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A response to David Bernstein's 'Against Jewish moral aestheticism on Israel'

The alarming issues of inequality and injustice in Israel have long preoccupied many Americans deeply invested in Israel’s future. But nearly as disturbing are attempts by some in the American Jewish community to explain away the disconcerting evidence that Israel does not always live to up the best of Jewish and democratic values.

The relationship between American Jews and Israel is complex. And we in the US owe it to ourselves and to Israel to support Israelis working for a secure and just society. But we can’t fulfill this role if we don’t face the facts. And it’s time we reject the counter-productive intellectual gymnastics sometimes used to discount the facts we need to face.

One starting point could be the pilpul that David Bernstein threw down on this site in which he ascribed concern about Israel to misguided “aestheticism.”

His is a creative argument, to say the least. It can’t possibly be that the occupation is wrong – legally, morally and even from a stance of realpolitik. No, acknowledging that the occupation is a corrupting force on Israeli society, Bernstein argues, is really just “substituting ill-formed impressions for critical judgment,” and is thus reason enough to dismiss the writings of, among others, New Yorker editor David Remnick.

We at the New Israel Fund found the article that Mr. Bernstein cites in his piece to be incisive and serious. More importantly, charging that Remnick’s argument is wrong because it doesn’t sufficiently blame the Palestinians for the continued Israeli occupation is not simply a logical fallacy; it misses the point.

Remnick, like many American Jews, is justifiably concerned about the ongoing effects of the occupation and a growing brand of extreme ethno-nationalism on Israeli democracy. The long list of pending (and passed) anti-democratic legislation, all of which would contravene the Bill of Rights if introduced in the US; the polls citing rising intolerance for freedom of speech among Jewish Israelis; the “price tag” incidents and other indicators that some in the settler community consider themselves beyond the rule of law – these are the substantive concerns of Remnick’s article.

Moreover, despite Mr. Bernstein’s allegations, there is no evidence that personality politics are to blame for Israel’s increasing international isolation. Liberals don’t much like Bibi, true. They also didn’t much like Olmert, or, despite his fascinating late-career decisions, Ariel Sharon.  It’s human nature to find reasons to dislike people with whom one has substantive disagreements, but whether President Bush once disliked Yitzhak Shamir is a red herring.

David Bernstein (photo credit: courtesy)
David Bernstein (photo credit: courtesy)

Israel’s substantive critics in the US are not interested in the prime minister’s likability or personal life, or the personality issues that preoccupy some segments of the Israeli press. Rather, they are agonized about the continued occupation, alarmed by the anti-democratic trends, and perturbed by the increasing influence of Israeli extremists, both ultra-nationalist and -religious. Some of us are contributing our careers, our voices and/or substantial resources to support Israelis trying to combat these trends. We act because we care about Israel. And we care too much to let self-serving spin distract us from the problems that must be addressed.

Beyond Mr. Bernstein’s own arguments, it appears that some tactics used to defend Israeli government policy these days originate in the PR 101 playbook. Too many defenders of Israel think that the best way to avoid discussion of the real challenges facing Israel, for example, is to change the subject or engage in defense-by-invidious-comparison.

This is a clever tactic, but intellectually empty and, ultimately, not good for Israel. It is hard to see, for example, how the growing tide of religious extremism and the exclusion of women in the public sphere could be blamed on the Palestinians, or why it is somehow exculpatory to point out that women in Saudi Arabia and Iran have it much worse. The young mother recently attacked by stone-throwers in Beit Shemesh for dressing “immodestly” is probably not consoled by thinking it could have been even more terrifying in Tehran. And insisting that African refugees have it better in Israel than in Egypt, or in their war-torn homelands, despite the incendiary and irresponsible incitement by Israeli politicians against their presence and indeed their safety, isn’t much help either.

With many years’ experience as a communications strategist, I understand why Mr. Bernstein and others running organizations designed for pro-Israel hasbara have a tough mission these days.  As more analysts, inside Israel and out, dissect the growing distance between Israeli government policy and core democratic values, attacking the critics is easier than dealing with the criticism. Killing the messenger is a time-tested strategy. If MJ Rosenberg and others raise serious questions about Operation Cast Lead, for example, firing off ad hominem charges is easier than explaining that the IDF itself acknowledged problems and subsequently reformed its operational procedures to better protect civilian lives and property. If “price-tag” operations involve mosque-burnings and attacks on IDF bases, it’s easier to dismiss them as a fringe phenomenon than to address it as an expression of widespread flouting of the rule of law, such as it is, in the occupied territories. And if human rights groups, and we their largest private funder, reveal human rights abuses in Israel and the territories through monitoring and reporting, calling our Zionism and our patriotism into question is a shortcut to terminating the conversation.

The arguments over Israel’s future are deadly serious. Belittling them with comparisons to foodie wars will not make them go away. Questioning the accuracy of every photograph that shows Israeli soldiers involved in unpleasant behavior attested to by many witnesses, as if the only problem with an occupying army is the availability of Photoshop, is dishonest. Rather than accuse the Remnicks and the Rosenbergs of snobbish aestheticism, rather than dismissing their arguments and their analysis, how much better for Israel would it be to take them as seriously as these serious topics deserve?

About the Author
Naomi Paiss is the VP of Public Affairs for the New Israel Fund