Criticism and Support: A Liberal Reconciling

What does it mean to support Israel?

As a liberal, Jewish millennial, I’m frequently asked the question “do you support Israel?” My answer, without hesitation, is “of course I do. I support Israel’s right to exist and Israel’s right to enjoy a peaceful co-existence with her neighbors.” For some people, this is a complete and satisfactory answer to the question. Not so for me. So I continue, “However, I don’t think supporting Israel and agreeing with all of the policies of the Israeli government are the same thing.” More often than not, this is the point where the nods of agreement transform into a look of skepticism.

“In fact, I believe that supporting Israel and enabling Israel are two very different things. And I think that too many well-intentioned American Jews do too much of the latter and not nearly enough of the former.” Having given this refrain so many times to so many different people, I’ve grown accustomed to what follows it: a look of bemusement followed by a series of questions probing for more information about what I mean and how I envision supporting Israel. So that’s what I’ve set out to do here: to elucidate – for myself, just as much as for anyone else – what it means to truly support Israel.

It’s easy to speak of what it means to support Israel by first iterating what supporting Israel doesn’t entail. Supporting Israel does not require us to blindly support the actions of the Israeli government. It does not require us to support the continued growth of settlements in the West Bank – settlements which have grown at twice the rate of Israel’s overall population in the years since Prime Minister Netanyahu took office. Supporting Israel does not require us to support Israel’s use of live fire against Palestinian protesters in incidents that Amnesty International described as “extrajudicial killings” and Human Rights Watch condemned as “indiscriminate and deliberate” as Israel police officers used live fire against peaceful demonstrators when “there was no apparent threat to Israeli soldiers or anybody else.” Supporting Israel does not require us to support military engagements which killed more than 2,300 Palestinians – the vast majority of them civilians – in 2014 alone.

In fact, I would argue that supporting Israel requires us to criticize and condemn many of these actions and disavow the outrageous, immoral, and destructive policies advocated for by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Likud party, and the Jewish Home party. To truly support Israel, it’s necessary to be critical of these and other policies both because they’re morally indefensible and because they ultimately weaken Israel and dramatically undercut the prospects for peace and security within the state of Israel.

Hardly a day goes by without American Jews strongly and unequivocally condemning the deplorable acts carried out by terrorists, whether it’s Hamas launching missiles from Gaza or ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ carrying out stabbing attacks in Ra’anana or Jerusalem. These condemnations are certainly justified, yet at a certain point they become tired and hollow.

The harsh truth is that no amount of condemnation will change the reality on the ground. To support Israel, we need to not only condemn these acts of political violence, but interrogate why they occur in the first place in order to better understand how Israel can prevent them. Barrier walls, security fences, and missile defense systems are all inherently reactive approaches to violence, and last October’s wave of stabbings, shootings, and car rammings provided us with a sobering reminder of their limitations.

Questioning the nature and causes of this violence reveal the inextricable link between the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and terrorist attacks against Israel. The relationship between the two isn’t a new discovery, nor is it a particularly controversial link. In July 1967, only a month after Israel’s surprising victory in the Six Day War, former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion emerged from retirement to give a speech at Beit Berl in which he warned of the consequences if Israel did not return the land it occupied after the Six Day War. He warned that holding on to the occupied land – save for East Jerusalem – would distort and potentially destroy the Jewish State. Nearly half a century later, after three conflicts in Gaza, two intifadas, and a recent wave of attacks carried out by Palestinians, his message seems sadly prophetic.

Ben-Gurion was neither the first nor the last prominent Israeli politician to recognize that Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and other Palestinian territories was imperiling her safety and eroding her promise of democracy and equality. Shortly after the Six Day War, when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol presented and attempted to negotiate the Allon Plan which would have returned a substantial portion of the West Bank to the Jordanians or possibly even an autonomous Palestine, he realized the dangers of holding on to this occupied land. In 1993, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres secretly met with Yasser Arafat in Oslo to negotiate a path towards a self-governing Palestine, they recognized that doing so was vital to Israel’s future prosperity. It was Rabin’s fight for peace and an end to the occupation that ultimately cost him his life at the hands of a religious extremist.

Even today, prominent politicians and security officials, from both the political left and right, have publicly warned of the dangers of Israel’s enduring occupation. In a recent interview, Yuval Diskin, the former chief of the Shin Bet, told the Jerusalem Post that Israel is approaching the point of no return concerning the occupation and crossing that point will have far-reaching implications for Israel’s security, democracy, and national identity. Embattled former Prime Minister Olmert, who was once a hawkish leader of Likud, spent the last few months of his term in office attempting to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal from the West Bank. His ultimately rejected offer was driven specifically by his belief that Israel’s control of the Palestinian territories had resulted in the country hurtling towards disaster.

