‘Daylight’: Our Allies Are Not Immune to Criticism

In my previous article on the subject of Ethical Zionism, we reviewed a case that falls on one extreme end of the spectrum in respect of our moral obligation to intervene in defense of human rights abroad. Regarding the plight of Christian Palestinians living in Gaza, I argued that the State of Israel should be seen as overwhelmingly compelled to intervene in their defense as a result of the relatively negligible effort and cost this would incur to its own citizens and interests, and its unique position and capacity to render assistance.

Today I want to briefly examine a case that is far more complex, so much that it could even be considered to fall on the opposite end of the spectrum: How should Israel respond to human rights abuses committed by its powerful and sovereign allies?

While only one such instance is strictly necessary for posing the theoretical argument, I ultimately hope to examine several different cases in which this poses a dilemma for Israel, each with their own characteristics and caveats, in the hopes of raising awareness and spurring action on each of these matters in their own right. But given the events of the past several weeks, it seems most appropriate to begin with the United States of America.

Full disclosure: I hold dual citizenship in the US and in Israel. That being said, I am about to propose that one of these countries should act (at least nominally) against the interests of the other. I do not consider this to be any sort of betrayal of my loyalty to each of these countries, in respect of each of which I consider myself to be a proud patriot and nationalist. Rather, I see such action as upholding the mutual interests of both countries: It is the interest of the State of Israel to meet its moral obligations as incumbent upon it under the foundational principles of its Zionist ideology, even when doing so might incur setbacks to its nominal interests. And it is the interest of American citizens and residents to be protected from the excesses and violations of their representative bodies, even if such protection takes the form of foreign intervention – provided this does not go so far as to threaten American sovereignty, under the circumstances. And America has excesses and violations to answer for.

The last few years – indeed, the last few weeks – have made it increasingly clear that the United States of America is not the shining beacon of freedom and tolerance that we were raised in school to believe. Living abroad only serves to highlight the unfathomable gulf between America’s self-perception – particularly among the more conservative political camp – and how its laws, policies and society actually compare to their equivalents in other free countries. To say the results are not flattering does not do justice; damning is the word that comes to mind, and seemingly increasingly and relentlessly damning by the day.

America has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world.[1] This mass-incarceration overwhelmingly targets minority populations for petty crimes,[2] and the civil disenfranchisement of vast swaths of the criminal and ex-con populations – particularly in certain critical swing states[3] – has massive consequences on the electoral system and minority representation in governance. Americans spend their election evenings teetering over neck-to-neck races in decisive battleground states in which over a million minority citizens were banned from voting. Consider what this means for the integrity of American democracy.

Last year we watched the US government tear thousands of small children away from their families and hold them in cages and camps, without any real legal justification, without ensuring the availability of proper childcare, and without even documenting their fates.[4] This year the government is building internment camps all along the border owing to the overcrowding, poor sanitation and disease conditions prevalent in their holding facilities.[5] A steady stream of unexplained deaths of refugees in the custody of US agents have passed without recourse or reckoning as the crisis has deepened.[6]

In the richest country per capita in the world, we have spent the last year hearing seemingly ubiquitous horror stories of citizens and residents crippled or killed by the unavailability of basic medical care to the country’s poor and working classes.[7] We have watched hundreds of school children and other civilians gunned down in incident after incident, in schools, churches, mosques and synagogues, all in the face of an unflinchingly ambivalent government and as a result of radical weapon deregulation that has left society at the mercy of criminals and terrorists. We have watched state after state pass increasingly extreme and invasive legislation targeting and punishing women in direct violation of their constitutional rights.[8] We have seen defenseless black and brown people shot dead by law enforcement agents, often without explanation, week after week and day after day.[9] And we have seen the gatekeepers intended to protect women and minority from such infringements to their rights staffed by unapologetic racists and misogynists, who will spare no ink in upholding and perpetuating this ongoing persecution.[10]

