Jonathan Howard

Stepping Up: Part 1

Don’t get upset about legitimate criticism of Israel.

It’s all too easy to accuse Israel’s critics of being anti-Semites. Guess what: some of them are. But let’s give the world the benefit of the doubt. A lot of people out there – hopefully, most of them – disagree with oppression in all its forms, and are not anti-Semitic. Got a problem with that?


When decent, rational people see injustices emanating from the self-professed Most Moral Army In The World, from the Light Unto The Nations, they find it hard to give our sweet, lovely country unconditional approval. And if you find that hard to deal with, I would suggest that you may have a blind spot, and our collective blind spots cast a big shadow over that Light we’re supposedly beaming out Unto those wicked Nations.

Accuse them of anti-Semitism all you want. Accuse them of bias, if it makes you feel better. You may even be right. Just don’t expect them to listen.

I know it’s not easy to see the Tricolore plastered all over Facebook whilst innocent Israelis are being murdered in this grotesque freelance intifada that’s been raging over the last weeks, and no Europeans seem to be wrapping themselves in Israel’s flag or posting memes saying Kulanu Tel Aviv, or Ani Kiryat Gat.

But just know that your complaints will automatically fall on unsympathetic ears. Even if their hearts want to sympathise, their ears will close like a Venus fly-trap as soon as you tell them their moral instincts are wrong.

I love it when non-Jewish, non-Israeli observers say nice things about us. That doesn’t stop me appreciating when decent, rational people show us what we’re doing wrong in a decent, rational way.

Thing is, those are the people with whom we desperately, urgently need to engage. We cannot afford to lose them, and we’re in danger of not only losing them, but of turning them into enemies. When we feel attacked we don’t want to listen, and we want to hit back. History seems to have taught us that if we don’t, we die.

But throwing accusations of bigotry, lunacy, and stupidity at Westerners is not hitting back, and it’s not defending ourselves (although I’ve done it myself): it’s just another form of bigotry, lunacy and stupidity, or at least that’s how it looks to them, and perception is reality.

I’m not talking about the people who automatically spit venom at everything Israeli. They’ve got their own problems, and believe me, I will be addressing them in good time. I’m talking about the decent people, who want to see us being as decent as we claim to be.

It’s not surprising that in the aftermath of pogroms, Dreyfus, the Holocaust and the Mufti’s implacable rejection of our existence, we were so scared, in such existential panic, we closed our hearts to all tragedies but our own. It was entirely understandable, and yet, at the same time, entirely unhelpful. We failed – miserably – to see, for example, the beauty of how the Arabs venerate hospitality as a sacred honour, and instead we went binary, got nasty, and triggered their defensive instincts.

Our defensiveness begat a total lack of consideration for the Arabs’ reality, and our lack of consideration helped beget their aggression. We could have been honoured guests in our own ancient homeland, eventually welcomed as equals. Instead, our insularity cast us as intruders. And no amount of public diplomacy or military prowess can ever reverse that.

I’ve read the history, from many conflicting sources, and listened to people who were around then. I will never believe that the conflict was inevitable, that there was absolutely nothing we could have done differently. But what we could have done differently back then is not the point of this post; the point is how we engage with the West, now and in the future.

When Westerners tell us that our country is wrong, then of course it’s tempting to lash out from a combination of historically-reinforced defensiveness, and – let’s admit it – tribal ego.

Nobody likes to be kicked when they’re down, and nobody likes to concede that someone who’s being unfair does have a bit of a point, somewhere in their unfairness. If we concede they have a point, we feel like we’re condoning all of the criticism, including the unjustified hatred, and feel like we’re flagellating ourselves.

Being human, we hate that shit. But if we want to be a Light Unto The Nations, then we need to be superhuman. (Nobody ever said being Jewish was meant to be easy.)

If someone says, “Israel is the most despicably evil country in the world, it should never have been established, and it’s guilty of genocide, apartheid and colonization. Arab villages were destroyed in 1948 and Israelis should go back to Europe because they have no right to be in Palestine”, then the last thing you want to say is, “Well, yes, it’s true that some Arab villages were destroyed in 1948.” Because it simply gives far too much satisfaction to the critic, and it feels like we’re letting a terribly unfair series of condemnations go unchallenged.

So we say, “Are you crazy?!?” and they walk away thinking we just denied that any villages were destroyed in 1948.

As soon as a reasonable, decent person says “You know, it’s really bad that so many Arab villages were destroyed in 1948”, then it sounds – incorrectly – like another obscene, vitriolic attack. More often than is healthy, we say, “Anti-Semite!!!” and the whole cycle of condemnation and counter-condemnation starts up again.

The lies and distortions against Israel are infuriating, and many well-meaning people believe them because they don’t know any better.

So our challenge is to not be infuriated, because in the battle of ideas, nobody will listen to us if we assert our position in a blaze of fury, charging in like tank commanders defending Israel’s survival in 1973. (Don’t get me wrong – the Kahalanis and Greengolds of this world are true heroes, and I am no Kahalani.)

So now it’s up to us as individuals to step up to the plate, and to say – on some levels we’ve been less than we aimed to be. And in that admission we may find our strength, and give positive reinforcement to those sweet, lovely non-Jews who wish us only good things.

Israeli security, Arab pride and European friendship need not be incompatible.

In the midst of heavily-incited Palestinian rage, and – yes – even in the midst of innocent Jews being murdered, it is not for the Palestinians to figure out how to love us, or for the West to figure out what the hell is going on. It is for us, the defenders of Israel, to figure out how to love the Westerners who, we think, just don’t get it.

In doing so, we can open up a space to be heard, conversation by conversation, one encounter at a time, rationally, decently and with a fair dose of sanity.

Now, wouldn’t that be nice?

About the Author
An adman, IDF soldier, start-up entrepreneur and investor, creativity coach and anthropologist. Proudly British by birth, proudly Israeli by choice. Reasonably sane.