Criticizing Israel

When Criticizing Israel, Is There a Line American Jews Shouldn’t Cross?
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Aug. 11 2014 4:27 PM

Criticizing Israel

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Entry 1: Is there a line American Jews shouldn’t cross?

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Should American Jews refrain from criticizing Israel until this round of fighting is over?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters,Thinkstock.

Hi Ruth,

As a liberal American Jew, my face reddened as I read frequent Slate contributor Shmuel Rosner’s New York Times op-ed last week, “Israel’s Fair-Weather Fans,” in which he expressed dismay at other liberal American Jews who have recently written columns critical of Israel. The reddening was about at least three things at once: I felt chastened, but also puzzled and frustrated. Rosner singled out three American Jewish commentators, Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, and Roger Cohen, and took them to task for saying, as he put it, “that the brutal war in Gaza has made them question their Zionism.”

In the supposedly offending columns, Chait, Klein, and Cohen declared themselves Jewish supporters of Israel worried by the force used in Gaza and the lack of progress toward a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, which they attribute in part to Israel’s right-tilting government. “I want to see Israel succeed. I want to see it thrive. And that makes this moment in Israeli history painful to watch,” Klein wrote. Chait relied on this account of the unraveling of peace negotiations to conclude that either pressure from the right or the preferences of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept him from making a deal, and says the failure of the talks marginalized the moderate Palestinian leadership. “Viewed in this context, the campaign of Israeli air strikes in Gaza becomes a horrifying indictment,” he wrote. Cohen, like the others, takes care to pin blame on Hamas for “raining terror on Israel” with its bombs and goal of annihilation. But then he continues:

What I cannot accept, however, is the perversion of Zionism that has seen the inexorable growth of a Messianic Israeli nationalism claiming all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; that has, for almost a half-century now, produced the systematic oppression of another people in the West Bank; that has led to the steady expansion of Israeli settlements on the very West Bank land of any Palestinian state; that isolates moderate Palestinians like Salam Fayyad in the name of divide-and-rule; that pursues policies that will make it impossible to remain a Jewish and democratic state; that seeks tactical advantage rather than the strategic breakthrough of a two-state peace; that blockades Gaza with 1.8 million people locked in its prison and is then surprised by the periodic eruptions of the inmates; and that responds disproportionately to attack in a way that kills hundreds of children.
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Rosner reads these pieces “as a shining example of a phenomenon that Atlantic Monthly and Haaretz columnist Peter Beinart has popularized: the distancing of liberal Jews from Israel, especially in the United States.” He sees a suspect motivation: “Sometimes it feels as if liberal Zionist critics are trying to ensure that Israel’s deeds do not rub off on them. At other times, it feels as if they’re trying to clear their conscience of something for which they feel partially responsible.”

That stung me, because I didn’t read the columns that way at all. In his response to Rosner, Chait called his own Zionism “immutable.” Reading him and the others, I assumed that, too. I realize that talking and writing about Israel is like picking one’s way through a minefield, especially in a period of tension and violence, and even more so if you’re Jewish. Still, I saw these pieces as thoughtful if sad entries in a long-running debate over what Zionism means, not whether Jews deserve a homeland.

I talked to Rosner on the phone on Sunday, and he told me that he does not believe that being “pro-Israel,” if you live outside it, means falling into line with every position of the Israeli government and the public opinion polls. “Among Israelis, I’m probably considered a lobbyist for listening to American Jews,” he said. So what’s going on here? Are there limits on the kind of dissent non-Israeli Jews should express? I’m not talking about what we can say—it’s our right, obviously, to speak, scream, and yell about whatever we want. But is there a solidarity line that we shouldn’t cross?

I wanted to ask you these questions for reasons that begin with the personal. I went to Israel for the first time when I was 11, with my grandparents, who were proud Zionists. I went back at 16, and then again for a summer during college to research my senior thesis. On that third trip, I stayed with your aunt and uncle in their lovely, sunny flat in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka. You were half of a pair of adorable 8-year-old twin nieces who lived down the hall. I came back after I graduated, to study and write for a year. Throughout and ever since, your family has been my entry into a deeply thoughtful and compassionate circle of the Israeli left. And now here you are, all grown up, on staff at The New Yorker, and a wonderful writer.

Over the phone, Rosner told me that his piece “was ignited first and foremost by the issue of timing.” The moment when Israel is dealing with the complicated tangle of Gaza is the wrong one, he argues, for non-Israeli Jews to “wrap themselves in Jewishness and Zionism and then lecture Israel from that position. If Jewish morale and Zionism is so important for you, just be civil about it. Be quiet for now. Keep your measured criticism for better times.”

Rosner also told me that the Gaza operation “is rare in the level of support it gets from all parts of Zionist Israel, from the right to almost the far left,” and that the almost universal backing inside Israel should say something about the validity of the operation to American liberal Jews. He pointed out that the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties have not come out against the operation. Neither has J Street, a liberal American alternative to the traditional lobby power of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Rosner also brought up Amos Oz, the prominent Israeli novelist, as a leftist whose criticism of the Gaza operation has been muted.  

The weight Rosner ascribed to timing when I talked to him was lost on me when I read his piece, I confess. That’s a revealing missed signal. If I was in Israel, hearing sirens and racing my kids to a bomb shelter, it would have been obvious. Maybe that’s a useful reminder about the limitations of what Jews like me can understand from a distance.

Here’s another difference between Rosner and me. He reads the writers he is asking to be quiet as implicitly threatening to withdraw their support of Israel if its policies don’t shift. “There are no exact quotes in which they say what I think they’re intending to say,” he acknowledged. “But the spirit of the articles is telling.”

I just don’t see this, either on the page or as subtext. What do you think, Ruth? Does the timing matter? Should Jews outside of Israel refrain from criticizing Israel until this round of fighting in Gaza is over? Does it “delegitimize the idea of Israel,” as Rosner put it to me, to focus on its flaws and failings now?

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