Israel has faced no shortage of criticism for its own mistakes and abuses from the international community, from rivals and allies alike. We dedicate much of our time to considering if such criticism is justified. But we dedicate very little time to voicing our own concerns about the conduct of other countries, and our concerns for the welfare of their citizens, particularly in respect of our allies. Our fear of allowing “daylight” to show in our alliances with our closest allies is a valid consideration, but it cannot blind us to our moral obligations as Zionists to speak out on behalf of the voiceless and persecuted. And the time may well have come to examine whether our silence has entailed our own complicity in America’s gross and ongoing human rights violations.

The intervention contemplated here is not comparable to that which we discussed in terms of Palestinian Christians. It is evident that Israel cannot and should not challenge the sovereignty of a global superpower and close ally; even speaking up against American domestic policies could have consequences for the State of Israel, which depends overwhelmingly on the economic assistance and diplomatic clout provided by its most faithful ally. But neither do these factors entirely excuse our silence.

The abject sycophancy displayed by our Prime Minister toward the American president responsible for presiding over many of these policies, all in the name of furthering Israeli diplomatic interests, can be seen as the opposite approach to that which I propose, and one that furthers and exacerbates our government’s complicity in these crimes by creating the appearance of our general approval of his leadership performance and policies. Nonetheless, my object is not that Israel should have any particular stance in respect of the US government or leadership, which would be considered a challenge to American sovereignty; rather, I am proposing that our government must be ready to condemn and criticize specific abuses by the US government as these arise, and that there is a certain degree of cold-shouldering and even censure that we must be willing to incur to do so.

I believe that for America’s closest ally to openly voice such concerns about the specific policies of this administration could have a monumental – even watershed – effect on domestic and political support for these policies. Last year, comedian Sasha Cohen called attention to the almost-comical way conservative America has fetishized Israel as the “good guy with a gun.” What impact might it have on American politics if the State of Israel – with its strict gun-control laws – were to voice concern about America’s inactivity in the face of gun violence? How effectively could Israel – the land of the Bible, with Judaism as its official State religion – undercut arguments for persecuting women in the name of “Judea-Christian values,” with its (comparably) fair and democratic contraception and abortion regulations?[11] How empty would the threats of Socialism and Communism issued by conservative politicians seem, when America’s refusal to provide basic medical care to its citizens is called out by the country they trumpet as the “one true democracy in the Middle-East” – with its universal and affordable healthcare and education?

Israel occupies a place of privilege in the hearts of American conservatives, perhaps mainly for religious reasons, but also because it is perceived as the outpost against tyranny in a dangerous region that America perceives itself to be on the world stage. There can be little doubt that any protest it might issue against American human rights violations would have a unique and weighty impact on the internal conservative discussion of these policies. I would argue that Israel’s unique ability to impact this debate – and, consequentially, to contribute to improving the status of human rights in America – entails a moral obligation incumbent on the Jewish State to intervene by speaking up against these excesses. America must know that its behavior is noticed and questioned by even its closest allies, and by making its voice heard, Israel could both directly assist the victims of American excesses, and forever lay to rest the question of its own complicity in abiding its ally’s egregious abuses in silence.

And what of the cost? Especially in the context of a tempestuous and volatile president, it seems certain that Israeli censure would incur some backlash from the US administration. Most likely, this would come in the form of withholding vetoes against anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, and perhaps even as far as impacting foreign aid provided to Israel. I would argue that, first of all, these costs should not deter us. The Israeli relationship with the US has always had its fluctuations, and the impact on the public discussion in America would far outlast the diplomatic gulf between the countries, not least as their interests continue to align. Similarly, we have sustained condemnation after condemnation at the UN, and the marginal public relations consequences of yet another can hardly justify our failure to intercede in defense of the human rights of victims threatened by American domestic policies. Second of all, these costs should be weighed against the potential benefits that Israeli action could reap in its relationship with the US. The current Congress has seen an unprecedented partisan split on support for Israel, spurred partially (though I speculate) by our Prime Minister’s perceived close relationship with Trump. The voicing of our government’s concerns on these issues could go a long way towards bridging the gap with American liberals and allaying the growing partisanship of the Israel discussion in Congress.

