personal beliefs. I do not, in short, declaim my personal problems with Judaism to those that might misinterpret them as inherent, factual reasons to see Judaism as anything less than the wonderful religion it is.
That does not mean I do not have these problems or that these problems do not exist. But I only express these problems to a certain audience.
This is a basic fact of any public human interaction: not everyone needs to know about your personal problems. As the expression goes, don’t air your dirty laundry in public.
For the fact is, Israel is at war. Israel is at war with Lebanon and Syria. Israel faces an enormous struggle against the UN, against EU law, against the perceptions of many people around the world whose views are forged by biased media reporting.
To win this war, Israel needs a united front.
Internal to the Jewish and pro-Israel community, there can be and there should be divisions and arguments.
But when we live in a world where the UN adopts 22 resolutions condemning Israel in one year, and only four condemning other countries, even to the disbelief of UN employees themselves, expressing these divisions and arguments to everyone is counterproductive.
Stewart and Philip are entirely correct in their article when they declare the urgency of having a “conversation”. So too are those who argue for “actively advocating” and “thoughtful political advocacy”.
But these points miss a key premise of the issue of criticizing Israel: where to make that criticism.
The conversations, the advocacy, need to be had with those bodies engaged in positive Israeli discourse, who come from the point of view that caring about a viable future for a democratic, Jewish Israel is of paramount importance. The conversations should not be held in full view of the rest of the world, many parts of which are only too keen to leap on top of any perceived criticism of Israel by Jewish and Zionist groups.
When we discuss amongst each other, by necessity we should argue and shout and criticize the mistakes Israel makes, just like we would at home if we were arguing with our family. But once we leave the house and stand in front of a hostile world, we need to present a united voice about our unequivocal support for the State of Israel.