It is these warnings, which echo throughout history, that lead me to believe that the best, most meaningful way to support Israel isn’t to offer my blanket support for every action taken by the current administration. Rather it’s to support Israel’s attempts at peace, pluralism, and equality under the law while vocally criticizing the policies that are at odds with these goals. If I have to choose between supporting the actions which only further entrench Israel within the West Bank or supporting Israel and her security, I will always choose the latter. If I have to choose between supporting the pre-election statements in which Netanyahu rejected a two-state solution, or supporting Israel and her democracy, I will always choose the latter. If I have to choose between supporting the occupation or supporting Israel and her future, I will always choose the latter.

Even as more and more leaders and security officials express their concerns about the effects of the occupation on Israeli society and security, it’s worth acknowledging that Israel’s fears about withdrawing from and ceding control of the West Bank and other occupied territories are not without merit. Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 – a move Prime Minister Sharon orchestrated at least in part to help Israel hold on to many of the West Bank settlements which he had championed – and the subsequent rise of Hamas within the territory has caused many Israelis to grow wary of calls for further withdrawals.

For the millions of Israelis who live within range of the Qassam and Grad missiles that are launched from Gaza, the prospect of repeating the mistakes of the 2005 disengagement are downright terrifying. Yet if we allow violence and extremism to paralyze the peace process, then we have already lost.

The breakdown of the Oslo process, the failures of the Taba talks, the impotence of the Middle East Quartet and its roadmap, and the stalemate that occurred at Annapolis are reminders that the path towards achieving a peaceful state of co-existence between Israel and Palestine is a long and winding one. I would be lying if I claim that I knew all the answers and that know how to resolve the issue of right of return, Israel’s security, permanent borders, settlements, and land swaps. Supporting Israel does not require me to have these answers. Rather, it requires me to oppose those actions – on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians – which take us further away from resolving these issues and achieving the just and permanent peace that so many Israelis and Palestinians yearn for.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that many of my strong feelings towards Israel result from Israel’s conception as a Jewish state. Like so many other Jews, I was raised to believe that Israel was more than a set of borders on a map. I was taught that Israel is a homeland for a people who had been persecuted throughout history and, most importantly, Israel was a source of pride for Jews the world over. Even as a majority of Jews support the idea of a Jewish state, there has been a considerable amount of debate among Jews (in Israel and in the rest of the world) over what it means for Israel to be a ‘Jewish state’. With increasing frequency, religious Zionists and religious pluralists find themselves at odds over how Israel can or should retain its Jewish character.

I don’t assume to have the right (or the only) definition of what a Jewish state is nor do I purport to be able to unravel the many political implications of various different conceptions of a ‘Jewish state’. What I am certain of, however, is that a Jewish state is a state which upholds the most important tenets of Judaism – justice, love and respect for one another, and a commitment to repairing a broken world; tikkun olam as it’s known in Jewish tradition.

This understanding of a Jewish state as a state which is committed to defending human rights is largely in line with the vision Theodor Herzl had when he wrote that those who risked their lives for Zionism did so in order not to create a new social system, but to organize “a more righteous one.” It was Chozeh HaMedinah, (the visionary of the state) himself who conceived of Israel as a state dedicated to the cause of justice.

Just as Zionism, as it was envisioned by Herzl and Ben-Gurion, can be linked to human rights, so too can Judaism. The relationship between Jewish values and human rights is a deep and rich one. Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, one of the prominent American Modern Orthodox Rabbis who helped bring attention to the plight of the refuseniks in the Soviet Union emphasizes not only the Torah’s instruction for equality under the law, but also the Talmud’s teachings on human rights. He explains that the Talmud “is a veritable mine of materials pertaining to human rights” that recognizes many of the rights generally traced back through the liberal philosophical tradition. It’s these Jewish teachings about human rights and justice which necessitate and inform my criticism of various practices of the Israeli government and Israeli security forces.

Only two months ago, Dan Shapiro, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, criticized the way Israel administers its laws in the West Bank stating that “there seem to be two standards of adherence to the rule of law: one for Israelis and another for Palestinians.” How can I possibly reconcile this admission with the commandment found in the Torah that “there shall be one standard [of law] for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native.” (Leviticus 24:22).

The Jewish state promised in the covenant and the Jewish state that Herzl dreamed of was a righteous one guided by the principles of justice. To watch the current government further depart from these principles is an affront to all that I know about Jewish values. To remain silent is to lend my complicity.

I still don’t presume to have the only right answer about what it means to support Israel, but I’m ready to venture my best guess: To truly love and support Israel necessitates critical discussion and action to bring about change and to work towards a peaceful co-existence between Israel and Palestine. Nothing short of that will suffice.

I am a Jew. I am a Zionist. And I love Israel. That’s why I won’t stay silent.

About the Author
Gregory Bernstein is a third year student at Vanderbilt University who is double majoring in Political Science and African American and Diaspora Studies. Gregory is currently studying Middle East politics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.