I have always had a complicated relationship with the question of whether diaspora Jews should criticize Israel. In the early 1970s, before I first moved here, I was a vocal opponent of Breira, the first organization to publicly oppose Israeli policies from within the US Jewish community. I thought back then that those who did not live in Israel, and who did not risk their lives or the lives of their children should not tell Israelis what they ought to do. My opposition was vocal enough that when I moved to Israel in 1975, people were surprised that my political views fell to the left of the Israeli center.
As I have grown older, served in the IDF, lived back in the US for extended periods of time, and later watched my children serve, my views regarding criticism of Israel from the Jewish community abroad have become much more measured. The 40 plus years since I first moved here have — more-or-less — coincided with the protracted period of Likud control. I have opposed many of their policies and have been deeply frustrated by the inability of those whose policies I could better support to regain control of the government.
It has been particularly frustrating to sit by and watch as Prime Minister Netanyahu and others on the right continue to receive a significant percentage of their campaign funds from American Jews. However, it is utterly infuriating to see the newspaper funded by Sheldon Adelson become the largest daily tabloid in circulation; a newspaper whose entire reason for existence has been to support Netanyahu. This is a long way of saying that a variety of changing events over time, have caused me to realize that while deep in my heart I might still believe that those alone who live here, go to the army and have children in the army should make the decisions about our security and future, ideological purity is a disastrous approach when your rivals do not play by the same rules.
Events of the last week have also convinced me that many who want to bring about change fail to truly understand the average Israeli voter; those who really matter when the policy is being set. This seems to even to be true of many on the left here in Israel, but the lack of understanding is much acuter outside the country. As a result, instead of helping to bring about change, they have been hurting the chances of it ever happening.
As I and many others have written, this past week in Israel was very difficult and strange, with many highs and lows. There can be no question that the juxtaposition of the three consequential events that took place on Monday — i.e. the Jerusalem Embassy opening, the killing of 60 Gazans on the border, and Israelis celebrating Netta Barzilai’s Eurovision victory— was extremely jarring.
However, the reaction from certain parts of the Jewish community abroad was even more dissonant. I read posts online by people I usually respect, stating— “I am embarrassed being a Jew today.” One friend messaged — “There is nothing to celebrate”. In Peter Beinart’s recent and widely quoted, article in the Forward, he admitted he knew nothing about the tactical situation at the Gaza border, yet took this opportunity to criticize Israeli policies toward the Gaza strip over the last ten years. Most Israelis — including those whose general inclination is to support parties that are left-of-center — believe Hamas is responsible for what happened on the Gaza border (a view I share), and therefore have been astounded when groups who claim to love Israel have joined the chorus of international criticism against us.
I live in central Tel Aviv. I socialize with people who, by-and-large, share my center-left views. In my professional circles, made up of a cross-section of journalists and members of the high tech community, most people would define themselves as center-left. Yet, over the course of the past few days, all I consistently heard was people questioning — Why are they criticizing us? Don’t they realize we had no choice? It’s our children on the front lines facing Gaza, do they want them to be kidnapped or killed?
It is positively and profoundly sad when people, particularly young people, die needlessly. However, without getting into the tactical details, let me make something clear … when thousands of people are determined to reach you and possibly kill you, if you do not want to risk being captured or killed, there is currently no way to stop such a single-minded mob without using force.
Of course, to the average Israeli, the world’s obsession with the death of 62 young men, almost all of whom were Hamas fighters and who chose to charge a border fence, seems lopsided at best. Where was the world’s rage and rush to judgement when Russian planes intentionally bombed hospitals? Which countries have recalled their Ambassadors from Moscow, or demanded an international investigation?
Right-wing supporters of Israel have learned that the way to strengthen their point of view in Israel is to support politicians on the right, or to fund right-wing organizations in Israel. They act quietly and unapologetically to strengthen their positions here in Israel — where it really counts.
Unfortunately, those who are critical of the Israeli government and its policies, whether political groups (such a Jstreet or various intellectuals) have taken a much louder, more public course, under the mistaken belief that the way to get their views heard is to be openly critical at home, abroad. While I no longer question their right to express their opinions, an old adage advises — It is better to be smart, than to be right. By being openly critical of actions that the overwhelming majority of Israelis support, well-intentioned people who care deeply about Israel seriously undermine their ability to influence discussions on subjects where there is no clear national consensus — for example, like outpost settlements. If you live abroad and care about what happens here, be smart. Find ways of doing things that will positively impact the political dialogue here. Learn from the right and support candidates and organizations that share your values and beliefs. When you speak publicly, think about the impact your words might have on the political dialogue in Israel. Join the conversation here, because in the end, it is only Israeli voters who determine our fate.