Critical Loyalty: Defending Israel Should Be Complex

ALEX SINCLAIR is adamant that students need to understand the country’s complexities to be successful Israel advocates

by Alex Sinclair

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Alex Sinclair

If you believe, as I do, that loving Israel and criticizing Israel are two acts that can and must go together, then these are tough times. Look around, especially on campus, and you see increasingly bitter, vicious and outrageous attacks on Israel. Israeli apartheid week has become a mainstream event; it is now acceptable to call into question Israel’s right to exist.

In environments such as this, it becomes very tempting to mute any concerns and criticisms of Israel. For if we express our qualms about certain policies, if we “wash our dirty laundry in public,” won’t it just give further ammunition to the anti-Semites and anti-Zionists? I speak from painful personal experience. Some of my op-eds that have appeared on the Haaretz website have been cut and pasted out of context onto sites run by Israel-haters. So maybe we should just bite our tongues and toe the party line?

This kneejerk reaction essentially implies that politics trumps education. Education is about understanding the complexities, nuances and depth of the subject matter; politics is about pragmatic results in a dirty world. There is a real political battle going on, and we need to keep our concerns and frustrations to ourselves, and keep focused on defending Israel against those who delegitimize and attack it. According to those who hold this position, while it might be a noble value, we will shoot ourselves in the foot if we give educational complexity too much oxygen.

I certainly understand those who would mute complexity at a time like this. But we do ourselves a disservice, and ultimately we do Israel a disservice, if we allow external criticism to dull our right – our obligation – to be critical and loyal, to be thoughtful, dialogical lovers of Israel. If our relationship with Israel only functions on the political advocacy level, it will wither, and that in turn will damage our communal ability to defend Israel when it truly needs defending. We need to find ways to have political advocacy and education coexist.

Can a critical, educated, liberal Zionist also be a good Israel advocate? Yes, without doubt. In fact, someone who is truly educated about Israel, who understands the complexities of its society and politics, will be a much better advocate than someone who has merely been taught to parrot statements in a shouting match. As a committed but critical Zionist, it’s okay to celebrate and be inspired by Israel’s successes, but also to get angry, perturbed and even depressed by its failures.

One major challenge for the critical Zionist on campus is how to distill this critical-but-committed position into the concise, sound-bite-friendly statements that are needed, whether in campus discussions, interviews with local media, or conversations in a bar with friends.

It can be done. Look, for example, at the following statement:

I agree with you. The current government of Israel has some deeply mistaken policies. Its policy over the occupation [or: Sudanese refugees, environmental issues, Orthodox hegemony, not appropriately punishing soldiers who act brutally toward Palestinians] makes me furious. But you have to understand that there are lots of Israelis who also feel that way. There are some really impressive Israeli leaders who make me proud to be a Zionist and proud to be a Jew. I think you would also find their positions compelling. Let’s talk about the different policies of Israel’s various parties and how we can strengthen them from abroad.

This statement constitutes a model for how liberal Zionists on campus can retain their integrity with regard to their legitimate criticisms and their responsibility to defend Israel.

Israel Flag-Kotel

It begins with a candid and frank acknowledgement of Israel’s imperfection. This is a bold step, but it has the advantage of wrong-footing the Israel-hater. Next is a statement that destabilizes the monolithic picture of Israel that many non-Jews (and Jews) have. Israel contains a wide variety of voices and opinions, and while I disagree with some, there are other, deeply compelling voices with which I strongly agree. Thirdly, the statement ends with another maneuver: a call to cooperate in the spirit of the two-state solution that guarantees security for Israel as a Jewish state and statehood for the Palestinians, based on international documents like the Roadmap, Annapolis and the Geneva Accords. Implicit is the demand for recognition of Israel’s right to exist, which in confrontational situations must be a basic and first requirement for continued debate.

This last point is to be stressed. We need to distinguish between three kinds of criticism against Israel. Firstly, Zionist critique of particular policies or positions that is responsible and reasonable, whether it comes from Israelis, diaspora Jews or non-Jews, should be defended as absolutely legitimate.

Secondly, and on the other extreme, is anti-Zionist critique that does not accept Israel’s right to exist. This is clearly unacceptable and those who make it should be called out on it. As even Norman Finkelstein recently argued, if you criticize Israel without explicitly supporting its right to exist alongside a Palestinian state, you have no legitimacy yourself.

The third is somewhere in the middle, and requires more careful dissection. This is the kind of criticism that comes from people who do not seek Israel’s destruction. They accept its right to exist and therefore are Zionists whether or not they accept that designation. Nevertheless, either consciously or subconsciously, they criticize Israel more than other countries, or hold Israel to standards to which they would not hold other countries.

Some Israel advocates attack this double standard, but a better tactic is to embrace it. While it’s true that the Syrian government engages in wanton murder of its own citizens, the Chinese government practices draconian censorship laws, and most Middle Eastern societies are virulently anti-homosexual, none of these issues gets the press coverage Israel does. So yes, we should point that out. But we should also say that we’re happy that Israel is held to a higher standard. We do believe that Israel, as the inheritor of the biblical tradition, has more to live up to than other countries, just as we as Jews set ourselves higher moral standards. In this way, the Jewish Zionist can dialogue with the “unwilling Zionist” about a joint vision of Israel, continually pointing out the double standard, while bringing the unwilling Zionist into a profoundly Zionist conversation about what Israel might aspire to.

Increasing numbers of diaspora Jews are unable to defend some policies of the Israeli government with integrity. For them, we need to stop Israel engagement being a zerosum game, in which you’re either all-in or you’re off the table. We need to offer true Israel education, which by its very nature requires complex, nuanced, sophisticated thought. Someone who has been educated about Israel in this way probably will be a much better Israel advocate on campus. Someone whose connection to Israel is built on flimsy sound-bites, questionable facts and sexy images will fail as an advocate in the long run.

Israel education of this sort is our biggest weapon against Israel-haters. We can show them that we can be critical of Israel and still love it, that we can voice our frustration, our anger, and even our disgust with some of its policies, while supporting with unshakeable conviction its right to exist and flourish in peace. We can infuse and enrich our Jewish identities with its cultural and artistic delights even as we bridle at some of its religious extremism. And we can do all that with sound-bites, too. Israel: it’s flawed. I love it. Help me improve it.

Dr. Alex Sinclair is director of programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He runs Kesher Hadash, the Davidson School’s semester in Israel program. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of JTS.