Jewish Journal

Chabon’s Criticism Backfires

Celebrated author Michael Chabon caused a stir last week with his sharp criticism of Israel in his speech to the graduating class of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His criticism was not new. Chabon has already gone on record as saying, “The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is the most grievous injustice I’ve ever seen in my life.”

His May 14 speech had some deep and eloquent moments, but on the subject of Israel, Chabon seemed to throw that depth away. This disconnect was captured in a Journal op-ed last week by Morin Zaray, a graduate student who attended the commencement ceremony.

“Chabon, as eloquent as he was, viewed Israel in black-and-white terms,” Zaray wrote. “He condemned Israel’s security wall, proclaiming, ‘Security is an invention of humanity’s jailors … putting up the separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of people on the other side of the wall. Security for some means imprisonment for all.’”

In response, Zaray wrote: “Unlike Chabon, I lived in Israel throughout the Second Intifada, and know that the security wall is not a prison. It is a lifeline. I know that the fear of people on the Israeli side is not driven by fake fear or government propaganda, but by constant terrorism that we experience and the loved ones we have lost. I know that the same wall he said he despised enabled me to live a normal life and to use the bus as a young girl.”

Chabon’s criticism was so one-sided that it just fed into the polarized verbal food fights that characterize much of the political debate today.

Zaray’s decision to walk out with her family after the speech added fuel to the controversy, and it became a national story in the Jewish world. JTA characterized Chabon’s criticism, which included a questioning of the mainstream mission of in-marriage among Jews, as a “diatribe.” An online initiative began circulating asking HUC-JIR leaders to issue an apology for inviting Chabon.

In an op-ed in JTA, HUC-JIR administrators responded to the criticism:

“As both an Israeli and American institution, belonging to two proud democracies defined by lively civil discourse, it does not occur to us at HUC-JIR to quash or vilify political criticism of Israel out of a pre-emptive fear of controversy,” wrote Rabbi David Ellenson, the interim president and chancellor emeritus, and Joshua Holo, the dean of the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR. “On the contrary, we know that the confidence to invite challenging ideas both defines and validates democracy in the first place.”

As a free speech junkie, I fully endorse Chabon’s right to criticize Israel and HUC-JIR’s position not to “quash or vilify” this criticism.

My problem is not with the criticism per se, but rather, with the nature of the criticism itself. Chabon’s criticism was so one-sided that it just fed into the polarized verbal food fights that characterize much of the political debate today. Chabon may sincerely believe that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is “the most grievous injustice I’ve ever seen in my life,” but how much does that add to the conversation?

Has Chabon, for instance, ever considered the possibility that Palestinian elites benefit from the continuation of the conflict, which may explain why they so often have rejected peace offers?

As Ben-Dror Yemini writes in his new book, “An Industry of Lies”:

“The Palestinian refusal to accept any peace proposal is not only due to historical reasons or a sense of injustice. It is not about more or less concessions. It stems from the fact that the Palestinian elites only benefit from the continuation of the conflict. The Palestinians have become not only the ultimate global symbol of a ‘victim’ and an ‘oppressed people,’ who are supposedly fighting against colonialism and occupation. They have become global celebrities.”

I wish Chabon would have met the Palestinian I met once in Ramallah who was terrified that the minute Israel left the West Bank, terror groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and ISIS would swoop in, destroy Fatah and start murdering thousands of Palestinians. You rarely hear such complications from self-proclaimed moral arbiters who rail against Israel.

Incorporating complicating factors to enrich debate is precisely what an institution of higher learning should do, especially at an event such as a commencement address.

Indeed, the danger of Israel critics like Chabon is that their one-sided takes reinforce the erroneous perception that the conflict is all Israel’s fault, which is exactly the narrative promulgated by Israel’s enemies and the BDS movement.

Incorporating complicating factors to enrich debate is precisely what an institution of higher learning should do, especially at an event such as a commencement address. No, not all criticism is created equal. Self-righteous diatribes that just pile on and repeat tired tropes are not as valuable as criticism that urges people to consider the complexity of an issue.

As Zaray wrote: “For someone who presents himself as an intellectual — steeped in nuance — Michael Chabon has a remarkable ability to present a one-dimensional reality in which the Jews are evil oppressors and the Palestinians are powerless victims, with no agency, no responsibility and no blame.”

Maybe she should be next year’s commencement speaker.