A recent report in The New York Times captured almost perfectly the thorny questions that stand at the center of relations between the American Jewish community and Israel. Should one be permitted to criticize the government of a foreign country with which one feels a deep affinity, or is it a moral and political imperative to support the policies of that government, right or wrong?
What was so striking about The Times article was that it raised these questions not about the American Jewish community and Israel, but rather about the African American community and Zimbabwe.
The parallels between the two cases couldn't be more intriguing. Just as a number of American Jews, usually of the progressive persuasion, have asserted their right and responsibility to criticize Israeli government policy, so, too, a group of African American intellectuals and activists recently abandoned their posture of strong support and advocacy for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by issuing a stinging condemnation of his policies, including appropriation of white-owned farmland.
In a letter of June 3, 2003, they recalled their "strong historical ties to the liberation movements in Zimbabwe, which included material and political support, as well as opposition to U.S. government policies that supported white minority rule." But they quickly moved on to denounce "the political repression under way in Zimbabwe as intolerable and in complete contradiction of the values and principles that were both the foundation of your liberation struggle and of our solidarity with that struggle."
This public letter provoked a torrent of responses from African Americans, many of whom were critical of the signatories. According to The Times account, the letter writers have been cast as "politically naive, sellouts and misguided betrayers of liberation struggle."
Among the more serious critics, professor Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland justified his opposition to the letter by stating that "I am on the side of the people who claim there's a justice issue in terms of the land. You can't escape the racial dynamic, and you can't escape the political history."
Another critic, Mark Fancher, questioned the legitimacy of the letter writers. "This is an African problem, a Zimbabwean problem" -- beyond the ken of "people who are really disconnected from the day-to-day lives of people in Zimbabwe."
It is hard not to hear in those words echoes of a refrain frequently uttered in the American Jewish community -- the gist of which is that it is the responsibility of American Jews to express enthusiastic and unequivocal support for the government of Israel.
The underlying logic is that American Jews are themselves "disconnected from the day-to-day lives" of Israelis. It is not they who fight the wars or suffer from the scourge of terrorism; consequently, they have no standing to criticize. Indeed, to express criticism of Israeli policies is to abet the enemy -- and thereby come dangerously close to treason.
I am familiar with these arguments, because I have often been on the wrong end of them. Those of us American Jews who have felt compelled to condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as immoral, self-destructive and a violation of Israel's own best ideals have often faced the wrath of fellow community members. How could a Jew attack Israel in a time of need? Hadn't the Palestinians surrendered any right to a state? Weren't they better off now than before 1967?
A similar set of justifications now issues from the mouths of the opponents of Mugabe's African American critics. How can one attack an African leader, a heroic figure, in time of need? After all, as Fancher asserts, "The one thing nobody disputes is that, whether he won or not, Mugabe got a lot of votes." Such statements reveal the absurdity -- and moral bankruptcy -- of blind support.
Curiously, the tables have turned in the case of American Jews and Israel. Not too long ago, it was taboo to criticize Israel's occupation. Israel's government had to be supported, regardless of its policies.
But will the same people who insisted on these principles now be able to reverse course? After all, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a speech to his own party, used the "O" word -- occupation -- to refer to Israel's hold on the West Bank and Gaza. All of the extraordinary Israeli and Jewish public relations efforts that went into claiming that the territories were "administered" rather than "occupied" went out the door after that speech.
Even more significantly, Sharon has adopted the "road map" for peace. The logic of blind support would dictate that American Jews line up in warm embrace of this Israeli government policy.
It is tempting to argue that those who demanded in an earlier period that American Jewish progressives hold their criticism do the same as Israel enters a new and more promising phase, even if they have reservations about the road map. Tempting perhaps, but not beneficial in the long run.
The recent case of African Americans and Zimbabwe reveals that the stifling of dissent not only reinforces a dangerous status quo but replicates the very policies of repression that one might want to criticize. Open debate, with all its messiness, is preferable to blind support.
This is an important principle to keep in mind -- now and in the future -- as Jews and African Americans debate the policies of, and demonstrate their bonds to, the countries of their dreams.
David N. Myers is professor of Jewish history and vice chair of the history department at UCLA.
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