Saturday, April 9, 2011

On J Street, Loving and Criticizing Israel: Four Comments, by Doni Remba

As a vocal critic of many Israeli policies towards Palestinians, the Arab states and Israel's own Palestinian, Bedouin and Jewish citizens, I often hear from other Jews who engage in vicious ad hominem attacks against me, questioning my loyalty to Israel and to my Jewishness.   As someone who has devoted a lifetime to Israel, the Jewish people, Jewish learning and Jewish values, I have always found such attacks curious and unserious - though I know that those who engage in them believe vehemently in what they say. 

I believe, just as strongly, that dissent is sometimes the highest form of patriotism, and that Jews, especially pro-Israel Jews - Jews, who like me, love Israel with all their hearts and souls, who agonize over its future and its well-being - have not only a right, but an obligation to criticize the follies of Israeli leaders and governments who are endangering the Zionist enterprise.  What follows are four brief responses to the Israel right-or-wrong crowd:  the first, a comment on the New York Times report on the McCarthyite Knesset hearing on J Street, and the second, my commentary on Dan Fleshler's superb "Thank You for Putting J Street on Trial."

I.  Criticism and Love: J Street and Israel

At a Knesset hearing on whether J Street is “really pro-Israel,” Knesset Member Otniel Schneller is quoted by the New York Times as saying that the group’s criticism of Israel’s policies on settlements and Mideast peace means it does not love Israel unconditionally, but only “with strings attached.” J Street, he claimed, says to Israel, “We love you only if you behave the way we like.”

But no parent loves his child less when he rebukes her bad behavior. It is out of deep love and concern that we criticize the self-destructive conduct of our family and friends. What could be more toxic for Israel, and for the United States, than the Israeli government’s chronic denial of freedom and human rights to millions of Palestinians under its rule?

Those in Israel and the U.S. who insist that dissent from these suicidal Israeli policies is an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic act of “self-loathing” Jews have forgotten the ancient Jewish wisdom of the Midrash, the compendium of homiletic interpretations of the Bible. The rabbis taught that “Love unaccompanied by criticism is not love . . . Peace unaccompanied by reproof is not peace.” (Genesis Rabbah 54:3)
II.  A Commentary on Thank You for Putting J Street On Trial, Dan Fleshler, Realistic Dove, March 29, 2011
My friend Dan Fleshler best captured some of the absurdities of the view that American Jews and American Jewish organizations like J Street can't be pro-Israel if they publicly disagree with the policies of the Government of Israel.   He raised four problems with this outlook, problems about which I have been writing and speaking for some three decades; but he did it succinctly and with just a dollop of irony.   
1. "Have no principles, no values of your own," he wrote, alluding to the fact that those who define pro-Israel in this way expect American Jews to turn off their brains, becoming automatons, Zionist Stepford wives, repeating uncritically whatever propaganda the right-wing government in Jerusalem puts out to justify its unjustifiable follies.   
Yet this notion is fundamentally at odds with the spirit of Judaism which has thrived, since the days of the Talmud, on argument, criticism, debate and an openness to multiple opinions.   The Jewish tradition is best captured by the rabbinic aphorism, said of the opposing opinions of the rabbinic followers of Hillel and those who followed Shammai:   "gam eilu v'eilu divrei elohim hayim - both are the words of the living God."    It is precisely this profoundly Jewish spirit of the ancient rabbis - a spirit which is large enough to hold competing opinions as authentic and even inspired by love of God - which best defines the Jewish tradition that I know, which is woefully missing from what passes for American Jewish "discourse" on Israel. 
2.  "Lobby against the U.S. government’s positions whenever Israel disagrees with them, even if we believe our government is acting in the best interests of our own country as well as Israel."
In other words, I add, the Israel right-or-wrong crowd hold that you must always oppose your own government's position if the Israeli government disagrees, even if you think that the Israeli government's position is bad for America and bad for Israel.  You are not allowed to disagree publicly with the views of the "elected government" of Israel (as they like to remind us) but you must therefore disagree publicly with the "elected government" of the United States, of which you are - just in case these folks have forgotten - a citizen!  
"Go serve in the IDF if you want to criticize Israel," they say; "go make aliyah, if you want to criticize Israel." (And what if, in fact, some of us have done one or both?  Well, then, of course, we're still not entitled to speak out if we differ with the Israeli government.)   In short, you can't be an American, but only a Jew.  But just what kind of Jew is that?  You have no identity as an American, and no rights or responsibilities as an American citizen (or as a thinking person, or a moral person, or a Jewish person who takes Jewish ethics, or the differing views of many prominent Israelis, seriously). 

