As we celebrate the 63rd anniversary of Israel’s Independence Day this week, the Jewish Nation and its Diaspora across the world are at a crossroads. Despite the continuing miracle which is Israel and all the good things it still represents (especially when compared to some of its neighbors these days), there is a critical debate underway.
Following the release of the Goldstone Report, which criticized the conduct of the Israeli military’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza during the winter of 2008 – 2009, a wave of condemnation and anti-Israeli sentiment swept across the world, largely through the international media. It also manifested itself in private and public boycotts, disinvestment campaigns, and determined efforts to vilify Israel, not only for its conduct in Gaza, but its very existence. Indeed the Goldstone Report was the match which set fire to waves of anti-Israeli sentiment, which soon expanded into very real surges of anti-Semitic acts across Europe and America.
The worst aspect of all this, which left Israel stunned, is that a large part of these events were performed by Jews, particularly in Europe and the United States of America. For almost a year, Israel’s reaction to this outpouring of anti-Israeli sentiment by their kinsmen abroad was either shocked silence or regal scorn. The nation could not fathom why the Jewish Diaspora, which had been so supportive of Israel since its creation, would suddenly turn against it. Especially since, as Israel loves to remind the Diaspora, the Jewish State stands as a final bastion of protection for all Jews everywhere.
What Israel could not understand was that the Goldstone Report had unleashed more than just mere disapproval of Israel’s conduct in Gaza against Palestinians. The result, in fact, was that the closet doors had been flung open, and the internal quarrels, insults, betrayals, and disrespect between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora which had remained hidden during the past 40 years for the sake of an image of unity were now released for all to see.
The only problem is, nobody is ready to acknowledge that such a thing has happened, especially not Israel. But it must be said that even the Jewish Diaspora cannot fully agree on why it has become so anti-Israel, because as a side effect of these developments, the Diaspora itself has fractured into pro and anti-Israeli camps. Consequently, the clash which has manifested itself between part of the Jewish Diaspora and israel, has now been duplicated into an equally strong battle within American Jewry.
The essence of these conflicts reside in all the divisions which have been percolating with the Jewish People, in Israel and abroad, since the nation’s creation 63 years ago.
To give a visual example of the situation, imagine the Jewish People as a large pie. Take a knife, and cut the pie to divide it in half. This cut symbolizes the division between religious and secular Jews. Then make another cut, to symbolize the political division between Jews from the left and the right. Then another cut for the division between young and old, another between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, and several more along ethnic lines (Ashkenazi and Sephardi), and racial lines (Russian Jews and Ethiopian Jews).
All these tensions are what truly lie beneath the continuing clash between Israelis and their fellow Jews around the world. This clash has manifested itself throughout the media, especially on the internet. What the Goldstone Report and its effects have taught Israel is that public relations (or Hasbara as it is called in Hebrew) are very important. As a result, this ongoing struggle has evolved into what I would call a War of Hasbara. This war has spilled over into areas of culture, law, business, and politics. It is, in fact, the closest thing to a Jewish Civil War since the early days of Israel, albeit without any physical violence (so far).
In response to the continuing criticism from the Diaspora, particularly American Jews, the Israeli Government and its allies in the U.S., such as AIPAC, have launched a campaign against those who would seek to ‘Delegitimize Israel’.
This argument has been strictly tailored to push back against Jewish criticism of Israel. It cannot be anything else. To try to use this type of argument against Arabs or Anti-Semites in Europe would be illogical, since those groups do not view Israel as legitimate to begin with.
This campaign against fellow Jews by accusing them of seeking to Delegitimize Israel is an official program which embodies an age old tool of shame, guilt, and manipulation used by Israelis since the nation’s creation. The classic argument of “If you don’t live here, if you don’t share our suffering, you don’t have the right to criticize us.” This point of view was perfectly stated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a group of American Jewish leaders who were criticizing Israel during his first visit to New York in 1998 (when he was first elected Prime Minister). He said to them
‘Listen here and understand. To those of you who wish to come to Israel for tourism, to do business, or to invest in our country, you are always welcome. But if you have any criticism of Israel, please keep it to yourself.”
Now that Mr. Netanyahu’s position has become official Israeli policy, and shared by a majority of Israelis, it is now appropriate for American Jewry to ask some pointed questions in reply.
During the year or so that this policy of accusing critics of trying to delegitimize Israel has been in effect, the following events have taken place:
1. The former President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, was convicted of raping an employee when he was the Minister of Tourism in 1998 and was sitting in the national Cabinet.
2. The Emmanuel Beit Ya’acov School in Israel has continued its conduct of discriminating against children of Sephardic, non European origin, despite the fact that the Supreme Court of Israel has ruled this policy as illegal. When parents of this school contined to support this behavior in violation of the court order, they were imprisoned for being in contempt of court. This sparked a violent protest by 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, with many of them shouting that the Supreme Court of Israel was an illegal body of a state which did not speak for them.
3. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages in Israel, made the following statement during one of his weekly Saturday night sermons in Israel about the laws regarding the actions non-Jews are permitted to perform on the Sabbath: “Goyim [Gentiles] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in this world – only to serve the People of Israel.” He also added the following comments; “Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why gentiles were created.”
