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Criticizing Israel with anguish and love

An unprecedented letter from US Reps Ted Deutch and Brad Schneider opposing unilateral annexation is a model of healthy Jewish discourse
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with a bipartisan US Congressional delegation led by US Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). July 1, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with a bipartisan US Congressional delegation led by US Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). July 1, 2019 (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

This may well be an unprecedented moment in the history of the Israeli-Diaspora relationship. The possible annexation of parts of the territories has forced some of Israel’s most passionate supporters to speak up, some for the first time, against an Israeli government decision on a matter it defines as essential for Israeli security. With anguish and love, they are modeling a healthy Jewish discourse, teaching us how to be responsible critics. 

I am thinking in particular of Ted Deutch and Brad Schneider, two of Israel’s most devoted friends in Congress. I know both men from numerous AIPAC events over the years, including congressional missions to Israel which they helped lead. During the bitter debate over the Iran nuclear deal, the two Democratic congressmen broke ranks with the Obama administration to oppose it. They have led the fight in Congress against BDS. If anyone defines the centrist pro-Israel American Jewish mainstream, it’s Ted Deutch and Brad Schneider. 

Last week, they did something they’ve never done in their long career of working to strengthen the Israeli-American relationship: They circulated a letter among their fellow Democratic members of Congress, urging the Israeli government to refrain from unilateral annexation.  

Unlike a letter sent to the Israeli government by several Democratic senators, the letter by Deutch and Schneider made no threats, overt or implicit, to link aid with annexation. The very notion of linking American aid to Israeli policy negates their most basic instincts and commitments. 

Instead, they felt an almost desperate need to warn Israeli leaders and the Israeli public of the dangers to Israel of annexation. “As committed partners in supporting and protecting the special US-Israel relationship, we express our deep concern.” 

The message between the lines of the letter is that annexation would undermine those struggling to strengthen the Democratic Party’s traditional pro-Israel stance. 

I spoke to Deutch and Schneider a few days ago. “I believe that Israel faces three existential threats,” Schneider told me. “The first is Iran, the second is weakening the Israeli-American Jewish relationship and the third is weakening bipartisan support for Israel. Annexation threatens the second and third.”  

This is a teaching moment for one of the most vexing questions facing Diaspora Jews: how to be a loyal critic of Israeli policies one considers dangerous to Israel itself. 

I have long believed that Diaspora Jews not only have the right but the responsibility to criticize Israeli policies that seem to them either inimical to Jewish values or to Israel’s own best interests. This applies equally to Jews on the right and the left and the center, to Orthodox and Reform and secular Jews, to Jews objecting to the Oslo process or to the annexation of territories, to ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn protesting the drafting of yeshiva students into the IDF or to liberal Jews in Manhattan protesting official Israel’s denial of religious pluralism. 

Israel has the responsibility to pay attention to Diaspora concerns for at least two reasons. The first is ideological: If Israel is truly the project of the Jewish people, and not only of those of us privileged to be its citizens, then we are bound by Zionist principle to listen to our fellow Jews. In the end of course, Israeli policies are determined by those who live here and bear the consequences. But we can’t expect the help and solidarity of Diaspora Jews without being prepared to treat seriously their critique of our policies, however uncomfortable the criticism.  

In recent days I’ve had numerous conversations with American Jewish leaders and activists who have devoted their lives to defending Israel and who fear an historic self-inflicted defeat in the making. When an Israeli government decision causes such anguish among our most loyal friends, we are obliged, at the very least, to pay attention.  

The second reason why Israel needs to listen to the concerns of the Diaspora is pragmatic: Living under relentless siege and periodic war, Israelis don’t always clearly perceive the political and moral consequences of all our policies. Sometimes we need our closest friends, who see us with the perspective of distance, to hold up a mirror and help us see ourselves, help us be more faithful to our own interests and principles. 

The question, then, isn’t whether but how to criticize. If you must criticize Israel, do so with the intention of helping Israel grow. Criticize with pride in our achievements, not only with disapproval of our failures. And don’t delight in the role of rebuker. 

In criticizing Israel, remember the circumstances of our predicament: that we are the only country living under a permanent death sentence imposed on us by many of our neighbors; that we are the only country targeted by an international boycott movement seeking to turn us into humanity’s symbol of evil. 

Remember that none of our options are good, that “land for peace” has never been a serious offer because the Palestinian national movement, in all its factions, still doesn’t accept our legitimacy or indigenousness here. Remember that even Israelis like me who believe that we need a two-state solution for moral and political and demographic reasons, still doubt whether withdrawal will bring us real peace, and instead assume that the conflict in one form or another will continue.  

I welcome the input of Diaspora Jews who are keenly mindful of those circumstances, who are my partners in anguish, in struggling with impossible choices. 

Listening to some progressive Jewish critics, though, I sometimes feel as if their Israel exists on an island in the South Pacific, and not in the most dangerous region on the planet, surrounded by terrorist entities on almost every border. Jewish critics who ignore the context of our predicament are not heirs to the prophetic tradition: The prophets of Israel didn’t downplay the external threats against their own people, didn’t only chastise Israel but also its enemies.

Finally, don’t confine your relationship to Israel through criticism. My friend David Suissa, publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, has cautioned Israel’s Jewish critics who pride themselves on their “tough love” to show more of the love: “I feel the tough,” says David, “I don’t always feel the love.” 

That is precisely why I feel such gratitude to Ted Deutch and Brad Schneider. They are reminding us what it means to love Israel even as critics. Especially as critics. 

About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Maital Friedman, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.
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