The well-known columnist Melanie Philips once argued that there is a basic inconsistency between claiming to be a friend of Israel while engaging in public criticism of its government. She calls it “self-destructive stupidity”. I assume that Philips will agree that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a friend of Israel even when he was a very vocal leader of the opposition, vocally criticizing Israeli government policy. So what did she actually mean?
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Essentially she makes two points:
1. How can it be rational for a friend of Israel in the Diaspora to go out of their way to publicly criticize the Jewish state, when there are always worse crimes elsewhere, especially among the regimes that most despise Israel?
2. We in the liberal West are at war with a very dark enemy: the forces of fundamentalist Islamism. Even Israel’s occasional crimes pale when compared to those of our enemies, and at times of war allies have to close ranks. We can’t afford in our criticisms of Israel to give support or media oxygen to the claims of our enemies. In peacetime, friends can be critical. But not now.
Melanie Philips’ first point seems to have won the day with the mainstream Zionist leadership in the United Kingdom. This week, the Zionist Federation voted to exclude a left-wing Zionist organization Yachad from joining them as equal members. The decision came down to a vote. At first no explanation was forthcoming as to why that vote swung the way it did. But it soon became clear that the Zionist Federation agrees with Philips: a group that deigns to criticize an Israeli government in public can’t really claim to be full-bloodedly Zionist, their message is too “unclear.” They are surely guilty of “self-destructive stupidity.”
Phillips is wrong, and so is the Zionist Federation. I can criticize Hamas for making homosexuality a capital offense, just as I can criticize the Israeli government for secretly deporting asylum seekers. My heart is big enough to care for, and speak out about, both issues. Even if our enemies are worse than us, I can criticize us both proportionately to the severity of the injustice in question.
Even if we did criticize ourselves more than our enemies, as friends of Israel we are right to hold ourselves up to a higher standard than others. Because I am a patriot burning with Zionist pride – a passion that drove me and my family to make aliya – and because I am inspired by a vision of what this great country can become, I will not settle for being better than the Palestinians, the Iranians, or the Chinese. I don’t want us to be “better;” I want us to be great.
Philips’ second argument is stronger. Not everything that’s true needs to be said, and not everything that’s said needs to be said in public. We are not just fighting a war against the forces of fundamentalist Islamism, we are also fighting a media war against many of their unwitting allies, led by the likes of George Galloway in the shape of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The BDS movement calls obsessively for Israel to be singled out. And although many of their rank-and-file supporters are decent people wanting to fight for what they see to be the cause of justice, their movement and its leadership is indelibly tied to a nasty network of anti-Semitic sympathizers of Iranian clerical fascism. Philips might contend that there are times to criticize, but now isn’t that time. But she is wrong. The Jewish world needs to speak up for three reasons:
1. If the Jewish world turns a blind eye to Israeli injustices (even those that pale when compared to those of our enemies) then those injustices are given the space to grow out of control. Netanyahu doesn’t care what George Galloway thinks, but if powerful Zionists in America don’t raise alarms when Palestinian prisoners are treated like sub-humans, then they are effectively giving him and his government a green light to continue or worsen the status-quo.
A person arrested for throwing stones should not be subjected to Stalinesque sleep-deprivation, even if that isn’t what killed him. I live in Israel, so, of course, I’m sympathetic to Israel’s security needs - those are my needs too. I realize that we live in a tough neighborhood, but what becomes of us as a people, and what becomes of the Jewish world, when we turn a blind eye, and therefore risk exacerbating the injustices that go on, ostensibly in our name?
We’re right to defend ourselves against those who unfairly hope to demonize us, but what an irony it would be if, only because of our desire not to muddy the waters of the media war, we became the very demon that they accuse us of being.
2. Israel is very unlikely to survive as a Jewish democracy if we don’t achieve a two-state solution. Yet, there are things that Israel does that make the two-state solution less likely. Expanding settlements into areas like E-1 in order to create more facts on the ground and prejudice negotiations at the risk of cutting a future Palestine into discontinuous chunks is not the way to build trust. Friends of Israel should worry, and if they don’t speak up, if they don’t organize and lobby, then they have reason to fear for the future of the country that they love.
3. If you want to win the media war, you have to realize who your audience is. There are three basic camps: there are those that love Israel and will countenance no criticism of it; there are those that hate Israel and will countenance no defense it; and there are the millions (if not billions) of people worldwide who don’t claim to know enough, or care enough, about the Israeli-Arab conflict to take a side. Those are the people that can realistically be won over. They are the largest and the most important camp.
They are more likely to be won over by the side that shows it is open-minded, balanced, and understanding of the other side. They are more likely to be won over by the face of a rational and critical Zionism. They are more likely to be won over if we can show them just what Philips want to deny: that you can be a critical friend of Israel. Anything else, under these circumstances, might well be “self-destructive stupidity.”