How to criticize Israel

If you love Israel, how do you criticize the country in a way that’s fair and loving?
April 13, 2016

If you love Israel, how do you criticize the country in a way that’s fair and loving?

All too often, liberal critics of Israel will choose the “Yes, but” approach: “Yes, Israel has the right to defend itself, but what it is doing to the Palestinians is horrible” or “Yes, Israel allows freedom of speech, but its democracy is unraveling” or “Yes, Israeli Arabs have more freedoms than in other Arab countries, but Israel is becoming a racist country,” and so on.

In other words, these critics quickly get the positive stuff out of the way before they tell you what they really want to tell you. And as we all know, it’s what you say after a “but” that really matters (“I would love to lend you the money, but … ”).

It’s no wonder, then, that whenever I read a critical piece on Israel from a pro-Israel critic, the takeaway is usually that Israel is a disaster waiting to happen.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised recently when I read an op-ed for JTA by my friend Daniel Sokatch, who runs the New Israel Fund.

Referring to the latest Pew study, Sokatch led his piece with a stinging rebuke of Israel as “a deeply divided society, first and foremost between its Jewish and Arab citizens, but also among its Jewish sectors.”

He highlighted an alarming finding in the survey: “The 48 percent of Jewish respondents who actually want to expel their Arab neighbors is a terrible headline, one that underlines the need to reinforce the value of minority rights within Israeli society.”

While he qualified that critique by saying, “Commentators warn that this question cannot be taken in isolation, especially because it did not refer to a real policy proposal,” he made clear that “to those of us working against the growing wave of racism and incitement, this response is a red flag that reflects the reality of what we see on the ground.”

Asserting a “growing wave of racism and incitement” is serious criticism.

But then, right when the reader begins to despair, Sokatch takes a critical turn and offers genuine hope: “But we also must understand that the Pew poll represents a snapshot in time and is not an irreversible prediction of Israel’s future. From President Reuven Rivlin on down, there are strong voices speaking out against racism and division in Israel.”

Sokatch’s positive take on Israel was not just a bone he threw to his right-wing friends. He showed a sincere appreciation for the possibilities offered by Israel’s civil society. Yes, Israel is full of problems, Sokatch was saying, but it’s also full of corrective activity and “strong voices” that are trying to make Israel a better place. Here’s how he elaborates on this positive take:

“There is a coalition of more than 50 organizations that speaks out at public events against extremist Jewish violence against non-Jews, and it is led by religious Zionists.

“There is a Coalition Against Racism with an array of participants from Reform Jews to Palestinian grassroots activists, and local Jewish-Arab coalitions dedicated to building shared spaces in which ordinary people interact in their daily lives.

“There are waiting lists for leadership training for shared-society activists and new resources for teachers seeking to educate children to think civically and communally about being an Israeli.

“Even in Jerusalem, the epicenter of conflict, there are efforts to break down the walls between the ultra-Orthodox, secular Jewish and Palestinian populations.”

These corrective efforts don’t happen in a vacuum. They are the result of a civil society that allows its citizens the freedom to fight for social justice. It is that very freedom that gives a nation hope. 

Sokatch does follow his hopeful note with a warning: “The Pew study validates, once again, those of us who warn of dangerous fissures in a nation that cannot afford the continued breakdown of cohesion and amity.”

But then, to his credit, he ends his editorial with a positive but:

“But we who warn, we who are dedicated to repairing those fissures and building some solid foundations above them, we also know that Israelis are miraculously good at inventing new realities.”

“Miraculously good at inventing new realities” is quite a compliment. Maybe there is, after all, something miraculous about a society that strives to create a new and better reality while having to manage the other reality of being surrounded by hostile neighbors sworn to its destruction.

By recognizing this ability, Sokatch shows his admiration for the country he just rebuked. As a result, instead of leaving us with a bitter taste about Israel, he leaves us with a sense of possibility and hope.

As we celebrate Israel Independence Day, this is a good lesson to remember for the pro-Israel community: If you’re going to criticize Israel, make sure you end with love.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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