Washing Our Dirty Linens on Capitol Hill

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published February 18, 2009, issue of February 27, 2009.
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How far can an ardent and lifelong American supporter of Israel go in articulating the belief that Israel carries some of the blame for its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians? The rule of thumb has historically been: not very far at all. But that may now be changing, if only just a bit.

Even before the war in Gaza, Israel’s policies and practices were, to put it very mildly, disconcerting to growing numbers of American Jews. Some of this was described in a 2007 monograph by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman titled “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation From Israel.” At the same time, neither distant nor alienated but resolutely connected to Israel, dovish elements in the pro-Israel community, long critical of Israel’s behavior, were becoming increasingly vocal. And all that was before Gaza.

Has the definition of what’s “acceptable” changed? Can there now be open and honest debate within the Jewish community? Can one be a friend of Israel and, at the same time, a critic of its government’s policies?

That has not been the way of the organized Jewish community. With few exceptions, our way has been to be Israel’s apologists, a role we play with great skill. What reservations regarding Israel’s wisdom we permit ourselves to think, or to whisper to one another, are not to be spoken out loud, where “the others” might hear. You don’t wash your dirty linen in public. The taboo against doing that is powerful and pervasive, even more than any religious prohibition.

Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat whose district includes the north shore of Queens and Long Island, recently broke a major taboo of the Jewish community. Ackerman, himself Jewish, was first elected to Congress in 1983, and is now in his 14th term. More important, he is chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. A fervent supporter of Israel, Ackerman opened a February 12 meeting of his subcommittee with a surprisingly critical statement. Here is an excerpt:

It only looks like we’re going in circles. In fact, we’re spiraling downward. I don’t know where the bottom is, but I know it’s there and I know it’s getting closer every day. It will hit with shattering force when, through malice and terror, through shallow calculation and venal self-interest, through shortsightedness and through political cowardice, the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is finally rendered impossible.

The downward pressure comes from terrorism and the march of settlements and outposts, from the firing of rockets and the perpetration of settler pogroms. It comes in daily images of destruction and the constant reiteration that “they only understand the language of force.” It comes in the form of a political party that’s always just a few months away from reform and in the form of governing coalitions whose chief purpose is avoiding new elections. It comes in the form of promises that bloodshed is what God desires and declarations that dirt and stones mean more than human life. It comes from tunnels in Gaza and from digging in Jerusalem as well. There is no moral equivalence between these acts but they are part of the same destructive dynamic.

If Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat who is probably Israel’s most vehement critic in the House, had said what Gary Ackerman said, there’d have been yelps and howls from virtually every quarter of the organized Jewish community. Yet while it’s still early in the Ackerman story, the reaction so far has been muted (with the exception of comments posted on the Internet).

The issue here is not whether Ackerman’s statement is balanced or even whether it is fair. Neither balance nor fairness is seen in the organized community as a virtue.

The underlying issue here is rather more serious than either the critical left or the apologetic right are wont to claim. Does not public criticism of Israel give aid and comfort to the enemy? The unfortunate answer to that question is that it does. (I myself learned this somewhat painfully years ago, when I said some critical things about Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s settlement policy. The very first letter of commendation I received was from the Syrian ambassador to the United States. Ouch.) It is easy to be so fixated on the events of the day that we overlook — some of us — that Israel’s ill-wishers are very real, and will eagerly pounce on any confirmation of their view that Israel is evil — evil, hence illegitimate.

But there’s a problem: If we are prohibited from washing our dirty linen in public, how will it be laundered? So long as the criticism is responsible, ought the burden not be on those who have dirtied the linen in the first place?

And that brings us unavoidably to the accuracy of Ackerman’s statement. “Settler pogroms,” for example. Is that not inflammatory? Yet events in Hebron in early December of 2008 led Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself to say the following to his Cabinet: “As a Jew, I was ashamed at the scenes of Jews opening fire at innocent Arabs in Hebron. There is no other definition than the term ‘pogrom’ to describe what I have seen. We are the sons of a nation who know what is meant by a pogrom, and I am using the word only after deep reflection.”

There’s one more thing: If a Gary Ackerman is outside the pale, then the pale’s boundaries are stiflingly narrow. Many will feel themselves left out. And the thoughtful among our neighbors will wonder how it has come to pass that the Jews, of all people, have nothing to say that contributes to the ongoing discussion of the Israel-Palestine dispute. For if we really are always and only predictable apologists for Israel, we will have little credibility in the public square. Israel deserves to be loved not only well, but also wisely.


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