4. The Israeli Knesset voted to establish a parliamentary inquiry committee to examine the foreign funding of left-wing organizations. In addition, another bill was being prepared in a Knesset subcommittee to allow the Interior Ministry to deport or prevent entry of foreign activists who harm Israel’s security or image. [To Israel’s credit, after much protest in the country and abroad, both measures were discarded by the Knesset].
When one reads the above listed events, all of which were reported by The Jerusalem Post over the past year and a half, and recalls that during this time Israelis were accusing Jews in America and Europe of trying to Delegitimize Israel by criticizing it, there is only one question which should be posed in reply by American Jewry.
Just Who Exactly is Delegitimizing Whom?
If one considers the more distant past in Israel’s history, there are additional events which should be considered as well:
1. At the beginning of the Lebanon War of 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah, just three hours after two Israeli soldiers were taken prisoner at the border and transported into Lebanon, thereby starting the conflict, the head of the Israeli Air Force, Lt. General Dan Halutz sold off his stock portfolio before it lost value.
2. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted in 2009 on charges of fraud, breach of trust, falsifying court documents, and tax evasion stemming from four corruption related cases of receiving money envelopes in several ‘pay to play’ deals.
3. An Israeli Gang War has been raging between major crime families who have built their empires since the 1990s, and has recently included assassinations, embezzlement, and corruption.
4. In 2006, at a meeting of the American Jewish Committee’s centennial symposium in the United States, the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua responded to a question about why Israelis were not more interested in understanding American Jewish life, by saying that it is in Israel that one truly realizes a full Jewish existence, and that American Jewish life was irrelevant.
Once again, the question must be asked of Israel and its AIPAC allies in the US:
Who exactly is delegitimizing whom?
It is absolutely no defense or justification for Israel to reply with the usual retorts such as the following:
1. That is besides the question.
2. It is none of your business.
3. We can talk about those issues in Israel among ourselves, but you cannot.
4. You have no right to talk about those things.
5. We are not the only nation who has those problems.
6. All those things are part of the real world.
7. Grow up.
8. You are a self-hating Anti-Semitic Jew.
None of these tactics will work anymore, and it is time for Israelis to accept it.
If Israel really wants to be free to use such justifications listed above, then it should refuse to receive any more funding from the United States government or American Jewry, either in military, economic, or cultural aid. Another part of the real world is that life is a two way street. If Israel cannot respect that, and expects that the world only operates according to what it needs and desires, without any consideration or respect of anyone, including its own Diaspora, then it has no defense against its own faults. It is therefore a hollow tactic indeed to mount this Delegitimization of Israel campaign.
Finally, the alternative is not, as Natan Sharansky of the Jewish Agency thinks, that a policy of condescension will work. He has expressed this, in so many words, with his plans to initiate a new educational program in the United States run by the Jewish Agency, which would teach American Jews more about Israel, its, history, and the fundamentals of behaving like a proper Jew (according to Israeli conceptions and parameters).
This plan by Mr. Sharansky is nothing more than a way of telling American Jewry the following: “It’s ok. Israel forgives you for criticizing us. The problem is not with us. It is simply that all of you Diaspora Jews are too disconnected from your identity to really understand Israel. So we are going to embark on a program to educate all of you once again about what it means to be Jewish. That is how you will understand how wrong you are, how to know your place, and we will all soon be a united people again.”
What Israel, and indeed the world, needs to understand is that the true nature of a nation and its government is revealed by how it treats its own people.
It is the same situation in a family. A parent, or parents, can portray themselves to their children and the outside world as being very open minded, treating their children with respect like adults, and giving them certain liberties to be individuals. But ultimately, what usually happens is that when the parent’s authority is threatened, they crack down on the child and remind them of who is boss. The child is forcibly taught that, despite all his or her love, diligence, obedience, respect, and sacrifice, that he/she is really nothing more than a servant and possession. Someone who can be treated in any conceivable way, at the whim of the parent. This quickly leads to abuse, and the children have no rights because, according to the parent, they remain children even after they become adults.
Such is the case with nations. Whether they proclaim themselves to be free and benevolent democracies, governed by law and human values, or powerful and sophisticated empires who provide a good materialistic life for their citizens. Once the government, and people, choose to crush their own people for speaking their mind, their outward proclamations of being a great and united people who live by principles and compassion become nothing more than petty propaganda.
As important as human rights may be, the true nature of Israel and the Jewish People is not determined by how they treat Palestinians and Arabs, most of whom never really recognized the creation of Israel and never will. The fundamental character of the Jewish People, particularly in Israel, is how they treat each other.
Therefore the real solution, or at least the first step in dealing with this situation, is for Israel to live up to the principles of democracy, liberty, and open discussion which it has proclaimed since its founding 63 years ago. That means free speech is not merely for Rabbis, Goverment Officials, and the Wealthy. It means that all Jews, from the entire spectrum of the Jewish People, stretching from Hasidic Jews to the so-called Jews of Conscience, must have the right to express their thoughts, be it praise or criticism for Israel, free of retribution from anyone. If Israel can only come to grips with this one concept, it will be the start of a long road back towards trying to truly reunify the Jewish People in the deepest sense.
May this be the lesson, and the aspiration, that we all keep in mind on this Israeli Independence Day.