It’s painful when someone we are a fan of disappoints us in some way. Of course we know that most relationships will include such moments but, even if it is somewhat expected, it can still sting.
Last week the comedian John Oliver devoted a segment of his HBO show to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He acknowledged at the start that conversations about the Middle East are fraught. As he put it, “If I may quote the riskiest thing you can say on a first date: ‘Let’s talk about Israel!’”
The Israel-Palestine conflict is indeed extremely complicated, which is why so much of what has been said and posted online over the last few weeks is riddled with inaccuracies. Oliver admits that it is confusing and difficult, and acknowledges that he cannot hope to recap such a rich and complex history in a ten-minute segment.
But then he attempts to do just that—and joke about it. In doing so, he distorts the most recent conflict. His main point seems to be that because Israel is the more powerful player with a much more sophisticated military, it is by definition the aggressor even though it is objectively true that Hamas fired rockets at Israel first in this most recent conflict, and not the other way around.
He describes Israel’s policies in the West Bank (which are worthy of criticism in many ways to be sure) as “apartheid,” which is absurd—it’s an insult to Israel and undermines the real struggles of those who have fought for equality in South Africa. One need only look to the most recent Israeli election to understand how deeply flawed such an analogy is. Arab Israelis make up twenty percent of Israeli citizenship, they enjoy full rights and protections under the law, and at this moment an Arab Islamist political party, Ra’am, is poised to be part of the new government.
One need only look to the most recent Israeli election to understand how deeply flawed such an analogy is.
He also describes Israeli military actions in Gaza as “war crimes” because civilians, including children, were killed (he actually uses the word “murder”). While acknowledging that Hamas rockets also killed civilians in Israel, he claims that because the Israeli military is so much more sophisticated, the blame should fall squarely on them. The fact that one’s opponent is weaker does not give him the moral high ground. Given its military superiority, the IDF, if it wanted to, could have inflicted much more carnage. That it didn’t in the face of Hamas’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets is a testament to Israel’s restraint.
Natan Sharansky, human rights activist and “refusenik” in the former Soviet Union (in addition to serving as member of the Knesset), knows a thing or two about antisemitism firsthand. He formulated a test to help us distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. He calls it the “3D test.”
The first “D” is demonization. When Israeli policies are compared to the Holocaust or when members of the Israeli military are labeled war criminals for responding as strategically as possible to thousands of missiles launched at a civilian population, critique becomes demonization: Israel is not simply flawed, it is evil incarnate.
The second “D” is double standards. When Israel is singled out for human rights abuses by the UN while the egregious abuses of the Hamas regime are largely ignored or when criticism is directed solely at Israel while the actions of countries known to engage in wide scale human rights abuses—like Iran, China, or Syria, for example—are given a pass, the double standard is apparent.
The third “D” is delegitimization, calling into question Israel’s very right to exist.
Oliver clearly violates two of Sharansky’s “D”s. The segment crosses over from legitimate criticism of Israel and the policies and actions of its government to antisemitism. His screed ends with the most painful and unfair punch, calling for an end to America’s long-held policy of being an unwavering friend to Israel. He concludes by saying: “At the end of the day I would hope that a real friend would tell me when I’m being an [expletive] and definitely when I’m committing a [expletive] war crime.”
Oliver clearly violates two of Sharansky’s “D”s. The segment crosses over from legitimate criticism of Israel and the policies and actions of its government to antisemitism.
Twenty-five hundred years ago the prophet Zecharia implored us to speak the truth to one another— דַּבְּר֤וּ אֱמֶת֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵ֔הוּ —so that there might be shalom, peace, within our gates.
Whether it’s on the Facebook page of a friend or a TV segment of someone of whom we’ve been a fan, it’s our job to call out harmful rhetoric for what it is. It’s our job—in the face of lies and distortions—to speak the truth.
Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is the senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple and Schools.