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Is It OK for Me to Criticize the Occupation Even Though I No Longer Live in Israel?

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A demonstration near the United Nations headquarters in New York. Our right to criticize what is happening in places we have never been to stems not only from universal human solidarity
A demonstration near the United Nations headquarters in New York. Our right to criticize what is happening in places we have never been to stems not only from universal human solidarityCredit: AP

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Dear Haaretz,

I left Israel over 15 years ago, mainly for personal reasons. I was against the occupation and critical of the government, especially with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. But is it ethical for someone who left to openly criticize the government, the occupation and the army’s treatment of the Palestinians?

A leftist “yored”

Dear leftist yored,

The question of the exiled communities arouses intense anxiety and anger in Israel, as is evident from the delicate word “yordim” (a disparaging term for Israelis who emigrate. Why not just say “traitors”?)

But this is not unique to Israel. The number of emigrants is steadily increasing, as is their ability to remain connected to their countries of origin. Government, academic and international organzations, including the World Bank and the United Nations, study the important economic and political role s of these communities.

India and the Philippines are among the states that consider their exiles an economic asset, thanks to the remittances from abroad. But states such as Israel and Armenia view them mainly as tools that can press their homelands’ case in their new homes.

One reason is that citizenship can be variously understood as a legal status that confers certain rights or membership in a political community that creates a distinct identity.

Another debate over citizenship is between the republican and liberal models. The former holds that membership in a collective is conditional on contributing to the common good, such as through military service or paying taxes. This outlook emerged from the writings of Aristotle, who focused on the citizen’s obligations to the community. Aristotle considered a good citizen one who actively participates in shaping the laws and obeys them. He held that the contribution of women, who could not be citizens, to the community was through childbirth.

The liberal model developed during the expansion of the Roman Empire. In that context, a citizen was not necessarily involved in shaping political life even if it directly affected him. Citizenship became a legal status carrying certain protections. This is the basis for the modern conception of citizenship: defined mainly by the state’s obligations to the individual, which are granted to everyone equally.

Distortion of what citizenship means

Unfortunately, the prevailing approach in Israel is a distortion of republicanism. On the one hand, citizens in the broader sense – that is, individuals who belong to or identify with the political community – are not necessarily citizens of the state or their children. This is particularly true for American Jewry, whose political relationship with Israel is complex.

On the other hand, citizenship is always conditional. Only someone who has contributied to the community, preferably through military service, may express a political opinion.

The result is people who express a minority opinion while stressing their record as a “former infantry commander.”

The more the Israeli political map is pulled to the right, the stronger the attitude that only someone who contributes to the collective and who expresses government or majority opinions is permitted to be involved in politics. That hold for citizens living in Israel, especially leftists or, even worse, Arabs, much less expatriates.

Therefore, Sheldon Adelson is a good citizen even without formal citizenship, Reform and Conservative Jews less so and left-wing writers like Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman (who was born in Israel) certainly must learn to keep quiet.

I am of the opposite opinion. In my eyes, even if I warmly recommend rejecting Aristotle’s misogynistic opinion and his emphasis is the individual’s contribution to the community, we can adopt his view that political involvement is a worthy moral quality and a way of aspiring to improve human existence.

Involvement in political life doesn’t have to meet conditions such as contribution to the community and obeying the norms. And in terms of ethics, as opposed to the legal definition of citizenship, a person is not required to be a formal citizen of a country (for example, a refugee who lives there) and is not required to live there (for example, an Israeli who lives in New York) in order to be deeply involved in what is happening there and to wish to influence its political situation with the tools at his disposal.

That’s just as true of opponents of the occupation as it is for Israelis who have left the country and support right-wing policy.

The question of someone who is neither a citizen nor a resident of the state is more complex, but the answer is not essentially different. Our right to criticize what is happening in places we have never been to stems not only from universal human solidarity – in my opinion, the main reason – but also from the recognition that we live in a global village, that the actions of a president who doesn’t believe in global warning can melt icebergs that will drown the inhabitants of other countries, and that war or hunger on one continent can quickly develop into a refugee crisis on another.

Duty to resist injustice

I reject the argument that a person can express his opinion or aspire to wield an influence only on a policy from which he will suffer or benefit clearly and directly, which reflects a narrow and dangerous ultranationalist approach.

In moral terms, it’s not only our right but even our duty to oppose what we see as injustice, even when it it’s happening in a distant and foreign place, and to help even someone who is distant and foreign, to the best of our ability.

A criticism that does seem relevant to me is the ignorance that a person is likely to demonstrate in such a case. Therefore, those who don’t live in a certain state would do well to try to learn the subject before expressing an opinion about it. That’s also true of the local residents, but in their case it’s more forgivable.

In any case, their right to voice criticism or praise doesn’t depend on their degree of geopolitical understanding.

That relates mainly to the right of total strangers to express their opinion. In your case, as someone who lived here until 15 years ago and whose identity is profoundly connected to this place – clearly it’s important and proper that you voice your opinion about what’s happening here.

Please hurry up, the situation is desperate.