Debating J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami: What, if any, are limits on Diaspora criticism of Israel during war?
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President, J Street
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and President of J Street. Ben-Ami’s family connection to Israel goes back 130 years to the first aliyah, when his great-grandparents were among the first settlers in Petah Tikva. His grandparents were one of the founding families of Tel Aviv, and his father was an activist and leader in the Irgun, working for Israel’s independence and on the rescue of European Jews before and during World War II.
In the 1990s, Ben-Ami was Deputy Domestic Policy Advisor in the White House to President Bill Clinton. He was Howard Dean’s National Policy Director in 2004.
For nearly three years in the late 90s, Jeremy lived in Israel, where he started a consulting firm working with Israeli non-profit organizations and politicians. He was chosen by America’s weekly Jewish newspaper, the Forward, for three years as part of the Forward 50, their compilation of the most influential Jewish Americans.
Ben-Ami received a law degree from New York University and is a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Relations at Princeton University.
The old debate over whether Diaspora Jews have the right to criticize Israel has been more or less resolved. Most American Jews – and most Israelis, too, I sense -- no longer believe that love for Israel means uncritical support.
Of course many Israelis welcome criticism from Diaspora Jews, provided that that criticism is directed against a government led by the "other" camp. Still, even hypocrisy has its uses, and we have finally reached an end to the foolish argument over Diaspora criticism of Israel.
If we are serious about a covenantal relationship between Israel and world Jewry, then Diaspora Jews not only have the right but the responsibility to criticize Israeli policies, from the left or the right, that seem to them inimical to Jewish values and interests.
My question to you is this: What, if any, are the limitations on Diaspora criticism of Israel during war?
I’m writing to you at a particularly sensitive moment, when Israeli cities and towns are under rocket attack, while Hamas centers in Gaza are under Israeli air bombardment.
What are the principles that are guiding you in your deliberations during these hard days? What are your red lines in terms of support for the Israeli government during war? How do you define loyalty to Israel during war?
Perhaps Rabbi David Hartman put it best: Criticize us like a mother, he recently told a group of American Jewish leaders, not a mother-in-law. (I happen to have a wonderful mother-in-law, but you get the point.)
In a time of danger for Israel, David Hartman’s plea becomes particularly poignant. Most Israelis do expect unequivocal support from the Diaspora in a time of danger – expect Diaspora Jews to behave like a mother worrying for her children.
But if we take the premises of a covenantal relationship seriously, then Israelis must affirm the right of American Jews to criticize Israel’s actions during war, just as we accept the right of our fellow Israelis to do so. And we need to accept that, for some Diaspora Jews, acting like a mother means keeping Israel from engaging in actions they perceive as harmful to Israel.
Still, I confess to resenting American Jewish criticism while our sons are at the front. I readily acknowledge the element of emotional blackmail in that statement. But there it is: a clash between head and heart.
First of all, thank you for this opportunity to engage on a topic of the utmost sensitivity at such an important time. There is no more appropriate moment to address the question of the bounds of legitimate criticism that while hostilities are under way.
I am pleased to learn that, from your perspective, the generic debate over American Jewish criticism of Israel has been resolved. Unfortunately, that will come as news to those like Peter Beinart who was banned this week from speaking at Atlanta’s Jewish Book Festival or the J Street activists barred over the years from communal participation because of their views.
I agree with you that “Diaspora Jews not only have the right but the responsibility to criticize Israeli policies, from the left or the right, that seem to them inimical to Jewish values and interests.”
I only wish that were the widely accepted view. But this exchange is not about whether or not that view is in fact accepted, it’s about setting some boundaries for criticism from abroad during time of war.
I acknowledge the sensitivity of this moment for this discussion. My family and friends in Israel are sharing by the hour their fears and concerns. Many have children in the army; others live in areas that have been hit or targeted by rockets in recent days.
This is a moment when life and death hang in the balance for those who live in Israel in a way that is not true for me, my friends and our children here in Washington.
So my first principle is that those of us not physically in danger must be humble and sensitive – respecting the reality that lives hang in the balance. We who choose to dissent and criticize must do so in a way that distinguishes clearly between our deep love for the people of Israel and our critique of government policy.
Relating this to recent experience in the United States, many of us who opposed the war in Iraq felt it was most important to do so precisely as our fellow countrymen and women were being sent into harm’s way. We did this because we care so deeply about those who serve our country bravely and about the long-term interests of our country.
