As an Israeli who lives in New York, I know that I can sometimes be unfair. On the one hand, I often get defensive when people criticize Israel. On the other, I can also get upset when people seem to blindly support Israel. Criticizing Israel is allowed, and even important for Israel’s wellbeing, but there are productive and unproductive ways to do it. In that spirit, here are eight ground rules that I believe can help improve the Israel debate.
1) Everyone has the right to exist.
Many conversations about Israel deteriorate into fights over whether or not the country even has the right to exist. This is not a productive question. Everyone has the right to exist all over the world, and that should never be doubted. The real question is whether Israel has the right to continue pursuing some of its policies.
2) Israel has a diversity of opinions.
The Israeli government is a coalition that is expected in some way to represent at least a majority of Israelis. That does not mean that all Israelis agree with the actions of Israel’s government. And just as there is a diversity of opinions in Israel, we should also expect and accept that Jews in the Diaspora will have a diversity of opinions.
3) Criticizing Israel doesn’t make you anti-Semitic.
Conversations about Israel tend to drag out when you’re simultaneously trying to prove your loyalty to, and criticize, Israel. Save yourself the trouble. Supporting Israel’s government is not the only way to show you’re a good Jew or patriotic Israeli. Criticizing can also be a form of caring.
4) Fault the army, not the soldiers.
There is room to criticize certain actions of the IDF, but not the soldiers. These are young Israelis who were drafted into the military through a mandatory system. Placing blame on the decision-makers is fair, but blaming the youth of Israel is unproductive. (Obviously, in rare cases, soldiers go astray and act outside of orders. In those cases, they should be held accountable.)
5) Don’t get into terminology battles.
Let’s say you and your interlocutor both agree that Israel should not rule over a population of 4 million people. Then is it productive to fight over whether or not Israel is an apartheid state? Arguing terminology is distracting, antagonizing, and puts Israelis on the defensive. If the argument doesn’t help move us towards a solution, what is it worth?
6) Empathy matters.
Just as not all people who criticize Israel are anti-Semitic, not all those who support Israel are doing so blindly. Remember that there are many personal narratives, and that there is a path that led each person to his or her own opinion. Empathy, the ability to recognize the feelings of the other side, matters. A lot.
7) Admit that the playing field isn’t level.
As someone who grew up in Tel Aviv during the second Intifada, with terror attacks forming part of my weekly routine, I still don’t think that I’ve suffered from the conflict the same way that someone in Gaza has. The playing field between Israel and Palestine is unequal. Admitting that doesn’t make you less sympathetic to Israel. And recognizing that doesn’t lessen the terror of living under rocket threat.
8) Allow Israelis to be a part of the solution.
Neither AIPAC nor the BDS movement will be the ones who end this conflict. It will be Israelis who go on Election Day to vote for peace. So anytime we criticize Israel, let’s try to leave room for Israelis to be a part of the solution and not only a part of the problem.
Abraham Gutman, originally from Tel Aviv, currently studies in NYC at a duel BA/MA program in economics. He recently signed an open letter written by Israelis residing in the U.S. to the American Jewish community.