Forward Thinking

'Criticize Away': Hartman Institute Debates Debating

By J.J. Goldberg

Havruta, a journal of the Shalom Hartman Institute, features a symposium on whether and how to criticize Israel in its February 2012 issue. It makes for interesting reading, with special shout-outs to Yossi Klein-Halevi’s thought-provoking letter to a right-wing friend and editor Stuart Schoffman’s delightful introduction.

My own contribution is below. I would link directly to it from Facebook, but there’s no way to link directly to the articles in the journal - you have to page through the full issue (which has its own joys).

Criticism and Civil Conversation /// A Symposium

J.J. Goldberg: Criticize Away

J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of the Jewish Daily Forward, has covered the politics and culture of American Jewry for a quarter century in a variety of American and Israeli publications. He has served as editor-in- chief of the Forward and U.S. bureau chief of the Jerusalem Report, and is the author of Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment.

IN LATE 1993, SHORTLY AFTER YITZHAK RABIN and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, Rabin’s predecessor Yitzhak Shamir appeared in New York with a surprising message that seemed to surprise no one in his audience. Addressing a packed gathering of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Shamir said (I’m paraphrasing only slightly): I have often urged you to refrain from criticizing Israel’s democratically elected government, because Israelis alone bear the consequences of its decisions. Now I’ve changed my mind. This elected government is making bad decisions. Please, criticize away.

The moment perfectly encapsulated the nonsensical dishonesty that characterizes the debate over whether and how Diaspora Jews may criticize Israel. In reality, there is not and never has been a taboo against Jews criticizing Israel. There is a taboo against Jews urging Israel to adopt more liberal policies toward the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states. There is no taboo against urging more hardline policies.

The unstated logic behind this one-sided stricture is readily apparent. Advocating a more conciliatory policy can be depicted, fairly or not (usually not) as siding with the enemy. By contrast, no one argues seriously that urging greater inflexibility is meant to weaken Israel and strengthen its foes, even though that may well be the practical result.

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