Debate the Flaws of the Left, Not Just the Right

It’s time to stop the hysterical defensiveness of Progressive Zionists, those self-styled defenders of democracy, who betray their contempt for democratic discourse when they go ballistic when anyone dares criticize them.

Gil Troy
Gil Troy
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Gil Troy
Gil Troy

For years now, progressive Zionists have been caricaturing the Jewish community’s conversation about Israel as one-sided, monolithic, stultifying, all-too-often hysterical. They claim there is no toleration for critics, no room for creativity, no possibilities for growth. They complain of being cut off, marginalized, bullied, squelched. They lament the death of Israeli democracy along with an independent critical spirit among Diaspora Jews. And they are demanding a seat at the table – as if they are not heard in Israeli politics, at Federation events, in so many synagogues, when in fact they are.

For over a decade now, I have been advocating building a big, broad Zionist tent, which like Abraham’s tent, has its boundaries, has its definitions, but is open on all four sides. I have initiated projects to articulate the blue-and-white lines that unite us from left to right, while acknowledging certain red lines we do not cross, that degenerate into demonization, delegitimization, double standards. And I have proudly joined endeavors like the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Project, which fosters a principled “Jewish values” conversation about Israel, drilling down to core concepts to illuminate new visions rather than exacerbate old divisions.

In that spirit, I cringe when extremists in the pro-Israel community go nuclear rhetorically, shrinking the universe of Israel supporters too much by calling those who disagree with them “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic.” I object when President Barack Obama is called “anti-Israel,” even when his pathological relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes from testy to nasty, or when his administration’s concern with stopping Israeli settlements blinds it to the Palestinian Authority’s obstructionism and continued support for exterminationist extremists. I object to calling Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel an anti-Semite, although he is morally obtuse, frequently unable to distinguish between the terrorist and the terrorized.

Similarly, I cringe when Progressive critics – who want Israel and the Jewish community to be more open to criticism – go ballistic when anyone dares to criticize them. Forging a new conversation that is more balanced, less hysterical, and more critical also demands self-criticism. Fighting for democracy also requires a commitment to mutuality and a healthy debate about the Left’s flaws not just the Right’s.

Yet the self-appointed defenders of Israeli democracy keep on declaring Israeli democracy dead or threatened whenever anyone dares to criticize them. And these people presuming “Etrog” status for themselves – as if they are above the fray – repeatedly call their critics McCarthyite – as if no criticism of them is ever valid but instead merits comparison to the anti-Communist prince of darkness from the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who ruined lives with inference, innuendo, political manipulation and media grandstanding.

The most recent round of unjustified defensiveness was triggered last week with Professor Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor’s article, “Transparent Meddling, Opaque Funding: The EU and NGOs.” Steinberg challenged the outrageous, undemocratic, corruption-inducing, incompetence-shielding fact that for the last thirteen years “all documents related to EU funding for dozens of Israeli and Palestinian political NGOs have been labeled top secret.” While raising this important question about transparency, Steinberg also criticized some of the initiatives that the EU funds, accusing them of discouraging rather than encouraging Middle East peace.

Many leftists, once again, were furious. Adhering to the usual script, the counterattack claimed “An array of NGOs, including NGO Monitor, are advancing an assault on Israeli democracy in lockstep with the government,” and accused Steinberg and his NGO Monitor of conducting a “meticulous, McCarthy-like inquiry of NGOs and their funders.” The first criticism commits the sin of which NGO Monitor is often accused – innuendo: the author Hagai El-Ad, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, resorts to weasel words like “seems to” and “tag team effort” instead of offering proof. The second criticism, in an article called “In Defense of NGO’s Right to Meddle,” contradicts itself. McCarthy was anything but meticulous; he was a dangerous, undisciplined, slob. NGO Monitor has been so successful because it meticulously researches, meticulously footnotes, and meticulously proves its cases – as it did with Steinberg’s recent article, whose substantive complaints of secrecy and lack of transparency remain unrefuted.

It seems that the Association for Civil Rights needs to learn about civil debate. And it seems that Israeli democracy is thriving, with a hard fought political campaign going on, and with exactly these kinds of intensive Left-Right clashes taking place. I only wish the debate in the campaign and on this topic spent more time on substance, and less on personalities, more time exploring the issues, less time casting aspersions. Hysterical defenses by self-styled defenders of democracy betraying contempt for democratic discourse should stop; let’s all strive to foster more mutual respect, consistency, integrity, civility and, transparency, especially when it comes to the EU, given that we are talking about foreign governments subsidizing supposedly grassroots organizations trying to sway a democratic ally.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book, Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published by Oxford University Press.

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