To adopt a position that one must be silent as soon as the bullets start to fly is to give carte blanche to those with the power to decide to fire the first shot.
I have heard before about this concept of distinguishing between the criticism of a mother and of a mother-in-law (and I too love my mother-in-law deeply, so reject the specific analogy!).
If the concept is that those who love you deeply owe you “unequivocal support” in time of danger – I think that is wrong. It is precisely at moments of danger that loved ones must step forward to point out the danger and act to prevent deep and long-lasting harm.
Silence is not the only way to demonstrate love and unequivocal support. Sometimes in fact that silence can enable behavior by loved ones that is against their long-term interest.
I appreciate that you acknowledge the conflict here between a “head” that accepts that criticism at such times can be “valid and essential” and a “heart” that resents such criticism from someone whose child is not physically at risk.
This is a difficult tension that is simply built into our relationship and will be forever.
If there is to be a long-lasting, loving relationship between the Jews of Israel and Jews abroad, then I believe this right to criticize out of love even in time of war will need to be accepted.
More important, I think that the people of Israel would benefit greatly if there were far more discussion in Israel not about our right to dissent, but about the fundamental point we are making – namely, that there is no military solution to this underlying political conflict and that the future of Israel as a Jewish, democratic nation is deeply at risk without a political resolution.
Saying that – and fighting for it – even in time of war, is expressing the strongest and deepest love for the state and people of Israel that I can possibly muster.
You’re right: It is premature to declare entirely moribund the denial of the right of American Jews to criticize Israel – though Beinart has hardly suffered from underexposure in the mainstream Jewish community. In fact his frequent appearances under establishment auspices reveals just how far the Jewish community has come from the days of self-censorship.
Yes, we are going to have to learn to live with Diaspora criticism of Israel, even in wartime. So on further reflection, the issue for me is not the dissent itself but the tone. Which is why I deeply appreciate your writing this: “So my first principle is that those of us not physically in danger must be humble and sensitive – respecting the reality that lives hang in the balance.”
But how does that humility and sensitivity play out? What I need to hear from Diaspora critics during war is a sense of shared anxiety, anguish, fate – precisely what I just heard from you.
There is a delicate question here. Are Diaspora critics concerned, first of all, with Sderot, and only then with Gaza? Not to the exclusion of Gaza – but every family carries its order of emotional priorities. When a family member is caught, say, in a disaster, the first thought is for his or her safety, and only then for the safety of others. That’s what I need to sense from Diaspora critics.
And I was glad to see that emotional priority affirmed in J Street’s statement on the current fighting.
You write that you hope that Israelis would listen to the substance of your criticism – that there is no military solution to what is essentially a political conflict and that Israel’s Jewish, democratic future is at risk without a solution. Fair enough. The question, Jeremy, is how to get Israelis to listen. I can tell you without any need for polling data that, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis are in shelters, that is not the ideal moment to make a political argument about Israel’s future – which is how the J Street statement on the current fighting concluded. That is a critique for the day after the war. All Israeli parties have suspended electioneering until the fighting ends. American Jews, too, should focus on the immediate emergency.
And not only for pragmatic reasons. A covenantal relationship requires a shared emotional experience, or at the very least a sensitivity to the other during crisis. I don’t expect American Jews to be as traumatized as Israelis are during war. But at the least I do expect our friends to understand that we are temporarily incapable of absorbing insights about our political failures.
That is not just a technical problem. It goes to the heart of our ability to intuit each other’s needs and fears.
Sensitivity to Israelis’ emotional state doesn’t mean that American Jews should remain silent if they feel, say, that a ground offensive into Gaza is dangerous for Israel. I accept your argument on that point. But the question, again, is how to make the argument. At least some Israelis would be ready to hear a concerned Jewish voice from afar warning against an imminent military policy that could result in disaster. But a general critique of Israeli policy at such a moment sounds like hectoring.
How, then, to balance solidarity and rebuke?
I’d like to suggest an example where I feel J Street failed to reveal the sensitivity necessary to manage family disputes at critical moments. In the initial hours of the Gaza war in late 2008, J Street issued a press release condemning the war. At the same time, virtually every political party in Israel, including the leftwing Meretz, endorsed the government’s attack on Gaza. It’s true that that consensus ended when the ground offensive began. But my question to you is: Shouldn’t American Jews take the mood in Israel into consideration before rushing to judgment? When Amos Oz and David Grossman support an Israeli military action, shouldn’t American Jewish critics at least pause before condemning?
