January 21, 2019

How liberal critics failed Israel

If you listen to some prominent liberal critics of Israel, you might think that liberalism in Israel is in a deep coma. For many years now, these critics have been single-mindedly obsessed with one liberal cause: Israel’s failure to make peace with the Palestinians.

It’s a great cause, of course. How can anyone argue with someone who wants to “secure the future of a Jewish democratic state” and who is doing it out of love and concern for Israel?

But in their obsession with the Palestinian conflict, these critics have sucked the soul out of Israel’s liberal image.

According to this distorted calculus, as long as peace with the Palestinians is failing, Israeli liberalism is failing.

Liberal critics like Peter Beinart see Israel’s failure to make peace as a “crisis” signifying a betrayal of Israel’s liberal character. As the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has become more intractable, these critics have doubled down and continued to focus on Israel’s inability to make peace.

As a result, unwittingly or not, they have contributed to the libelous view of Israel as an oppressive regime that shuns liberal values and is worthy of the worst global condemnations.

Why is that a tragedy? Because Israel is hardly a country that shuns liberal values.

It is astonishing to think that a tiny nation surrounded by 150,000 enemy rockets could harbor more than 36,000 nonprofit organizations working to make the country a better place.

These diverse groups are spread throughout the country and fight for the rights of Arabs, Bedouins, refugees, the poor, the handicapped, a cleaner environment, women, gays, terror victims, Ethiopians, animals and so on.  

What does it say about Israel that it would spawn, nurture and support such an immense network of social activists?

It says that Israel is an island of decency in a sea of horror.

But God forbid anyone should ever find that out. Liberal critics are constantly pointing out Israel’s dirty laundry, but they rarely talk about the thousands of Israelis actually doing the laundry — what my friend Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, calls “democracy in action.”

It is this work in progress that distinguishes Israel, not the fact that it often fails to please its critics. Yes, Israel’s full of problems and social ills, just like any Western country, including America. But here’s the point: Turn over any problem, any failure, any injustice, and you’ll find a long list of Israeli social activists fighting to make things better.

Why are there so many of these activists in Israel? Because Israel allows it. In that part of the world, that kind of liberal freedom is not something you take for granted.

Sometimes I wonder if the Palestinians have so opposed a Jewish state because they’re afraid that if peace ever happens, the world will see the liberal, multicultural face of Israel that has for so long been hidden by the conflict. And who’d want to boycott that?

With the medieval violence now sweeping the Middle East, it’s doubly tragic that Israel’s liberal critics have kept Israel trapped in its little box of “failure with the Palestinians.”

“The new Middle East is now raising penetrating questions that must generate an upheaval in liberal thought,” Ari Shavit wrote last week in Haaretz. “Liberals can no longer ignore the awful plague of Middle East brutality and the fact that millions of Arabs live with no rights and no future.” 

Instead of focusing on how the Middle East (not to mention a future Palestine) must emulate the democratic and multicultural ways of Israel in order to save itself, critics like Beinart continue to harp on the unraveling of Israel’s democracy.

Talk about tunnel vision.

None of this means that liberals should stop criticizing Israel or abandon their search for peace. But if they continue to define Israel’s liberalism solely through the prism of its failure to make peace, they will continue to contribute to the global lie that Israel is an oppressive regime devoid of liberal virtues.

That may be fine if you’re anti-Israel, but not if you’re pro-Israel.

It is outrageous that liberal critics who love Israel have failed to show the tikkun olam side of Israel to the millions of liberal Jews who have been poisoned by the vicious anti-Israel propaganda routinely seen on college campuses and elsewhere.

Instead of putting Israel’s flaws and failures in the proper context of a democratic work in progress, we have allowed Israel’s enemies to take those failures and turn Israel into an illiberal demon. How that is “good” for Israel mystifies me.

Here is the simple truth that many liberal critics of Israel, and all the Jew-haters of the world, seem to easily forget: The Middle East would be a lot better place today if it were more like Israel.

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