What are the limits for criticizing Israel? Many condemn the Jewish community's refusal to listen to harsh criticism, while others object to the aggressiveness of the attacks against the Jewish state. Both sides claim to express themselves only on grounds of their "love" and concern for Israel.
It is essential to distinguish between constructive and destructive criticism. In order to do so, it may be useful to take an example from everyday life. Once in a while, in every community -- be it a family, be it friends or colleagues -- someone may make a mistake. Should we confront that person or not, and if so, in which way? In Jewish tradition, it isn't merely permissible, but imperative to reprimand one's fellow Jew if he or she has committed a wrongdoing: "Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor and not bear sin because of him" (Leviticus 19:17).
This stems from the sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility that binds the Jewish community.
In order for criticism to have a positive impact, three preconditions are essential:\n
• It must be based on verifiable evidence.\n
• The critic must take into consideration the context under which the offensive act took place and try to understand the total picture.\n
• The critic must understand that nobody can be held responsible for an action for which there was no reasonable alternative.
These conditions apply within the Jewish community as well as in our relationship to the State of Israel. We resemble an extended family feeling responsible for one another. Any deliberation about our faults must be conducted within the community. Only well-founded, balanced, and sympathetic criticism can have a positive effect.
Criticism that does not comply with these conditions may turn dangerously destructive.\n
• When censure is based on distorted or false information, it is malicious and defamatory. The Jenin "massacre" is an example. Newspapers the world over reported on Jenin as an "atrocious war crime," a refugee camp that became a slaughterhouse. They reported thousands of killed. In reality, as confirmed by the United Nations, a total of 52 Palestinians were killed, a majority of whom were armed terrorists. On the other hand, what generally went unreported was that 23 Israelis were sacrificed in ground combat -- a tactic chosen to minimize civilian casualties among the Palestinians.\n
• To ignore the circumstances surrounding a complex situation and to rip it out of context are both immoral and reckless. It is outrageous to fault Israel for not allowing Palestinian ambulances unrestricted access at checkpoints -- while failing to note that these Red Cross vehicles are often used to smuggle terrorists and weapons into Israel.\n
• Criticism that is blatantly biased and based on a double standard in assessing political and military situations must be rejected. For instance, the United Nations Plenary passed 322 resolutions against Israel -- and not a single one against any Arab state.
Far from constructive criticism, the above examples constitute a destructive campaign of slander and defamation against Israel. It is totally irrational that irresponsible "critics" are often invited to publicize their opinions through articles in Jewish publications and by speaking about Israel in Jewish communities. Any efficient effort to create awareness of what truly occurs is rendered ineffective from the start.\n
• In the context of legitimate criticism, any fair-minded person must remember that despite the many decades of Arab aggression and intransigence, starting before the birth of the state and continuing until the intifada, Israel has always sought peace and coexistence with its neighbors. She has demonstrated abundant readiness to make sacrifices for peace -- dating back to the League of Nations declaration endorsing a Jewish settlement in all of Palestine and the 1947 Partition Plan, and up to Ehud Barak's and Ariel Sharon's proposals. The futility of such efforts is patently reflected in remarks by Yasser Arafat, so highly praised after his death, who declared some time after the signing of the Oslo agreement in Stockholm in 1996: "We plan to erase the State of Israel and to establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make the lives of the Jews intolerable through psychological warfare and a population explosion.... The Palestinians will take over all of Palestine including Jerusalem."\n
• Surrounded by a sea of 22 Arab states, all governed by dictatorial potentates, Israel maintains, under difficult circumstances, democratic institutions, including freedom of the press. Thanks to this freedom, critics of Israel are allowed to freely and unrestrictedly disseminate their often-outrageous views -- something that would be unthinkable in any Arab state.\n
• In the midst of the anarchy of the Middle East, where human rights are routinely violated by the governments themselves, Israel has developed a universally recognized justice system, to which all Arabs can bring their cases at any time and which deals without prejudice with all their humanitarian issues.\n
• Tiny Israel (600,000 Jewish inhabitants in 1948!) absorbed, under the most difficult circumstances, millions of refugees and integrated them, economically, culturally and socially. Within the past years alone, it has absorbed more than 1 million immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. Yet, most of the Palestinian refuges of 1948 are still stuck in abominable conditions, because politicians use them as pawns while billions of dollars in aid money for them is diverted for other purposes.\n
• Holding constructive peace talks with the Palestinians is extremely difficult -- inasmuch as they deny that Israel has any rights in the Holy Land. They ignore the thousands-years-old intimate bond between the Jewish people and its homeland, they deny the Holocaust and they reject even Israel's historical ties to Jerusalem. In contrast, the majority of Israelis accept the demands of the Palestinian Arabs and are ready to help them establish an independent state -- despite the fact that a "Palestinian" state basically exists already in Jordan, which was formed on 77 percent of what was defined as Palestine under the British Mandate and whose population is mainly Palestinian.
The above facts must not be overlooked in any discussion about Israel if one is to obtain an accurate (and not distorted) picture of the Middle East situation. The mere idea that the facts mentioned are taken for granted speaks volumes about the value system of the State of Israel, values which the Jewish state struggles to maintain even under the most difficult circumstances.
Arthur Cohn is the Academy Award-winning producer of numerous films, including "The Garden of Finzi-Continis" and "One Day in September." He lives Basel, Switzerland.