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‘Criticize Away’: Hartman Institute Debates Debating

Havruta, a journal of the Shalom Hartman Institute, features a symposium on whether and how to criticize Israel in its February 2012 issue. It makes for interesting reading, with special shout-outs to Yossi Klein-Halevi’s thought-provoking letter to a right-wing friend and editor Stuart Schoffman’s delightful introduction.

My own contribution is below. I would link directly to it from Facebook, but there’s no way to link directly to the articles in the journal – you have to page through the full issue (which has its own joys).

Criticism and Civil Conversation /// A Symposium

J.J. Goldberg: Criticize Away

J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of the Jewish Daily Forward, has covered the politics and culture of American Jewry for a quarter century in a variety of American and Israeli publications. He has served as editor-in- chief of the Forward and U.S. bureau chief of the Jerusalem Report, and is the author of Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment.

IN LATE 1993, SHORTLY AFTER YITZHAK RABIN and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, Rabin’s predecessor Yitzhak Shamir appeared in New York with a surprising message that seemed to surprise no one in his audience. Addressing a packed gathering of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Shamir said (I’m paraphrasing only slightly): I have often urged you to refrain from criticizing Israel’s democratically elected government, because Israelis alone bear the consequences of its decisions. Now I’ve changed my mind. This elected government is making bad decisions. Please, criticize away.

The moment perfectly encapsulated the nonsensical dishonesty that characterizes the debate over whether and how Diaspora Jews may criticize Israel. In reality, there is not and never has been a taboo against Jews criticizing Israel. There is a taboo against Jews urging Israel to adopt more liberal policies toward the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states. There is no taboo against urging more hardline policies.

The unstated logic behind this one-sided stricture is readily apparent. Advocating a more conciliatory policy can be depicted, fairly or not (usually not) as siding with the enemy. By contrast, no one argues seriously that urging greater inflexibility is meant to weaken Israel and strengthen its foes, even though that may well be the practical result.

In effect, those who urge Diaspora Jews not to criticize Israeli policy are simply demanding that liberals keep their misgivings to themselves. Of course, liberals are free to ignore the demands and say what they wish. But there is a cost: for the layperson – public vilification, social rebuff; for the rabbi or communal professional – perhaps even loss of livelihood.

How, in a largely liberal community, can an individual suffer ostracism for expressing liberal views? Why would the broader community at large take sides against the individual who broke ranks? Essentially, because most Jews pay only cursory attention to the community’s affairs, and so the most strident noise leaves the strongest impression. Wayward liberals are attacked on the Internet and in the Jewish weekly press as enemies of Israel and abettors of anti-Semitism. The average reader goes no further than skimming the headlines, noting with passing concern that so-and-so has joined forces with Israel’s enemies, and a reputation is ruined. It happens over and over.

Given the price exacted on critics of Israeli action, those who are uncomfortable with what they read tend simply to back away. The Jewish community loses some of its most sensitive minds. Lately, growing numbers of young Jews are actually returning to the fray as foes of Israel, advocates of boycotts and Palestinian solidarity. It’s hard to know whether to lament the fact that they are attacking the Jewish state or rejoice that they care enough to get involved.

The acquiescence of the mainstream community is particularly shocking when one considers the frivolousness of the case for censorship. The main justification is that Israelis elect their own government and are entitled to make their own decisions. But this goes without saying. Voicing criticism from abroad doesn’t change that. Press releases in New York have no enforcement power in Jerusalem.

A further justification is based on the special Jewish bond to Israel, which supposedly creates a moral obligation to support Israel’s decisions without question. This is where illogic crosses into silliness. Jews have been urged continually to speak out and protest the policies of the French, Soviet, Swedish, Sudanese and Iranian governments. The one country about which we are expected to keep silent is the one to which we have the deepest spiritual connection. It makes no sense.

The most pernicious argument is the claim that Jews should not tell Israelis what to do because Israelis alone bear the consequences of their government’s decisions. In fact, the ultimate price has also been exacted from Diaspora Jews – at the El Al desk at Los Angeles International Airport, on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, in the offices of the Seattle Jewish federation, on the Brooklyn Bridge, in synagogues in Turkey and Morocco and, of course, in the AMIA Jewish community building in Buenos Aires. Nor should this surprise us. Jewish communities have declared for decades that we and Israel are one, that we are Israel’s second line of defense. We can take deep pride in the role we have played. But we should not be shocked that an enemy unscrupulous enough to attack toddlers in a Jerusalem pizzeria or commuters on a Haifa bus would strike as well against a synagogue in the Bronx.

In the mid-1970s, Yitzhak Rabin led a government that included two ministers, Aharon Yariv and Victor Shemtov, who believed Israel should declare itself willing to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Under their so-called Yariv-Shemtov Formula, Israel would declare itself willing to negotiate with any entity that was willing to settle the dispute via negotiations. Either the PLO would accept, or it would reveal itself to be the recalcitrant party. The formula was not adopted, but neither were the two dismissed from the cabinet.

Not long after, a small group of American Jews – mostly graduate students and young rabbis –formed an organization called Breira, aiming to echo the Yariv-Shemtov formula. Only their phrasing was different: Israel should declare itself willing to negotiate with the PLO on the basis of mutual recognition, meaning on condition that the PLO recognize Israel. The response: a coordinated campaign by community leaders and Israeli diplomats around the country, directed by Rabin’s Washington ambassador, Simcha Dinitz, to break the organization. Federations ejected Breira members from their boards. Rabbis identified with Breira were fired. Within two years the organization disbanded, brought to its knees by an Israeli government whose own members shared its views.

What could Israel have gained from such perverse behavior? A lot. During the period that Breira was active, Israel was involved in indirect negotiations with Egypt and Syria, via Henry Kissinger. The faחade of American Jewish unanimity put pressure on Congress, and through Congress, on the administration and Kissinger, giving Israel an extra edge in the talks. Through the 1980s, disciplined American Jewish pressure helped keep American support for Israel unshakeable. That, in turn, helped convince the Arab world that Israel could not be defeated. This led directly to the PLO vote in Algiers in 1988 to accept, belatedly, the 1947 United Nations partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The next step was the negotiation in Oslo in 1993 of what one former deputy IDF chief of staff told me was the Palestinians’ “surrender.” As unpleasant as it may sound to liberal Jewish ears, the censoring of Jewish dissent helped bring about Palestinian and broader Arab recognition of Israel.

But like most effective weapons, Jewish self-censorship didn’t get mothballed after the job was done. Instead, it was put to new uses. Oslo didn’t end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather took it into new territory. One result was to sharpen a debate within Israel over the future of the territories. In theory, once Israel had formally begun negotiating with the PLO, the taboo on liberal expression should have disappeared. But the taboo had never been justified for what it was, a device to bring about Arab compliance. It had been sold and enforced as an intrinsic value: Diaspora Jews should never tell Israel what to do (unless they’re telling it to be more hardline). The right continued to make that argument – though, beginning with Shamir’s address, the one-sidedness of the stricture became more and more blatant.

The stifling of dissent was a deal with the devil from the outset. It polluted Jewish public discourse and embittered some of the Jewish community’s best and brightest thinkers. Once it served a Machiavellian purpose. Today it is merely a pollutant that divides whole communities and weakens Diaspora-Israel ties.

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