Friday, May 09, 2008

If you can't say anything critical...

Yesterday, I was once again forced to submit to a loud rock concert... at the library. Not in the library, but in Washington Square Park right out front. That this latest blaring music came from an Israel Independence Day celebration and not from a generic blast of music did not make me feel any more kindly to it. There you have it, I am a friend of Israel but am fully capable of criticizing the pro-Israel side when it behaves badly. Because this is always an important point to make.

As has been especially clear during this 60th birthday of Israel, it really is impossible to say anything unqualified about the country. By this I mean, if you mention Israel's independence and don't mention all the mean, mean things the country does, then you are obviously some kind of extremist. Now, clearly if you're writing a long article analyzing Middle Eastern politics and you leave out the Palestinians, or the oppression of Jewish Israelis by certain Orthodox rabbis with far too much power, you've made a mistake. A serious article, while bound to have a slant, needs to show a situation in its complexity. But if you're writing a blog post about, oh, Israel turned 60, that makes me happy, if you fail to remind your readers that you, too, have criticisms of Israel, then you're clearly a fanatic.

It is, or should be, all about context. There should be a way of writing about Israel-the-country versus Israel-the-issue. One would imagine that on the pro-Israel side there would be discussion of Israel that transcended the debate over whether the country should or should not exist. But all you get is, "yes it should," not, "well, it does, so let's talk about it as though it were a normal country, thereby turning it into one."

The internal pro-Israel debate then gets defined in terms of those who are willing to criticize the country and those who believe the country can do no wrong. Where's the place for those who have no illusions about any nation being perfect, but don't think reminding everyone that you are aware of Israel's imperfections is necessary every time you mention Israel, no matter what the context?

As I see it, the need felt by self-proclaimed pro-Israel Jews to show (and show, and show) their willingness to criticize Israel, rather than to mention their criticisms only when appropriate, comes less from the need to counteract Israel's more rah-rah supporters than from a tradition, far older than the state of Israel, of Jews believing that the best way to defend yourself against anti-Semitism is to show that you are the exception. To show, in other words, that sure, Jews behave badly, but you have this special ability to step out of the parochial Jewish take on the world, and to look at things from a universal (i.e. generically non-Jewish) vantage point. Now as earlier, the number of Jews taking a universalist stance, afraid that any show of Jewish particularism is dangerous, is ginormous, not limited to a few "exception" individuals but, if anything, the norm among educated Jews.

3 comments:

Petey said...

"As I see it, the need felt by self-proclaimed pro-Israel Jews to show (and show, and show) their willingness to criticize Israel, rather than to mention their criticisms only when appropriate, comes less from the need to counteract Israel's more rah-rah supporters than from a tradition, far older than the state of Israel, of Jews believing that the best way to defend yourself against anti-Semitism is to show that you are the exception."

So for Americans who expressed opposition to the Iraq war, was their motivation to defend themselves from anti-Americanism?

There's a far more parsimonious explanation, y'know. And it's that some Jews actually don't approve of Israel's post-'67 conduct.

If you want to limit your criticism to some weird strawman person who objects to Israeli conduct every time you mention the word falafel, then sure. But I think your notion of where objections to Israeli conduct are "appropriate" is far too narrow.

To be a Zionist means to take some ownership of Israel, even if one is a diaspora Zionist. And ownership confers certain responsibilities.

Petey said...

"The internal pro-Israel debate then gets defined in terms of those who are willing to criticize the country and those who believe the country can do no wrong. Where's the place for those who have no illusions about any nation being perfect, but..."

I would suggest the place for those who have no illusions about Israel being perfect is among those who are willing to criticize the country when the merits call for it.

Seth said...

True that, Phoebe.