Blame the Jews
By A.D. Freudenheim  

7 December 2003

In his op-ed from the 14 November International Herald Tribune, Uri Dromi makes an important point: that Israel needs criticism from American Jews. While America, and the American Jewish community, are allies and supporters of Israel, Dromi writes, we Americans also say we believe in peace; therefore, we should make greater efforts to be heard, and to push Israel to seek peace. The “Israel Right or Wrong” slogan, and the notion behind it, “is not healthy for a friend of Israel – any friend of Israel.”[1]

As an American, as an American Jew, and as a frequent critic in this space of Israeli policy and action, I agree with Mr. Dromi that it is unfortunate that Israel does not receive more and stronger criticism from the United States. As the largest aid donor to Israel, at some $10 billion per year, American policy could be greatly influential in pushing Israel to make peace with the Palestinians, along with the surrounding Arab neighbors with whom it does not yet have peace treaties. Instead, Israel is stalling the peace process much the way it has since 1967; and officially, it remains ambivalent about giving up the lands of the West Bank and Gaza, even in the face of the obvious and continuing dangers of its military occupation of these lands and the people living there.

However, when Dromi writes that Americans “would better serve the Israeli cause by giving the Israelis their honest opinion, even when they disagree. A vibrant democracy like Israel can take criticism,” he is ignoring one major problem while trying to bolster an equally problematic, long-standing myth. The myth that Mr. Dromi seeks to support implicitly is the idea of Israel-as-democracy, the shining light emanating from an otherwise bleak landscape of repressive monarchies, dictatorships, and messy, undemocratic regimes. Sadly, it is only in comparison to these neighbors that Israeli democracy can be called “vibrant,” even though it is precisely this mythological perception that forms the basis for much of how Israelis and Americans (and not just American Jews) view the conflict in the Middle East. Democracies, however nascent or marginal, receive preferential treatment.

Instead a closer analogy to Israel’s democracy might be that of the United States in the first half of the 20th century: when there was a large (and growing) population of people forcibly held in second class status, whose movements were circumscribed in whole or in part, and whose contributions to the economic growth and vitality of the nation were considered irrelevant when compared to the color of their skin and, therefore, their perceived inferiority and inherent untrustworthiness. America was a “vibrant” democracy – more so for some, perhaps, than for others.

And it is this same democracy myth that has been at the core of the problem where America, and more particularly, American Jews are concerned. Israel, our Middle Eastern ally, has spend decades making common cause with some of the worst elements of American society, appealing to the most anti-intellectual, emotionally- or religiously-driven points of view: through organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), that seek to manipulate media coverage about Israel in the United States, and which actively lobbies on Israel’s behalf, regardless of the circumstances; by seeking out the support of evangelical Christian groups lead by the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who blithely use Israel for their own religiously-motivated ends, while attacking (here, in the U.S.) the values of acceptance, tolerance, and pluralism that many Jews in Israel and the U.S. claim to share; by sustaining other damaging mythologies, like the idea that Israel somehow deserves to survive because of the pain and suffering inflicted on Jews during the Holocaust; and ultimately, by encouraging the conflation of Zionism and Judaism, which makes it that much more difficult for anyone to criticize Israel without being accused of being anti-Semitic – even if they are Jewish.[2]

This is not a case of blaming the victim. The American Jewish community should be held responsible for its own actions, and no doubt many believe that it has served American Jewish interests to take such a hard-line, pro-Israel position. By bolstering the notion that Israel is an acceptable democracy and, more importantly, insulating it from criticism precisely because it is an embattled and endangered democracy, perhaps people feel that they have done something worthwhile, almost patriotic. But Israel must share the blame too. In the last 30 years, Israeli leaders of all political stripes have cultivated the air of that rare and endangered ally, carefully making the case that American support (regardless of its actions) is quite literally a matter of life or death. Witness even within the last week the outcry from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over the meeting Secretary of State Colin Powell had with the Israeli and Palestinian creators of a potential peace treaty, albeit one created outside of Sharon’s own government: “I think he is not helping the process,” said Mr. Sharon.[3]

True, there have been many life or death situations, and many people on both the Israeli and the Arab sides of the conflict have died. Dromi is right that Israel might be strengthened, and the situation improved, in an environment of stronger American criticism. However, it is disingenuous to call for such criticism as though it was a new and novel idea - and absent a recognition of how much effort, energy, and money has been spent by Jews in both nations on precisely the act of discouraging such criticisms in the first place.

[1] "To American Jews: Israel needs your criticism," by Uri Dromi, International Herald Tribune, 14 November 2003
[2] For more on these points, see also some of my other articles, including The Jewish High Holidays 2001/5762, and Communities in Question.
[3] “Israel Raps US on Planned Talks With Geneva Authors,” by Matt Spetalnick, Reuters, 2 December 2003
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