Earlier this month, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles ran an article entitled “Wolpe vs. Beinart.” The piece was Rabbi David Wolpe’s passionate and compelling response to an email Peter Beinart recently sent to supporters of J-Street.
Beinart’s e-mail scolds the American Jewish community for failing to develop a link with West Bank Palestinians similar to that which it maintained with the freedom fighters of the 1960s. In the email, Beinart asserts that “the great Jewish question of our age is whether a people who for millennia lived as strangers—and spun visions of justice that inspired the world—will act justly now that we wield power.” Rabbi Wolpe denounces and questions the categorical nature of Beinart’s words, painting them as arrogant and presumptuous. Feigning the knowledge of the steps Israel must take toward peace, he writes, displays “a strutting lack of humility.”
The following is my response to that exchange:
There may, in fact, be no single “great Jewish question of our age.” Many observers of the Jewish state argue that the preeminent “question” is that of a nuclear Iran. Others assert that Jewish survival depends on a peoples’ capacity to renew its tradition and re-contextualize it in the modern era. Still others view remedying the Israeli government’s relationship with its ultra-orthodox population as a burning necessity. A claim like Beinart’s, which labels one challenge as “the great Jewish question,” and offers definitive answers to any of these questions, is irresponsible and does, as Rabbi Wolpe suggests, reflect a degree of arrogance.
Beinart’s comments, however, propagate another important question, or line of them: Is it acceptable for Jews not to glorify the core tenets of Israeli society? Can one be a Zionist – learn about, teach about, or love Israel – through a non-idealistic and sobering lens? Does “criticism” carry an unconditionally detrimental connotation?
I find few moments more fulfilling than standing atop Mount Arbel as the sun peaks over the Sea of Galilee. My Jewish soul overflows with pride when Israel is the first to respond to a natural disaster in a country who condemns its very existence. I feel profound spiritual connection among the ancient, towering walls of the Old City. I am an ohev tzion – a lover of Israel.
Even so, Israel is a political entity, and, like all other political entities, its government makes mistakes – militarily, economically, religiously, and politically. Rabbi Wolpe, in his admonition of Beinart, writes that “honest dissent” is necessary, and acknowledges that “Israel has sometimes done bad, misguided, even terrible things.” Challenges pervade the contemporary discussion: Israel may have the right to build settlements, but does that make the settlements unequivocally moral? Is every military maneuver in the state’s best interest? Should the Haredi population always have such an overwhelming say in decisions of governance?
It was at a pro-Israel conference last Spring that I brought up some of these questions with the Jewish father of a friend.
His response was vitriolic. “You think your views are valid?” he yelled, with more rebuke than wonder. “You’re just a naïve kid who’s read a few articles. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I was taken aback, but hardly surprised. It wasn’t the first time that a conversation of this sort had taken a turn for the worse. In many circles within the American Jewish community, much that verges on criticism of Israel is considered taboo. Those who call Netanyahu or Lieberman policies into question are often scolded with a vengeance.
There is a distinct and often forgotten line between self-loathing and self-serving.
Henry Kissinger may fall under the former category, while Israel supporters who dare to point out, with prudence, the state’s ill-considered decisions qualify as the latter. If Zionism is engrained in our collective identity, we carry a weighty responsibility to be our own watchdogs.
When we chide the Obama administration for one of its policies that we perceive as being contrary to American interest, we aren’t renouncing our American citizenship. Rather, we are exercising our democratic prerogative. Yet, for whatever reason, when the conversation moves to the Middle East, constructive criticism becomes synonymous with betrayal.
In truth, the American Jewish community’s criticism of Israel is not fully comparable to that of most other groups in most other countries. Examine Israel’s disparate function within the community of nations: The constituency of the United States or France, for most practical purposes, ends at the borders of Canada and Mexico. The constituency of a state founded on religious doctrine extends far beyond any geographical border.
But Israel is often labeled the only “true democracy” in its very unstable region. Democracy functions through constituent response; if constituents support the policies, they support the candidates. If they don’t, they do the reverse. Israeli citizens take advantage of democracy by voting. We make the best of a free and open Israel by voicing our opinions of which policies Netanyahu should keep, and which ones he should change. The American Jewish community, collectively, is a constituent of the State of Israel.
Peter Beinart’s public anxiety that ours may be “the generation that watches the dream of a democratic Jewish state die” seems not to be – at least linguistically – the sort of cautious rebuke that can elicit any sort of tangible response.
Daniel Gordis, the prominent commentator on Israel, compares Jews closed to criticizing Israel to parents who never critique their children: They’re in an unproductive covenant. Loving Israel, he recently wrote, “means loving unconditionally but knowing that love does not mean overlooking serious flaws.” Like effective parenting, our criticism needs to be present, but it must also be constructive and intentional.
Followers of the American Jewish relationship with Israel often argue that criticism of the Israeli government’s decisions should, for the most part, take place behind closed doors – outside the eye of public scrutiny. I agree; the Jewish State has no shortage of bad luck with the media. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who has been called “Israel’s single most visible defender,” has written that this criticism must be proportional and contextual, asserting that “what is missing (from the equation of diplomatic criticism) is the comparable criticism of equal or greater violations by other countries and other groups.” The American Jewish community is safe in deciding to publicize its positive interactions with Israel and shroud its denunciations of the state. But the quiet steps we do take toward improving Israel (by way of expressions of dissatisfaction) must be real and palpable.
There is, as Rabbi Wolpe contends, “room for honest dissent.” When the Israeli government is wrong, we have a holy imperative to criticize it. Our criticism must be deliberate, constructive, specific, and concise, not categorical, nor arrogant, nor presumptuous; it must provide a foundation from which to build stronger policy, not tools with which to dismantle a nation. Our Jewish responsibility is to defend our only homeland. To criticize is to clarify, and clarification is – without doubt – a mechanism of defense.