Criticizing Israeli policy: a right, not a privilege

Yikes! was the first response I was able to muster to Mark Miller’s thinly-veiled excoriation of the more than 500 American rabbis, cantors, and rabbinical students who recently signed an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging the reversal of the planned settlement construction in the E1 corridor. Miller’s argument that non-Israelis simply “have no right to speak” on matters relating to Israeli policy because “they will not incur any consequences” of such policies is hardly original, but its alarming implications nevertheless compel me to challenge the faulty premises upon which it is based.

Miller’s first premise, that the right to speak is a “privilege” which must be earned, runs counter to the principles of liberal democracy and harkens back to the voter literacy tests instituted in the US south during the last century. It also runs counter to international human rights law, which stipulates that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds” (with a few narrow exceptions). It shocks me that anyone in today’s world (excepting perhaps the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Hu Jintao) would challenge the fundamental nature of the right to express one’s opinion.

True, a generous reading of Miller’s position might find that he is not arguing that American Jews should have no legal right to criticize Israel, but rather that they have no moral right to do so. Miller (citing the divine covenant) maintains that “there can be no exercise of privilege without responsibility” and that diaspora Jews, having chosen not to live in Israel, have shirked responsibility for its well-being  Yet this interpretation too is unsatisfactory. Miller – or indeed anybody – does not challenge Americans’ moral right to criticize the governments of Turkey, Russia, Syria, or Australia, despite not having “assumed responsibility” for those countries’ fates by living there. Miller’s selective application of moral principles uniquely to shield the government of his choice from dissenting opinions is therefore disingenuous.

Miller’s second premise, that diaspora Jews do not “incur consequences” for harmful policies carried out by Israel is similarly fallacious. For good or for bad, the security of Jewish communities around the world is tied to Israel’s actions; for example, a Tel Aviv University report on anti-Semitism noted that “Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 triggered a wave of antisemitic manifestations that swept the world.” Jews around the world therefore have a very direct interest in Israel’s policies vis-à-vis peace with its neighbours.

This in itself is sufficient to rebut Miller’s claim that the Jewish diaspora does not hold a stake in the Jewish state and its actions. Yet it should also be noted that this claim is deeply at odds with the Zionist rhetoric emanating from the Israeli government, which has long urged solidarity between Jews around the world and the state of Israel. If Israel expects financial and political support from the likes of the rabbis whose criticism Miller abhors, it had better be prepared to hear any misgivings they may have about how their support is appropriated. Netanyahu cannot stand before the General Assembly of the United Nations and proclaim himself the representative of the entire Jewish people without implicitly accepting that the people he claims to represent have the moral right to voice opinions on his policies.

Beyond the mere right, Jews living outside of Israel may indeed have a moral duty to voice objections to Israeli policies with which they disagree. Aside from a general responsibility to raise one’s voice against perceived injustice, diaspora Jews who have a stake in Israel are in some respects uniquely placed to constructively critique its policies. As Raphael Magarik reflected during a recent involuntary visit to a Tel Aviv bomb shelter, one is often better able to see the big-picture implications of Israeli policy decisions from a distance.

Alan Dershowitz, one of the best-known and most ardent foreign defenders of Israel, believes that as an American he is not sufficiently informed to criticize Israeli policy on matters pertaining to its national security. Yet, this does not stop him from publicly voicing his opposition to Israel’s settlement policy. To Miller, however, national security and settlement expansion are apparently equally immune from challenge, as they are one and the same. Toward the end of his piece Miller finally lets slip that his concern lies less with the geographic origin of the rabbis’ criticism than with its substance, when he reveals his belief that any call for Israel to relinquish its hold on the West Bank – whether from abroad or otherwise – is “a euphemism for Israel’s piecemeal destruction.”

It is difficult for me to see how reversing a decision to construct new settlements could result in Israel’s destruction, though the latter is certainly a legitimate position for Miller to hold. What is not legitimate is Miller’s contention that his political opponents have less of a right to express an opinion than he does. Quoting the book of Psalms, Miller obliquely refers to the signatories of the rabbis’ letter as “knowing nothing, understanding nothing… walking about in darkness.” At a time when Israel’s democratic principles are being increasingly threatened with restrictions on the freedom to express dissent, it is voices like Miller’s that risk ushering the country toward a new period of darkness.

About the Author
Daniel Haboucha is a lawyer based in Montreal, Canada.