I’m always amused when I hear American Jews complain that they’re being “shut out,” that they don’t feel comfortable “criticizing” Israel, and that many young Jews are becoming alienated from Israel because they don’t feel free to criticize the Jewish state.
Hmm, I wonder, which country are they talking about? Have you ever seen an American Jew afraid to speak up about anything? Open up any issue of The Jewish Journal and tell me if American Jews are uncomfortable criticizing Israel or their own people.
It’s true that because of the anti-Israel propaganda that pervades much of the world, many Jews feel an obligation to push back and make Israel’s case. I would imagine it is this anti-Israel propaganda, more than anything, that poisons many young Jews on Israel — not the honest efforts to push back and correct the record.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the debate from raging, especially since Peter Beinart’s celebrated article a year ago warning about Israel losing a new generation of liberal Jews. As a result, many members of the Jewish establishment have been asking: Are we being too blindly supportive of Israel? Are we tuning out dissenting voices? Should we be encouraging more criticism of Israel?
If you ask me, instead of obsessing over criticism (“Israel can do no right”) or propaganda (“Israel can do no wrong”), we ought to be promoting context: that is, trying to explain and understand the objective context behind Israel’s actions.
Take the case of Gabriel Mathew Schivone, a Jewish student at the University of Arizona, who wrote in Haaretz last week that he “simply cannot sit idle while my country aids and abets Israel’s siege, occupation and repression of the Palestinians.”
Schivone will be joining the flotilla to Gaza this week, sailing with more than 30 other Americans whose goal, he says, is to “actively and nonviolently resist policies” that he considers “abominable.”
“I am one of a growing number of young American Jews who are determined to shake off an assumed — and largely imposed — association with Israel,” Schivone wrote. “Prominent advocacy organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, which proudly proclaim their unconditional support of Israel, for several years have been declaring their ‘serious concern’ over the increasing ‘distancing’ of young American Jews from the state.
“But what Israel apologists like the AJC view as a crisis, I see as a positive development for American Jews …”
Well, let’s see. Is Schivone’s criticism of Israel a positive development for American Jewry? Let’s compare what he wrote about the upcoming flotilla with an article on the same subject by “Israel apologist” David Harris, head of AJC.
What is noteworthy about Schivone’s article is that while he makes full use of his right to criticize Israel, he provides no context whatsoever for his criticism.
For example, in explaining his mission to Gaza, he talks about the imperative to help “free the slave from a bondage that you would not wish to suffer,” and the Israeli “crimes” that have led to the “death and suffering of mainly Palestinian noncombatants.” But, incredibly, he never once mentions Hamas — you know, that terrorist organization that is actually ruling over these “slaves” in Gaza?
David Harris’ article in JPost, by comparison, provides the context behind Israel’s blockade:
“Hamas celebrates violence,” Harris wrote. “It joyously speaks of jihad, martyrdom, conflict, and the ultimate destruction of Israel. It has matched its fiery rhetoric with a sustained effort to import weapons, courtesy of Iran, smugglers in the Sinai, and tunnels from the Egyptian side of the border. In recent years, literally thousands of rockets and missiles have been fired from Gaza at Israel. Why?
“Israel has no claims on Gaza. To the contrary, Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Soldiers and settlers alike were pulled out by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, giving local residents the first chance ever in their history to govern themselves.
“Israel has an interest in a stable, peaceful, and prospering Gaza, not a gun-toting, missile-firing, jihad-preaching entity.”
Now, you can look at both messages and say Schivone is being more “courageous,” because he is criticizing his own people. But who is being more accurate? Who is providing context and holding the right people accountable? Is it the establishment guy with the facts or the young Turk with the swagger?
In the current bash-Israel atmosphere we are in — when it’s so popular to beat up on the Jewish state — it just may be the David Harrises of the world who are the true dissenters.
Here’s my point. We can’t be so afraid to lose the new generation that we become afraid to correct them when they’re wrong. We can’t get so obsessed with the “right to criticize” that we forget about the obligation to know the context before you do criticize — not to mention, of course, the obligation to defend Israel when the world makes unfair accusations.
It’s one thing to criticize Israel with balance and context; it’s another thing to criticize it just because it’s cool to stick it to the establishment.
Schivone writes that when he sails toward Gaza this week, in what he calls “the most celebrated — and controversial — sea voyage of the 21st century,” he will proudly be wearing the Star of David.
I wish he would also be carrying a picture of Gilad Shalit and reading the Hamas charter.