January 24, 2019

Jews Criticizing Israel

I was born in 1964. The Israel I grew up with seemingly could do no wrong in the eyes of the world. This was the triumphant Israel of the Six Day War, the terrorized Israel in Munich, the besieged Israel of the Yom Kippur War, the slandered Israel of the UN’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution, and the brave and heroic Israel of the legendary Raid on Entebbe. It was the Israel that won the Eurovision song contest and the European Cup in Basketball, made peace with its fiercest war enemy (Egypt), and continuously captured people’s hearts around the world as the “Little Jewish Country that Could.”

With the outbreak of the Lebanon War in 1982, followed by the First Intifada a few years later, the timing couldn’t have been worse for Israel. The 1980’s brought about cable TV and 24-hour news, and the constant images of Israel on TV were not positive. Israel was suddenly deemed as the aggressor, and in the eyes of the world and the media, the innocent “David” became “Goliath.” Despite Israel’s numerous overtures towards peace, withdrawals from territories, and a bloody war of terror launched against her, it seems that the world is now stuck with the perception of the “Israel that could do nothing right.” The images of the Israel I grew up with seem as if they are from a bygone era.

It hurts to see Israel constantly maligned in the media, the UN, and the European Union — but it especially hurts to see Israel under constant attack and criticism from those for whom Israel was created: Jews. If “Israel bashing” is in vogue in media or political circles, it is considered “ethical” – the so-called “higher ground” – in some Jewish circles. A quick scan of Jewish web pages, blogs and Jewish media often finds more “Israel bashing” amongst Jews than one does in the mainstream media.

It seems as if this isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, the very first time the Jewish people were given the opportunity to visit Israel, the majority of the delegation returned with reports that sound like they come straight from many of these Jewish web pages. What happened thousands of years ago seemingly set the stage for what we are experiencing today.

In Parashat Shelach Lecha, the Jewish people were on the brink of fulfilling their lifelong dream of entering the “Promised Land.” Instead, they experienced a harsh breakdown and a severe setback.  The 12 spies that had just returned from scouting out the Land of Israel presented reports of what they saw.  Two of the spies (Joshua and Caleb) presented a positive and motivational report, encouraging the people to prepare themselves for this great challenge, opportunity and privilege.  The other ten spies delivered a negative message, discouraging the people from moving forward to Israel. They described everything that was wrong with Israel.

At that point, the community was presented with a choice that seems to have carried over to the Jewish world today: do we listen to those voices that want to constantly knock Israel down for “all the horrible things it keeps doing wrong,” or do we want to go with those who understand that things are more complex than what a columnist or blogger writes, and with that in mind, Israel is still an incredibly miraculous and wonderful country and society?

In this instance, the community chose to focus on the negative, allowing it to overwhelm their immediate feelings. “On that night the people wept,” and they asked God to take them back to the slave pits of Egypt. Fearing the unknown, they actually preferred to go back to the abusive whip of Pharaoh in Egypt than to take the blessings of freedom and the privilege to live in their own beautiful country.  As a result of listening to the delegitimizers of Israel back then, not only did they spend a dark night in misery — crying and complaining — but it was on that dark night that God decreed that this generation was not ready to enter the Promised Land, and would spend an extra 39 years wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, until they all died and gave way to a new generation.

Jewish tradition teaches us that the very night when this happened was Tisha B’Av (9th of Av), the anniversary of the destruction of both the first and second Temple in Jerusalem. The symbolism of this date is that the Jewish people themselves created the eventual darkness of Tisha B’Av. The choice to listen to the negative voices resulted in Tisha B’Av becoming a permanent day of darkness and mourning. This reminds us that when we tend to harp on the negative, we have the unfortunate power to create our own darkness and misery. The Sephardic commentator Rabbeinu Bahya comments: “It is symbolic that the spies returned to the camp towards nightfall, for their words brought about darkness to the world.” Their words, and the community’s choice to follow their negative words, brought about darkness to the entire Jewish community.

The prophet Zechariah predicts that one day in the future, Tisha B’Av will become a day of happiness and rejoicing (Zechariah 8:18-19). Much like we created the darkness of Tisha B’Av, the power also lies within each of us to transform Tisha B’Av into a day of light and hope. The power lies within each of us to look at the positive blessings of Israel today, rather than always focusing on “what’s wrong.” The power lies within each of us to be a part of the solution, not adding to the problem.

When confronted with negative voices on Israel, think carefully before you jump into their simplified world of “Israel can do no right.” They will tell you it’s the “Jewish thing to do,” that we were always a “self critical people,” and that we “pride ourselves in our ability to self criticize.” I always wonder why celebrating Israel and being proud of her achievements isn’t also the “Jewish thing to do.” Criticize Israel, and they call you “authentically Jewish.” Celebrate Israel, and they call you a “propagandist.”

Like all other countries and societies, Israel is filled with problems and imperfections. It is a young country — a work in progress — that has achieved so much more than many others, but still has much to improve upon. Israel is a fantastic experiment in democracy, especially in the neighborhood where it lives. Its triumphs, failures, advances and imperfections are all a tribute to a hard working population who live under constant threat, have their own internal struggles and issues – yet, like their national anthem – never give up hope.

The Talmud teaches: “Come and see how great is the power of negative speech. From where do we learn its power? From the spies, for if negative consequences resulted from their speaking negatively against the wood and stones of the Land of Israel, imagine what happens when one speaks negatively against his/her fellow human being” (Arachin 15a).

Before you fall into the trap and join the chorus of those who advocate continued criticism of Israel, remember that – different from the spies who only criticized “the land” – nowadays Israel is not just a “land.” It’s a country where 7 million of your Jewish brothers and sisters live, work, study, serve in the military, raise families and seek to live happy and fulfilled lives. Join in “criticizing Israel” – which for most diaspora Jews is nothing more than a metaphorical concept called “the Jewish homeland,” and you are potentially affecting 7 million people for whom Israel is not a metaphor — it’s the place they really call “home.”