If we can be pro-America and disagree with Donald Trump (or Barack Obama), why can’t we be pro-Israel and disagree with Benjamin Netanyahu? Why does supporting a strong U.S.-Israel relationship require us to mute our criticism of only one party to the relationship?
The usual answer is that we don’t live in Israel and we will not personally suffer the literally life or death consequences of Israel’s actions. Our kids aren’t at risk of being blown to smithereens at a restaurant or playground. Israelis, not us, will pay the immediate consequences, and we in America, judging from a distance of 7,000 miles, could be wrong. We have less at stake, and respect for the citizens of Israel means respect for their right to be “wrong” when it comes to their security.
But how do we know what Israelis consider right and wrong? Under Israel’s parliamentary democracy, any position of the ruling coalition does not necessarily reflect the views of a majority of the Knesset, let alone a majority of Israelis. For example, most Israelis do not support massive subsidies to the ultra-Orthodox, nor do they support the Orthodox monopoly on marriage licenses. But more often than not, Israel’s ruling coalition depends on support from one or more religious parties, which forces the positions of the democratically elected government of Israel to deviate from positions held by most Israelis and of most Knesset members.
It is likely that most members of the Knesset oppose annexation of the West Bank and support a two-state solution. Most Israelis support a two-state solution. Even by a traditional definition of what it means to be pro-Israel, is it then wrong to oppose the position of the Prime Minister of Israel if his policies on settlements are driven by his desire to remain in power by placating certain coalition partners rather than by what most Israelis want? Does our definition of pro-Israel require that we ignore these factors in formulating our own policy positions?
And what if we truly believe that the Prime Minister is wrong and that his policies adversely affect not just Israel, but the United States? Netanyahu advanced no arguments against the Iran Deal that only an Israeli could advance. A nuclear-armed Iran would have threatened not just Israel, but the United States. Should we have opposed the Iran Deal simply because the Prime Minister opposed it, even if we believed his arguments were flawed?
Many of us defer to pro-Israel organizations, assuming that they are somehow above it all. But if those organizations take their cues from the Prime Minister (when was the last time AIPAC took a position contrary to the Prime Minister?), don’t we face the same questions? And do these organizations speak for us or for their major donors?
Many of us think that we need to be Israel’s lawyers; if we don’t defend Israel and make Israel’s case, who will? But do we want to be like the Stalinists in World War II who worked against U.S. military intervention until the day Hitler invaded Russia, and then turned on a dime to support U.S. entry into the War?
Back in the 1970s, we had a very simple response when people claimed that Jews engaged in terrorism to create Israel: Israelis firmly rejected Menachem Begin and his Irgun thugs and never allowed him or them to gain power. We turned on a dime when Begin was elected Prime Minister, and since then, we’ve tried to explain away the Irgun’s pre-state activities.
We used to say that the U.S. should not talk to the PLO because we should never talk to terrorists. We stopped saying that the instant we found out that Yitzhak Rabin had been talking to the PLO. And now some of us are trying to explain away the demographic necessity of a two-state solution. Maybe we should try thinking for ourselves.
If we love Israel enough to love her with all of her flaws, we don’t have to resort to these mental gymnastics. Yet we know that if we do criticize Israel, we run the risk of validating action against Israel. Some of the same arguments genuine friends of Israel make against settlements are the same arguments genuine enemies of Israel make to delegitimize Israel.
So what should we do? If we disagree with the policies of the government of Israel, we must engage respectfully, carefully, and purposefully.
Our love for Israel must shine through whenever we criticize Israel. We must explain the government of Israel’s position when we disagree. We must eliminate the “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” analogy, which is incredibly disrespectful to Israel. When we disagree with the government of Israel, we cannot mock it or demean it.
We must vigorously defend Israel when it needs defending, and vigorously oppose action against Israel that is inappropriate or excessive, even if Israel is wrong, and even more so if we are criticizing Israel.
We can no longer look to what the Prime Minister says, adopt his position, and then look for ways to rationalize it. If anything, Netanyahu’s disgraceful support for Trump’s wall with Mexico, which could weaken bipartisan support for Israel, makes it even more important to distinguish between Israel’s current leaders and Israel itself and to help others make that distinction.
If we present the real Israel, it won’t be harmed by legitimate criticism — not only don’t we do ourselves or Israel any favors by shielding Israel from just criticism, but we lose our effectiveness by defending the indefensible.
This means rejecting silly arguments. How many times have we heard that Muslims turn their backs on Jerusalem to pray to Mecca without considering that Jews in Israel turn their backs on Hebron to pray to Jerusalem? Does that mean that Hebron is not holy to Jews?
How many times have we heard that people without a separate language, ethnicity religion, or culture do not deserve their own state without realizing that this also describes “Americans” in the years before 1776?
With no easy answers or scripts to follow, civil discourse becomes even more important because reasonable people within the pro-Israel community will take different positions.
Most of all, we need to think for ourselves. AIPAC, J Street, and so many other organizations do good work, but none are perfect. We can let some of these organizations be our guides, but the only way to be true to ourselves and to Israel is to get the facts, read varying viewpoints, and then follow our conscience.