You probably know this one: Yankel the beggar goes to the rabbi and pleads for a handout. “Please, Rabbi,” he says, “I haven’t eaten in days.”
“Poor fellow,” the rabbi replies. “Here’s a ruble. Go buy yourself a meal.”
An hour later, the rabbi is walking past the tavern and sees Yankel eating a big slice of cake. Indignant, the rabbi rushes up and rebukes him: “You should be ashamed of yourself! I gave you a ruble in good faith because you were hungry! How dare you eat cake?!”
“Excuse me,” Yankel replies. “Yesterday I was broke and I couldn’t eat cake. Now I have a ruble and I shouldn’t eat cake. So tell me, Rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
The story was brought to mind by a recent Jerusalem Post blog entry from David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. Harris is distressed over a January 22 New York Times report by Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner, “For Israelis, Mixed Feelings on Aid Effort,” about responses to the Israeli medical team in Haiti.
“Israelis have been watching with a range of emotions,” Bronner wrote, “as if the Haitian relief effort were a Rorschach test through which the nation examines itself. The left has complained that there is no reason to travel thousands of miles to help those in need — Gaza is an hour away. The right has argued that those who accuse Israel of inhumanity should take note of its selfless efforts and achievements in Haiti.”
Bronner quoted four observers from the left, including columnists at The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz and two former aides to Yitzhak Rabin. In fact, not one said anything like “there is no reason” to help Haiti. What they all expressed was sadness at Israel’s situation vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Here’s the most biting of them: “The remarkable identification with the victims of the terrible tragedy in distant Haiti only underscores the indifference to the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza,” wrote Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar.
More typical was a quote given by Uri Dromi, a former spokesman for the Rabin government: “There is such a gap between what we can do in so many fields and the failure we feel trapped in with the Palestinians. There’s nostalgia for the time when we were the darlings of the world, and the Haiti relief effort allows us to remember that feeling and say, you see we are not as bad as you think.”
Harris, however, quotes Bronner’s “Rorschach” paragraph in full and then counters: “Forgive me, but this is nuts.”
Israel “responded magnificently to the immense tragedy unfolding in Haiti,” Harris correctly observes. Detailing some of the Israeli medical team’s achievements on the ground, he protests: “Israel’s role in Haiti should be a source of national pride, not a trigger for a ‘Rorschach test.’”
Now, there has been a handful of Israelis publicly belittling the Haiti operation, though they’re hard to find. There has also been a minor flood of criticism from Israelis who admire the Haiti mission but contrast it sadly with other deeds left undone. A filmmaker writes in Maariv of the glaring poverty just outside Ben-Gurion Airport that awaits an Israeli aid mission. A retired colonel, now a Technion national-security scholar, argues that Israel shouldn’t wait to aid others until front-page disasters hit. A rabbi at a West Bank seminary, Rafi Ostroff, had his class recite psalms for the victims the morning of the earthquake, but learned he was “among the very few teachers who did it” and now concludes “that the religious community is a little detached from global events.”
Any serious bashing of Israel’s medical team is happening outside Israel, where some critics call the Haiti mission a cynical P.R. exercise to cover up misdeeds in Gaza. There’s even a rumor making the rounds, apparently started by a YouTube user in Seattle, that the Israelis were stealing Haitians’ organs. The Anti-Defamation League does a good job of deconstructing it on its Web site.
Alan Dershowitz, writing on his own Jerusalem Post blog, scolds those critics who he feels are ignoring the very real difference between the privation in besieged Gaza and the apocalyptic cataclysm that struck Haiti. He also points out that Gaza is at war with Israel and Haiti isn’t. Moreover, he notes approvingly, “many Israelis are advocating medical and other assistance to Gaza.” Dersh’s bottom line: “Continue to criticize Israel when it fails to live up to generally applicable international standards, but praise it when it exceeds those standards” by helping others.
Harris is after other game. It’s not just that Gaza is at war with Israel and Haiti isn’t. It’s not just that Gaza showered Israel with rockets and provoked an Israeli response. His complaint is that some Israelis “anguish over Israel’s purported responsibility for Gaza’s travails.”
“One could argue,” Harris writes, “that this is eloquent testimony to their ethical reflex, their desire to heal the world of Gaza. That might well be laudable but for the simple fact that Gaza is at war with Israel, a seemingly obvious proposition to all but those Israelis blinded by their own self-generated ‘guilt,’ which prevents them from confronting reality and those ultimately accountable for the facts on the ground.”
Israel’s generosity in Haiti wasn’t unique, Harris observes, recalling similar efforts in war-torn Kosovo and after a 1999 earthquake in Turkey. He could have named a dozen more.
“Yet,” Harris writes, “according to the Times’ story, all of this, at least for a few Israelis, is, in the end, rather meaningless as a source of national pride. Instead, the litmus test for Israel must be Gaza.
“This is when self-reflection turns to the instinct for self-destruction.”
And here’s where I get confused. I understand that when Jews live in the Diaspora we shouldn’t criticize Israeli actions because we’re too far away and we don’t bear the consequences. Now I’m told that when Jews live in Israel they shouldn’t criticize Israeli actions because it’s their own country and they must stand tall.
So tell me, Executive Director, when can we criticize?
So Tell Me, Rabbi, When Can I Criticize?
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).