Ultimately, the closeness of our relationship with the US should be a factor encouraging our intervention, rather than deterring it. The US-Israel alliance is strong enough and sufficiently founded on mutual interests to withstand our condemnation of these abusive policies, and so in practice, Israel would not risk significant consequences to come to the aid of America’s beleaguered citizens. As allies and friends, it behoove us to show our support and concern for America’s citizens, and to remember that ultimately, it is they, the growing poor, working class and minority populations comprising the next generation’s electorate – and not the outgoing white conservative movement- who will determine America’s stance on Israel in the years to come. It is therefore pragmatic, in addition to being our moral duty as Zionists, to speak out against the human rights abuses that the US government commits against its citizens, residents and refugees.

This equation, of course, is significantly complicated in respect of Israel’s relationships with other countries, including its relationships with other allies, that are both more brittle and more strategic in nature. I hope to address some of these more delicate relationships, and how Israel can approach them in the most responsible and ethical manner possible, in future posts.

[1] World Prison Brief.

[2] ACLU.

[3] Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States, The Sentencing Project, as of April 28, 2014.

[4] “UN says Trump separation of migrant children from parents ‘may amount to torture, Clark Mindock, The Independent, June 22, 2018; “Officials blast Trump policy after visiting detained immigrants,” Wang, Amy, Chicago Tribune. Retrieved June 16, 2018;  Government never had specific plan to reunify families, court testimony shows, Tal Kopan, CNN, June 29, 2018.

[5] “US military to build 6 tent cities near border for migrants,” Courtney Kube, Nbcnews.com, May 16, 2019; “‘They were laughing at us’: Immigrants tell of cruelty, illness and filth in US detention,” Andrew Gumbel, The Guardian, September 28, 2018.

[6] “Guatemalan toddler dies in US custody, report says,” Theresa Waldrop and Dave Alsup, CNN, May 16, 2019.

[7] “‘People are dying’: Diabetics rationing insulin amid rising drug prices,” Anna Werner, CBS News, April 10, 2019; “Why healthcare rationing is a growing reality for Americans,” Robert Pearl, M.D., Forbes, February 2, 2017.

[8] “Ohio Abortion bill and others generate nationwide controversy;” Anna North, Vox, May 10, 2019; “Women could get up to 30 years in prison for having a miscarriage under Georgia’s harsh new abortion law,” Grace Panetta, Business Insider, May 10, 2019; “How the US dealt a cruel blow to rape victims,” Jill Filipovic, CNN, April 25, 2019.

[9] Police Shootings Database, Washington Post – as of May 16, 2019.

[10] “That time the Senate denied Jeff Sessions a federal judgeship over accusations of racism,” Amber Phillips, Washington Post, January 10, 2017; “The ugly face of American misogyny: Fear, anger, envy and disgust at the Kavanaugh hearing,” Martha C. Nussbaum, ABC News Australia, October 2, 2018; “Roe vs Wade: Abortion could be made illegal with Brett Kavanaugh on Supreme Court, says Michigan Attorney General,” Maya Oppenheim, The Independent, April 17, 2019.

[11] Kol Zchut – Termination of Pregnancy (Right), as of May 16, 2019.

About the Author
My name is Kovi Skier. I was raised in a small Ultra-Orthodox community in Milwaukee, and made Aliya at the age of 18. I volunteered in the IDF and continue to serve in the reserves. Today I work and research in the field of law, while enthusiastically pursuing my hobbies of historical and political research and discourse. I am a husband and father of two. I see it as my civic duty to strengthen and contribute to my society in any way that I can.