Belman. Herzog concludes that Israel shouldn’t try to silence Jewish “constructive criticism” while delegitimating delegitimators of israel because it won’t make the latter go away. She misses the point. The former strengthen the latter by their criticism.
In North American and European Jewish communities, criticism of Israel’s attack on the Turkish flotilla has reignited discussion over a deceptively simple question: What does being pro-Israel mean? Regardless of widespread domestic criticism (even after this week’s findings by an Israeli military investigation) of both the decision to attack and its faulty execution, leading Jewish organizations largely defended Israel. Liberal Jewish organizations questioned Israel’s action, as they do others with which they disagree.
These divisions aren’t new, but they’re particularly sensitive now. Last year’s Gaza incursion and the flotilla incident have isolated Israel to an unprecedented degree. In parallel, recently formed American (J Street) and European (JCall) Jewish lobby groups have gone public with their dissent without following the Jewish establishment’s automatic support of Israeli policies. They consider themselves no less pro-Israel and see ending the Palestinian conflict and holding Israel accountable for its human-rights record as critical for its future.
Last month, Peter Beinert spawned the latest round in this debate with his New York Review of Books essay, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment. Mr. Beinert argued that, if established Jewish advocacy groups don’t make room for “pro-Israel criticism of Israel,” they’ll alienate liberal American Jews from an Israel whose policies are increasingly dissonant with their American values. Mainstream Jewish organizations quickly contested his conclusions, reiterating that, in an increasingly critical world, burdened by unique security imperatives and with only one reliable ally (the U.S.), being pro-Israel requires holding the line against public criticism.
There’s no doubt that Israel is more vulnerable due to the growing presence and sophistication of what the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute calls “the delegitimization network.” That disparate, largely viral coalition links European and North American radical left NGOs and fundamentalist Islamic groups in rejecting Israel’s legitimacy. In other words, they don’t distinguish between Israel and its continued occupation of Palestinians and territory. They’re focused not on resolving the Palestinian issue through a two-state deal that would respect Israel’s territorial integrity and Jewish majority alongside a Palestinian state, but on branding Israel as a pariah internationally. (The loose network includes the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers this new “battleground for legitimacy” serious enough to rank it as one of Israel’s key challenges (along with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian process). He isn’t wrong: Reut’s comprehensive report documents the potential scope of the network’s reach and its strategic implications for the country’s international standing unless checked.
This heightened vulnerability leads many pro-Israel advocates to reject expressions of “critical support” because insidious efforts to delegitimize Israel internationally gain credibility when Jewish voices rally against its policies. In turn, advocates of “critical support” say a vocal, pro-Israel but anti-occupation position exposes a needed distinction between those who, while critical, stand firmly on Israel’s side – and those whose criticism of Israel masks opposition to the state itself.
Tellingly, the Reut report underscores a similar distinction. It notes that Israeli policy often fails to differentiate “critics” from “delegitimizers” and that, by tarring them with the same brush, Israel pushes the former into the hands of the latter. It suggests that Israel should “engage the critics” – even if they’re harsh and unfair, as long as they don’t demonize Israel and don’t blatantly deploy double standards. Not an easy call, but it can marginalize the delegitimizers.
Reut is right for more than one reason. Efforts to silence critics of Israeli policies or undermine Israeli human-rights organizations won’t make Israel’s committed detractors go away. But they will weaken Israel’s still robust democracy, one of the country’s defining characteristics and the source of shared values with so many of its friends. That would be too high a price.