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August 24, 2018 11:24 am

Why I Believe That Jews Shouldn’t Criticize Israel

avatar by Varda Meyers Epstein

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The Israeli flag at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Photo: Hynek Moravec via Wikimedia Commons.

Is there such a thing as “legitimate criticism” of Israel? Furthermore, should the identity of the critic have an impact on how we view the criticism? Or is criticizing Israel always, inevitably, antisemitic?

Let’s examine the phrase “legitimate criticism.” Those who criticize Israel often affix the label of “legitimate criticism” as a fig leaf. Here’s an example from an April 2018 letter to the Guardian signed by members of the British Labour Party:

We are dismayed by unbalanced media reporting ahead of the local elections of allegations of antisemitism against Jeremy. We believe this partly results from his legitimate criticism of Israel’s cruel and racist treatment towards its Palestinian and Bedouin populations.

By now, revelations regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s terrorist associations and the Labour Party’s antisemitism are numerous and legendary. They are the last people in the world who might credibly bring “legitimate criticism” of Israel. The letter cites no factual evidence of Israel’s “cruel and racist” behavior.

The writers expressed hatred, labeled it “legitimate,” and used their party affiliations to make it all sound authoritative. You either believe them or you don’t.

The label “legitimate,” here is cover for hatred — something that cannot be freely expressed, because all humans know that hatred is wrong. The prime task of haters then, is to persuade us of the moral rightness of their hate through the sort of ugly and baseless assertions seen in this letter. If Israel is “cruel and racist,” it’s not only acceptable to hate Israel, but a moral imperative.

But not all who engage in “legitimate” criticism of Israel are antisemites. Some love Israel, but believe it important to raise awareness of and address genuine issues within the Jewish State. They have good intentions.

Are they right to speak out?

Debatable.

Criticizing Israel is like criticizing a family member. It’s okay for you to criticize your mom, but woe to anyone outside the family who does so. But who’s a family member? Who gets to criticize mom/Israel?

Some feel only Jews can criticize Israel. Others say only Jews who live in Israel can criticize Israel. A third group believes that only Jews who’ve lived in Israel for a long time can criticize Israel.

No matter your personal definition of what constitutes family, you’re going to bristle when the wrong person does it. Audience matters, too. Are you criticizing Israel to other Israelis, or to a mixed audience on social media?

Even if you “legitimately” criticize Israel to the right audience, if you rarely (or never) say anything nice about the Jewish state, your intentions will be suspect. One might even use how often a person speaks well of Israel as a sort of litmus test for that person’s credibility. The criticisms may be valid, but the motives are dubious. Why only say bad things about Israel? Or offer meaningless fluff when relating the good (tasty falafel!)

This suggests an underlying agenda.

No matter the critic’s protestations that s/he criticizes Israel out of love, or to be true to Jewish ethics, you know there’s something else going on. And that something isn’t nice.

Because Israel can’t be all bad (and there’s so much good to share).

From a personal standpoint, it feels wrong to me to criticize Israel in public for any reason, when there’s so much good one can say. Israel has many detractors and few defenders. Why should I help those who malign the Jewish state, and offer them grist for their mill?

At home with family, one can get into the nitty gritty of Israeli politicians, parties, and policies —  if it helps us understand how we might better society. But in public, we should think of ourselves as lawyers, hired to believe in and defend our client Israel, no matter what.

When we see strong voices engaging in constant Israel-bashing under the guise of “legitimate” criticism, we can counter it with blogs and social media posts. A petition that is fair, but not inflammatory, can also be an acceptable response, provided that it addresses the issue with accurate information. The main takeaway here is that the true Israel advocate will always speak well of the Jewish state, showing the country in its best possible light.

A longer version of this article originally appeared at Elder of Ziyon.

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