Is Criticism Of Israel Fair Game During War?

Yossi Klein Halevi and J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami debate the timing, tone of confronting Jerusalem’s policies.

11/20/12
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Jeremy,

If we are serious about a covenantal relationship between Israel and world Jewry, 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 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?

Perhaps Rabbi David Hartman put it best: Criticize us like a mother, not a mother-in-law. 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.

I confess to resenting American Jewish criticism while our sons are at the front. I acknowledge the emotional blackmail in that statement. But there it is: a clash between head and heart.

Yossi

Yossi,

I acknowledge the sensitivity of this moment for this discussion. 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.

My first principle is that those of us not physically in danger must be humble and sensitive. 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.

I have heard before about this concept of distinguishing between the criticism of a mother and of a mother-in-law. If the concept is “unequivocal support” in time of danger, 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. Silence can enable behavior by loved ones that is against their long-term interest.

The people of Israel would benefit greatly if there were 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.

Jeremy

Jeremy,

The issue for me is not the dissent itself but the tone. 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 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.

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. The question is how to get Israelis to listen. When hundreds of thousands of Israelis are in shelters, that is not the ideal moment to make a political argument about Israel’s future. 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.

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 I do expect our friends to understand we are temporarily incapable of absorbing insights about our political failures. It goes to the heart of our ability to intuit each other’s needs and fears.

Yossi

Yossi,

It’s terrific that you’re acknowledging a right to dissent even in wartime — but you are bound to be dissatisfied in the search for a set of red lines to define when and how such criticism should be made.

The use of rockets to terrorize 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 pray they will soon — 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.

Jeremy

Last Update:

11/20/2012 - 18:28

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