September 18, 2019

Should American Jews Criticize Israel?

Whenever I go on a tear about how much I love Israel, my Israeli best friend rolls his eyes and says, “You should live here.” While he appreciates my enthusiasm for the Jewish homeland, he’s convinced my zealotry would be moderated if I had to daily endure a range of challenging Israeli realities, from long lines to crazy drivers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But what he’s really saying is this: Because I do not live in Israel, my opinion of her isn’t wholly legitimate.

He’s entitled to his opinion.

Personally, I’ve always preferred the Leon Wieseltier view that “the merit of a view owes nothing to the biography of the individual who holds it” — meaning, a person is entitled to an opinion about anything he or she cares enough to consider despite the credentials of his or her resume. But to clarify, I asked my friend how he feels about my pronouncements on Israel.

“Are you saying my opinion is illegitimate or incomplete?” I asked. “Both,” he said. “You are not serving in the army; you are not contributing like the Israelis are contributing. You are not dealing with the daily struggles, the politics, Hamas, Lebanon. We live in this country and you are on the other side of the globe.

“I’m Israeli,” he continued. “You’re just Jewish.”

Ouch. And that’s for expressing my love of Israel.

“I’m Israeli,” my friend said. “You’re just Jewish.”

But this is also the conventional wisdom that has held for American Jews when it comes to criticizing Israel. We’re told there is a price we Diaspora Jews must pay for not living in the land, and that price is to exercise some humility and restraint in our public criticism of Israel. It is preferred, by some, that we not engage in it at all. Doesn’t Israel have enough enemies?

I thought about this a great deal last week in the aftermath of Natalie Portman’s dramatic snub of the Genesis Prize. In rejecting the award, Portman shared her (negative) opinion of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and condemned some of his policies. Does that make her an enemy of Israel or the Jewish people?

“Self-criticism is the hallmark of a mature community,” Wieseltier has taught.

In fact, the Bible clearly instructs us not to hate our neighbor, but instead, rebuke him when he does wrong (Leviticus 19:17).

It is therefore a fatal mistake to assume criticism makes an enemy of the critic. On the contrary, the art of criticism is to encourage improvement, to help the subject refine its sense of itself and to set the stage for an eternal striving — whether for one’s country or one’s character.

“We should be cultivating a kind of criticism that comes from love,” Tal Becker, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute said during a panel discussion at UCLA Hillel last week. Becker explained why he doesn’t take personal offense when American Jews criticize Israel.

“American Jews who are criticizing are not telling you what to do, they’re telling you what they think,” he said. “Take a chill pill. Someone’s just telling you what they think.”

Still, no one likes to be on the receiving end of criticism. Even when it’s “constructive” it is almost always unpleasant to hear how you’ve fallen short or what you’ve done wrong. Moral criticism may be the hardest to bear, let alone accept. But it is nonetheless essential to the functioning of a healthy society, not least because it encourages the free exchange of ideas and promotes creative discourse. New ideas are rarely born of party-line agreements.

Consider the Talmud, a document of disputation. Why does its vitality stem from critique?Because stone sharpens stone, the rabbis say.

So many views are partial views and require other views in the attainment of truth. “Make for yourself a heart of many rooms,” the Talmud tells us.

To incorporate criticism is to grow and become better. Even heretical ideas lend themselves to expanded understanding: Monotheism was a heresy when the Jews introduced it.

But as Becker said, the trick to criticism is to do it with love. It is infinitely easier to hear if it comes from a wish for improvement and not from anger and desire for destruction. Pauline Kael could critique movies because everyone knew she loved them — even “great trash” was appreciated.

True, many of us don’t live in the land. But still, we love it. And it is sometimes the deepest act of love and holy chutzpah to tell your love the truth.