In fact, for the Israel-right-or-wrong bunch, you cannot either be an American or a Jew.  The entire meaning of what it is to be a Jew has been emptied of all values other than conformism as tribal loyalty (as if it is disloyal to speak out to save one's tribe, one's people, one's nation, from what you and great many other well-informed, thoughtful Jews believe is harming both your own country and the Jewish people and State of Israel that you love.) 

And if the views you advocate are held by many high-ranking current and former security, intelligence and military officials in Israel (the hard-headed security realists), or by Israeli human rights and peace activists (who are often the same people as the former group - see, for example, Shalom Achshav/Peace Now, and the Council for Peace and Security, or the new Israeli Peace Initiative of a large group of former Israeli security officials, including former Shin Bet chiefs Yaakov Peri and  Admiral Ami Ayalon, former Mossad Chief Major-General (Res.) Danny Yatom, former IDF Chief Lt-Gen. (Res.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Major-General (Res.) Amram Mitzna, and Yuval Rabin, son of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin), you are disloyal for agreeing with them and not siding with the elected government of Israel, whoever they may be.

Now try this argument out against an American, whether living in the US or abroad, who was critical of the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration.   Is that American too disloyal, anti-American, and unpatriotic, a traitor to his country and his people, for publicly opposing much of what these irresponsible neocon fools subjected the US and the world to?   An American who opposed Bush-Cheney publicly, if he did so abroad, was in fact helping to restore the badly tarnished good name of the United States among the people of the world.  By the same token, a pro-Israel American Jew, or Jewish organization, that publicly criticizes Netanyahu and Leiberman, is helping to restore the badly muddied good name, and just cause, of Zionism and Israel with the American public, and in the American Jewish community. 
3.  "Ignore the steady drift of young people from the American Jewish community."  I add: Anyone who still doesn't get that American and American Jewish support for Israel is suffering from the policies of the Netanyahu (and previous Israeli) governments, that American Jews are increasingly distancing themselves both from Israel and Jewishness because contemporary Israel seems as if it cannot be reconciled with the liberal, universal values they have learned as Americans (and as Jews), has his head in the sand.  The policies of Netanyahu and Leiberman are not only awful for Israel's and America's most vital near- and long-term interests, but for Diaspora Judaism and the American Jewish community as well.   To those who don't grasp all this, one could do no better than to read Peter Beinart's path-breaking essay, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment." 
4.  "Accept the proposition that as American citizens we have the right to publicly object to the policies and behavior of countries throughout the world, but the one country we are forbidden to criticize is Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, whose actions are taken in our name."
Nuff said.  Read Dan Fleshler's riff on these 4 absurd demands of the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd.  Kol hakavod, Dan.

III.  Criticism of Israel, March 30, 2011, Letters, N.Y. Times, by Seymour Reich

To the Editor:

The goings-on in Israel’s Parliament described in “U.S. Group Stirs Debate on What It Means to Be ‘Pro-Israel’ ” (news article, March 25) should be deplored by all supporters of Israel. But our ranks are thinning, thanks in no small measure to these kinds of activities and what they reflect about Israel’s government today.

They include a hearing into whether a left-leaning American group that calls itself pro-Israel and pro-peace is a “Zionist organization” and a law that removes money from municipalities or Israeli Arab groups that commemorate Independence Day by noting the destruction of Arab villages and the exile of Palestinians.

These activities are anti-democratic, anti-free-speech and anti-equal-rights for all Israel’s citizens. They posit that criticism of government policies by groups outside of Israel renders them anti-Zionist.

We must be able to criticize aspects of Israel without having our love for it annulled. Suggesting otherwise narrows Israel’s base of support. Israel cannot afford to reject or alienate those who declare their support.

New York, March 25, 2011

The writer is a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

IV.  Are We the New Jews of Silence?, Gidon D. Remba, Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

I published the following article in the American Jewish press a few years ago; to my great regret, it is even more relevant today than it was when I wrote it:

“We were the Jews of Silence, the Jews enjoying security, the Jews of the Western world . . .What torments me most is . . . the silence of the Jews I live among today,” wrote Elie Wiesel a generation ago in a “Letter to a Young Jew in the U.S.S.R.” Today, there is another silence among the Jews of America: the silence that the few would impose on the many. It brooks no criticism of Israel, always the righteous victim of Arab enmity. Enforcing quiet—supporting Israel right or wrong—is essential to preserving Israel’s status quo, a condition which, as we all know, is truly the best of all possible worlds.

And what if the status quo is, in fact, toxic to Israel? What if it is a poison eating away at the foundations of the state, fouling its Jewish and democratic values and corrupting the young who are its future, some of whom must venture into the West Bank to suppress and control the Palestinian population?
Read the rest of the article here.

1 comment:

Dr. Michael D. Evans said...

This is a comprehensive overview of Israel. This article is a very good read.