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I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that Americans and American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza and are merciless about it. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?
HAROLD BERMAN: Living in Israel and having rushed to a bomb shelter more than once this summer in the wake of Hamas’ rockets, I have some skin in this game. This is not an interfaith issue at all. My father-in-law was one of the most enthusiastic Christian Zionists I’ve ever met. This summer, I’ve received numerous expressions of support from non-Jewish friends.
Nor is this about an emotional connection to Israel. The simple question is whether your in-laws are approaching this fairly and without double standards. If they are educated and understand the political complexity, then I would want to know if they are equally “merciless” about the plight of Sderot’s children, or about Hamas’ use of their own people as human shields. Do they display the same outrage toward the U.S. for civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. Army took far less precaution to avoid such deaths than did the IDF in Gaza? Do they show the same concern for the Yazidis in Iraq, or the 170,000 (including many Palestinians) that Assad butchered in Syria, the over 5,500 murdered by ISIS, or the 12,000 murdered and half-million displaced by Boko Haram in Nigeria?
Criticism of Israel is entirely legitimate, and the IDF cannot claim a perfect record. Nevertheless, the IDF has worked harder than any army on earth to avoid civilian deaths, even as Hamas has done its best to multiply them. If your in-laws expend at least the same emotion and energy on the many significant and intentional human rights abuses in the Middle East and around the world, then their right to criticize Israel is legitimate, even if you disagree with their conclusions. If they do not, then there is nothing to talk about. In which case, the best course may be to request that this subject be off-limits for future discussions.
Harold Berman is a veteran Jewish communal professional, and the Director of J-Journey.org, which provides mentoring and support for intermarried families exploring the possibilities of observant Jewish life. Harold is also, with his wife Gayle, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” about their “intermarriage gone Jewish.”
LISA GOLDMAN: So your in-laws are good people that you like and respect. They have solid values that you respect and generally share — except when it comes to Israel-Palestine and the Jews?
I think you can be straightforward with them and explain that Israel is an emotional issue for you, and that is why you don’t feel comfortable with their criticism. They don’t sound like the kind of people who would pursue a subject knowing that it made you uncomfortable in their company. But it sounds as though placing limits on the topics of conversation would put up a barrier between you and this would be a pity. After all, you like them and presumably want to continue enjoying a good relationship with them.
One of the issues I’ve been hammering away at lately is what I’ve called a “moral failure” on the part of the Jewish leadership in the diaspora. While most American Jews tend to be liberal, and are descended from a proudly liberal heritage (labor organizers, civil rights volunteers, mostly Democratic party supporters), too often they suspend those values when it comes to Israel. They’ll decry police violence in Ferguson or protest unmanned drone strikes on Pakistani civilians, but stay silent or say “it’s complicated” when an Israeli fighter planes target a civilian house in Gaza and kill an entire family while they’re eating dinner.
I think it’s an unhealthy relationship to have with a country, or with anything or anyone, for that matter, if “love” means excusing behavior that we’d call unethical in any other context. I lived a fair chunk of my adult life in Israel (14 years). I’m a citizen, I speak the language and most of my closest friends are there or from there. But I’m super critical of Israeli policy and so are most of my friends. Israel is not a delicate flower that will wilt under our criticism, and the goyim won’t hate us more or less for what we do or don’t say about Israel either. The moral values we choose to live by tend to lose their meaning if we apply them selectively. For me, it’s been easier to live in my own skin since I decided to apply my chosen values equally, and not selectively based on my emotional attachments.
Lisa Goldman is the director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative at the New America Foundation. Prior to relocating to New York City in 2012, she lived and worked for over a decade in the Middle East, covering Israel-Palestine and the immediate region, including the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict and the 2011 Egyptian uprising.
SCOTT PERLO: This is a tough one. I am personally possessed by a strong family loyalty reaction: I will jump all over any outsider who has the temerity to voice any criticism of me and mine, even if it’s what I’d have said myself. Without the evident love that flows from the deep connection you described, criticism can have an ominous ring — especially as we see protests against the Gaza war flow so effortlessly into old-school anti-Semitism.
Perhaps the best way to get them to understand is to ask questions rather than answer them. I don’t know the extent to which you spoken to them about your discomfort, but, being that they’re educated people, you might ask them to imagine what it’s like being you, listening to their critiques. Hillel’s teaching from Pirkei Avot, “do not judge a person until you’ve stood in his place,” remains the best way I know to engender new perspective. It sounds like theirs could do with a little expanding.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.