I raise this not to revive old arguments but to seek common principles that can bind Jews who love Israel, regardless of their politics, and allow us to hear each other’s essential insights without dismissing each other as “bad Jews.” And so I come back to my original question: Are there red lines that American Jews should voluntarily adopt in how they critique Israel during war?
I appreciate deeply the civility and tone with which we’re pursuing this conversation. I hope it can be a model for others. That does not, however, mean that we are getting closer to a consensus on this difficult question.
I think it’s terrific that you’re acknowledging a right to dissent even in wartime – but I think that you are bound to be dissatisfied in the search for a set of "lines" – whether guidelines or red lines to define when and how such criticism should be made. Those judgments are by definition subjective.
Take the question of “tone.” I am glad to see that you believe it is acceptable to include in one’s expression of concern the people of Gaza as well. You indicate that there needs to be a sense of priority – that concern for Israelis must be expressed first. But for some any inclusion of concern for innocent Palestinians caught in this crossfire is unacceptable, whereas for others any notion that one human life is worth more than another by virtue of ethnicity sounds frighteningly like racism. I believe that every individual has their own view on the right place for this particular line to be drawn – and I suspect that any effort to identify a shared sense of that line will be unsuccessful.
The second in my opinion subjective issue is the question of timing. I would agree that when Israelis are huddled in shelters with sirens going off – that’s not the most effective time for grabbing people’s attention with substantive policy arguments dealing with the long-term.
I do not agree, however, that the start of fighting means one needs to stop advocating for an alternative course of action that may save lives and provide the best long-term security. The notion that politics should be suspended in time of war is very dangerous. Perhaps a few days of quiet, out of respect. But if the political arena is not open to discussion of the wisdom of the use of force after a war has started, that would be an extraordinarily dangerous gift of unquestioned power to those choose to engage in hostilities.
If a particular decision around the use of force seems in fact not to be a step toward saving the maximum number of lives in the long run, then I would argue there isn’t just a right but an obligation to raise the objection or pose the question to those setting the course of the government. Otherwise, as I said in the earlier post, silence can enable behavior that is in fact counterproductive and harmful.
I have two children – ages 9 and 8. I have visited Sderot and seen the hardened play rooms, the concrete bus shelters. I have talked to the parents of traumatized children. The use of rockets to terrorize these children and their families is unconscionable. I accept the right – and the obligation – of a government to strike back against those who engage in such acts.
However, I do not accept that this is not the moment to say that striking back is not a long-term answer. When the guns go quiet – and I can only pray they will sooner rather than later – the only solution to this conflict is for the Palestinian people to have freedom in their own state in exchange for security for the Jewish people in theirs.
In part, that needs to be said not so much for an Israeli audience, but for the American audience. The general response from the established Jewish community in the United States at moments like this is completely devoid of mention of the humanity of the other side, completely missing any notion that this fighting is not an answer but in fact the problem to be solved.
Constantly forcing this conflict into a simplistic us-vs-them framework makes it nearly impossible to consider how to get to win-win solutions.
All this to say that I am afraid in the end that your search for clear lines to define appropriate and inappropriate criticism by Jews living abroad is likely to go unsatisfied. The questions of tone and timing are too subjective to lend themselves to establishing objective, enforceable standards.
And we see far too often that those who argue over the substance of the underlying action probably fall into similar camps in judging the tone and timing of the argument as well.
Donniel Hartman on Israel's "Pillar of Defense" Campaign in Gaza:
If we are to achieve, it will only be the result of our efforts on our own behalf, and even then with no guarantee of success. To be a Zionist is to embrace this reality, not as a curse but as a responsibility, if not a gift. To be part of shaping one's own destiny and defining one's peoples' history in the midst of the uncertainty of an unredeemed world is the privilege which Israel has bestowed upon modern Jewish life.
It is critical that we remember the above as we assess our actions and responsibilities in Operation Pillar of Defense. First, we simply have to do what we have to do. What any nation not merely has the right to, but the obligation to do. Our citizens cannot be terrorized, nor our soldiers attacked, without attempts on our part to prevent them and stop them from occurring in the future.
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