It’s how you say it that matters
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It’s how you say it that matters

Even before the Mavi Marmara fiasco, the question was being bandied about the length and breadth of the Jewish world: Is there a proper way to criticize Israel without being called a self-hating Jew (or worse)?

The simple answer to that question is no. Either you support Israel unconditionally or you do not support it at all. When Jews criticize Israel, they play into the hands of Israel’s enemies and that is nothing short of treason.

Keeping the faithThat, at least, is what one hears after saying or writing something critical of Israel. Yet nothing is as simple as that.

Some people on the right, here and in Israel, were so critical of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that it led to his assassination. Similar criticisms, although perhaps not as inciting, were heard during the administrations of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. The mere hint of a suggestion that land may be traded for peace is enough to set off a torrent of invective from the right. Criticize the Netanyahu government for issuing building permits in east Jerusalem, say, or for failing to heed a high court order to open a road or close a settlement, and you are exposing yourself up to a vicious onslaught.

If anyone on the left is smiling at this, that smile is misplaced. The mere hint of a suggestion from an Israeli policy-maker that land may never be traded for peace is enough to set off a torrent of invective from the left. The policy-maker is likely to be called a fascist, or likened to a Nazi.

Each side, of course, believes that it is faithful to Israel and its security interests, and that the other side is dangerously mistaken.

For example, Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy issues, had this to say last weekend on WNYC’s “On the Media” radio program: “Israel is surrounded by enemies. And you’re either going to try to help protect it or you’re going to jump on the bandwagon of those who are trying to harm it. There’s only two camps here.”

Things are not black and white, countered the journalist Peter Beinart, who recently wrote a scathing critique of Israel in the New York Review of Books for which he has come under enormous criticism. Beinart is the former editor of the New Republic, who, incidentally, belongs to the Orthodox Kesher Israel Synagogue in Washington, D.C., to which Sen. Joseph Lieberman also belongs – facts I raise only to point out that his pro-Israel credentials were considered unassailable until now. He told “On the Media” co-host Brooke Gladstone that Jews are proud of Israel because “it is a liberal democratic Jewish state.”

“But if you say that’s why you admire Israel, then it seems to me you have a responsibility to fight for … Israel as a liberal democracy,” Beinart said. “And I think there are forces in Israel today … that are hostile to liberal democratic values…. I think we who love Israel as a liberal democracy have to defend [those values and those in Israel who support those values]…. If I don’t have the right as an American Jew to amplify the voices of those Israeli Jews who share my values, then I think the fate of those Israeli Jews who want to create space in their society for criticism will be more imperiled.”

This is one of those Tevye arguments. In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye listens to an argument between a neighbor and a young anarchist who just came to town. As each one makes his case, Tevye proclaims “he’s right.” To this, another listener asks him how they both can be right. “You know,” Tevye says, “you are also right.”

Unfortunately, at the moment Rosen is more right.

Facts have nothing to do with it when it comes to Israel and the Arab world. It is all about perception. If the Arabs perceive that Israel is vulnerable and on the defensive, then it does not matter whether Israel is or is not. The Arab world will act on the perception. All too often, both sides end up paying a very high price as a result.

We saw this in 2000 when Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon. It did so six weeks ahead of schedule and the withdrawal took place in the pre-dawn hours. There were excellent reasons why Israel did this, including the substantial consideration that the element of surprise would probably save lives that day. All Hezbollah saw, however, was what it perceived as a victory. Hezbollah perceived that it had forced Israel’s much-feared military to cower its way to safety under the cover of darkness.

Here is what Hamas sees today. It sent missiles into Sderot and elsewhere in the south. When Israel responded, most of the world’s governments condemned that response. So did most of the world’s newspapers. There were mass demonstrations in capitals the world over. There were some people who offered criticism of Hamas, to be sure, but most talked only about Israel’s “disproportionate response.” Hamas was the victim, missiles in Sderot notwithstanding.

Is there anyone in a foreign policy position in Australia, or France, or in the U.N. Secretariat, who does not believe that Hamas would joyously wipe Israel off the map of the Middle East and send its Jews hurtling into the sea? It should be obvious, then, that Israel has every right to prevent Hamas from importing missiles and other weapons into Gaza. Yet what Hamas sees is a world that condemned Israel’s blockade long before the Mavi Marmara ever set sail.

It is not criticism of Israel that is the problem; true friends really do need to be honest with each other, and family members certainly do. How that criticism is expressed is what matters. We cannot permit the other side – whether it is Hamas, or Hezbollah, or Fatah, or whoever – to exult in the belief that Israel is being made more vulnerable.

Beinart’s article, to quote Rosen, “barely mentions the threats to Israel – it hardly mentions Hamas, Iran. The world consists, as he tells it, of Israeli sins….”

To my mind, those “sins” merit discussion and debate even though I do not agree with all of his criticisms. What Beinart wrote needed to be said. At this time, however, it just needed to be said differently.

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