Is It an Israeli's Duty to Present His Country in a Positive Light?

Should I avoid airing Israel's dirty laundry while abroad? Haaretz’s ethics adviser has an answer

Yoana Gonen
Moral Minority
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A screenshot from an Elite Coffee ad, which urges Israelis abroad to be the country's ambassadors. "Now you're one of us," the Israeli backpacker says.
A screenshot from an Elite Coffee ad, which urges Israelis abroad to be the country's ambassadors. "Now you're one of us," the Israeli backpacker says.Credit: Elite Coffee's Youtube channel
Yoana Gonen
Moral Minority

Readers ask Haaretz

Two years ago I relocated to the United States for my job. Often conversations with colleagues wander into politics and society, and I share examples from Israel that don’t always reveal the country in a favorable light. My mother-in-law claims I have to present Israel only in a positive way. I don’t agree with her. I am private individual and it’s not my job to do PR for Israel worldwide. Anyway, I don’t believe that hiding the truth helps. Is it the role of Israelis to serve as ambassadors of the state and say only good things about it? I’m not talking about lying or altering details of events that happened – only about not sharing negative things. – Diplomatic Reply

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Dear Diplomatic Reply,

Contrary to the notion prevalent in Israel today – that every criticism of the regime constitutes treason – in the realm of philosophy the more widely accepted idea is that political critique is an act of love. That concept is found as early as in the “Apology,” the speech that Socrates delivered in his defense when he was tried for blasphemy against the gods and for corrupting the youth. Socrates believed the charges against him were related to criticism he had voiced about the Athenian way of life. In response, he claimed that his efforts to reform the state represented not only a commitment to the truth, but also to the citizenry.

As the political theorist Wendy Brown notes in the book “Critical Theory at a Crossroads: Conversations on Resistance in Times of Crisis,” “From Socrates in the ‘Apology,’ we have an argument that dissent from existing practices, even wholesale critique of the regime, is not merely compatible with love and loyalty to a political community, but rather is the supreme form of such love and loyalty.”

There are some who believe in the importance of criticizing the regime but are disinclined to voice such opinions beyond the country’s borders. This enigmatic school of thought is known as “Yesh Atid voters” – perhaps your mother-in-law is an adherent? However, in contrast to the arguments of Yair “I will not speak out against the government abroad” Lapid, morally it is impossible to justify the geographical distinction.

People enjoy the beach front in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, May 16, 2020.
People enjoy the beach front in Tel Aviv, May 16, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

If you censor your opinions and hide negative aspects of Israel, you will find yourself lying willy-nilly. A lie is not only “altering the details of events,” as you put it, but any distortion of the truth, including the omission of some of its elements. Speaking the truth is a fundamental value in the realm of ethics, because lies hinder the ability of the Other to make decisions autonomously and rationally, and they are damaging to the psyche of the liar.

From a deontological perspective – meaning, examining the moral value of actions in and of themselves and not according to their implications – lies cannot be justified even if their purpose is a positive one.

Even if we examine your question from a teleological standpoint, by which morality is defined according to the consequences of acts – the avoidance of expressing criticism outside the country’s borders causes more harm than good. Among other ills, a systematic policy of that kind is deleterious to freedom of discussion and of thought.

In his famous lecture “Free Thought and Official Propaganda,” the British philosopher Bertrand Russell maintained that some of the factors that can be harmful to freedom of thought are more elusive than others. In his view, it is easy to discern the effects of legal penalties, but in the modern era the distortion of reality is a far more significant obstacle to free thought. It’s interesting to note that he was speaking in 1922, about a century before “fake news” became a commonplace term and a powerful propaganda tool.

According to Russell, “It is clear also that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search… We may say that thought is free when it is exposed to free competition among beliefs.”

The State of Israel and various private bodies spend a fortune on propaganda abroad, aimed both at the general public and at politicians and decision makers. Incessant hasbara is such a quintessentially Israeli activity that, for example, one local coffee company exploited it to enhance its all-Israeli image in an ad campaign calling on backpackers “to bolster Israel’s image internationally.”

Palestinian laborers wait in line to enter Israel through the Mitar checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, May 3, 2020.
Palestinian laborers wait in line to enter Israel through the Mitar checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, May 3, 2020.Credit: AFP

The demand to silence opposing views precludes true debate and is harmful to the listeners’ freedom of thought. Human beings, even those who do not have the good fortune to be Israeli citizens, are entitled to form their opinions without facts being hidden from them in an effort to impose a particular view upon them. Subterfuge of that sort is not only paternalistic; it also demonstrates that the speaker understands that the naked truth is not especially flattering.

This brings us to the last point, which is actually the most important one: Israel’s real problem is not a distorted image but distorted policies. Since the most basic moral requirement of mankind is to act to reduce harm to others, we are obligated to struggle against these ruinous policies, and one way to do that is by influencing world public opinion.

This is especially true in connection with the occupation (not that you asked, but this is the main subject that comes up in the context of voicing criticism abroad). First, because the occupation is not an internal Israeli matter: It entails rule over foreign subjects, who are robbed of the right to shape their own collective fate by themselves. Second, because the occupation is made possible with the aid of the passive turning-of-a-blind-eye and with active economic and security aid on the part of Europe and the United States. Exposing citizens of those countries to Israel’s negative sides can contribute to the generation of international pressure, and thereby reduce the suffering that is inflicted in our name. That’s not much, but it’s more helpful than silence and concealment.

Turning abroad with the aim of putting an end to local wrongs is not a new phenomenon. This month, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that a special award was being made to the journalist Ida B. Wells, who died in 1931. She was given the posthumous prize for a series of investigative reports that shattered the myth about lynching being a communal method of punishment for African Americans who raped white women. Wells showed, rather, that it was an institutionalized practice unrelated to accusations of rape, and was intended to preserve the inferior status of African Americans even after the constitutional ban on slavery.

Like many others who came out against the existing order, Wells, too, discovered that people around her were not eager to listen to criticism. She therefore embarked on two rounds of talks in Britain, where she found a more attentive audience and garnered favorable media coverage. In the wake of her lectures, the British started to exert pressure on America’s Southern states, which were gradually compelled to put an end to the horrific lynches. Historians today concur that without the public attention that Wells received in Britain, her struggle would not have accrued the immense influence it possessed in the United States.

How fortunate that Wells disregarded your mother-in-law’s demand, and understood that it’s sometimes necessary to air your dirty laundry in public so the house won’t smell quite so bad.

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