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When criticizing Israel, context is critical

Beinart's misguided boycott is a symptom of Liberal-Zionist criticism which ignores vital context and responsible constraints

Just under a year ago, the Jewish philanthropist Edgar M. Bronfman published an article in Haaretz arguing that criticizing Israel is an integral part of supporting Israel. After digesting Bronfman’s argument, and seeking any excuse to procrastinate with regard to my Passover preparations, I was moved to write an essay (which I did not publish) articulating the pitfalls of criticism without context.

In the wake of Peter Beinart’s call for a boycott of Israeli settlements, I cannot help but wonder if the left-wing Zionist establishment has not overreached in its critique of Israeli policies. Moreover, I find myself speculating that Beinart’s boycott is the latest symptom of criticism without context or constraint. Thus, I publish my original essay , which accepts, arguendo, many of the basic premises of the liberal-Zionist critique while focusing on the dangers inherent in the discourse.


Writing in Haaretz, Jewish activist and mega-philanthropist Edgar M. Bronfman articulates a reasoned and impassioned plea for criticism of Israeli policies. Invoking Israeli author, and prominent left-wing Zionist, David Grossman, he argues that Jews who support Israel must be unafraid to openly question the deeds and misdeeds of the Jewish State.  Drawing upon the Talmudic tradition of dialectic reasoning and the Passover tradition of stylized inquiry, Bronfman asserts that Jews “show that we care and are connected to each other by rigorous inquiry, not blind advocacy.”

Bronfman would do well to remember that while rigorous inquiry is vital to the political discourse, inquiry, like advocacy, cannot be blind. In the current political and diplomatic climate, openly criticizing Israel without putting Israeli behavior into context risks causing irreparable harm to the Jewish state.  All too often, critics of Israel turn a blind eye to the aid and comfort they afford to those who seek not to improve Israel, but to ostracize, delegitimize, and undermine the Jewish state. This reality has become all too apparent as Israeli leaders are threatened with arrest in Europe and Israel is once again singled out for condemnation in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Yes, a committed Zionist can, and should, question Israeli “policies on settlements and Palestinian occupation.” However, when that criticism is expressed without vital historical context, it serves no constructive purpose. Rather, it strengthens those who seek to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel out of existence. Yes, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are problematic. However, 80% of the Settlers live in 5% of the West Bank. In any reasonable peace accord with the Palestinians, Israel would be able to annex the majority of settlers while evacuating most of the settlements and compensating the Palestinians with territory inside Israel-proper.

While the Palestinian public perceives settlement expansion as incompatible with good-faith efforts to achieve a two-state solution, that perception ignores important historical realities. There is ample evidence that Israel is both willing and able to uproot its citizens from their homes for the sake of peace. One need look no further than the return of the Sinai settlements to Egypt after the 1978 Camp-David Accords, or the evacuation of every last Israeli from the Gaza Strip in 2005. (Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an Israeli policy more deserving of criticism than the inexcusable manner in which the evacuees from Gaza have been treated by their own government.) Any reasoned critique of Israeli settlement policy must include this vital context, lest it advance the pernicious canard that Israel constitutes an expansionist colonial power with hostile intentions toward its neighbors.

Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is another issue which Bronfman legitimately criticizes. However, it is inaccurate to refer to Israel’s policy in the context of a “Palestinian occupation.” The entirety of the Gaza Strip has been devoid of any Israeli presence for six years. Moreover, 99% of Palestinians in the West Bank are governed by the Palestinian Authority. While Israeli military deployment in much of the West Bank might constitute a sui generis state of quasi-occupation, it is critical to remember that Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas had the opportunities to end that “occupation” in 2000 and 2008, respectively.

Mr. Bronfman is correct in asserting that supporters of Israel can, and should, question the wisdom and morality of Israeli behavior. However, asking legitimate questions should not entail arguing the case for the prosecution, particularly when Israel stands accused of the most heinous and trumped-up charges in the court of global opinion. The intellectual requirements of rigorous inquiry, no less than the moral imperatives of friendship, require more than well-meaning criticism. People of goodwill have a responsibility to combine their criticism of Israel with acknowledgements of the historical context and complex realities which Israel grapples with on a daily basis. Our support of Israel need not be blind, but neither should our criticism. (April 2011)

About the Author
Ari Moshkovski is a Doctoral Candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He holds an M.A. from Brandeis University, as well as a B.A. and M.A. from Queens College of the City University of New York. At Queens College, he engaged in extensive research and curriculum development on Israel and the Middle East as part of a project funded by the Clinton Global Initiative and the Ford Foundation. Ari was also a co-founder of the Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding under a grant from the United States Department of Education. Has researched, taught, and lectured on Zionism, Jewish thought, Israeli foreign affairs and security policy, Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and the nexus between religion and politics.