Only When the U.S. Is Allowed to Criticize Israel Can It Be a True Friend

Being a good friend doesn't mean supporting others blindly, cheering them on regardless of how self-destructive their behavior may be.

Ayalon Eliach
Ayalon Eliach
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President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured together in 2010.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured together in 2010.Credit: Reuters
Ayalon Eliach
Ayalon Eliach

Last Tuesday, the Israeli daily Israel Hayom ran an opinion piece by Haim Shine that, if published in almost any other newspaper, would have been slammed as grossly anti-Semitic.  The headline, “Obama's Jewish advisers are the problem,” offers a good summary of its author’s argument: American criticism of Israel stems from self-interested American Jews, not genuine concern for Israel. In addition to echoing the conspiratorial trope that Jews secretly control the government, the piece reflects a growing and dangerous misunderstanding of what real friendship between the United States and Israel entails.

In the 1990s, the American Ad Council ran a series of ads with the slogan “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” The ads warned about the dangers of alcohol, but more importantly they were a commentary on the nature of friendship. They rejected the idea that being a good friend means supporting your friends blindly, cheering them on regardless of how self-destructive their behavior may be. Instead, they argued that real friendship sometimes demands taking a stance that your friend might not like.

This idea has deep roots in the Jewish tradition.  In back-to-back verses in Leviticus, the Torah instructs its readers to “surely rebuke thy neighbor” and “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:17-18). From this textual proximity, the third-century rabbi Yossi bar Hanina inferred an implicit connection: Any love that is not accompanied by rebuke is not real love (Bereshit Rabba 54:3).

Other sages took this principle even further. The second-century rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar cited Rabbi Meir as saying: Some friends rebuke you and others praise you. Love those who rebuke you, and hate those who praise you” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 29:1).

In the 12th century, Maimonides offered a hierarchy of types of friendship: The ideal friend pushes you to be your best self, which often includes changing course, whereas friends who treat you as infallible are hardly desirable.

Unfortunately, many people interested in the U.S.-Israel relationship have forgotten that criticism is a fundamental part of friendship. On the one hand, there are those who cannot tolerate Israeli critiques of U.S. policy. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress in March, this camp was furious not only because Netanyahu did not coordinate his visit to Washington with U.S. President Barack Obama, but also because he dared to criticize U.S. foreign policy. Based on the notion that such criticism was inherently inappropriate, they largely ignored the substance of Netanyahu’s concerns about Iran.

On the other hand, there are others, like Haim Shine, who proclaim that any American criticism of Israeli policies stems from a lack of concern for the Jewish state, or even hatred of it. They suggest Obama has ulterior motives when he informs Israelis of the U.S. position that building Jewish settlements in the West Bank is counterproductive to Israeli aspirations for peace. In doing so, these people also fail to listen to the underlying messages being conveyed.

Both the United States and Israel will be worse off if they do not listen to rebuke from their friends. Each country needs the other’s support as well as its criticism. States, like people, cannot improve until they recognize their own shortcomings. Also like people, states are often bad at seeing their own flaws. When friends point them out, however, they are generally easier to see. Offering that mirror is the best gift a friend can give.

In talking about the U.S.-Israel relationship, Obama recently said that “to paper over difficult questions ... [is] not a true measure of friendship." It would be wise for all those interested in the U.S.-Israel relationship to pay attention to his words, which find deep roots in Judaism. The alternative is to resort to the growing tendency of preferring unconditional cheerleading over real friendship. The Jewish tradition has a view on that approach as well: Whoever loves correction loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid (Proverbs 12:1).

Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world.

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