January 2, 2011
This is a must read article.
The gloves are off
By KATIE GREEN
To our Diaspora brethren: When it comes to criticizing Israel, there are areas you cause grave offense, and others where your input is welcome.
For a couple of years now, I’ve thought of writing an article called “The gloves are off.” But I delayed because I didn’t want the gloves to be off, and even if they were off, I didn’t want to be the one to state that they were. But now they are off, and the person who really helped us admit it is Mick Davis, chairman of the UJIA in the UK.
In a recent speech, Davis berated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for “lacking the courage to take the steps” to advance the peace process, adding: “I don’t understand the lack of strategy in Israel.”
He also predicted an “apartheid state” unless Israel is able to achieve a two-state solution.
His remarks caused a furor in the UK Jewish community, with many prominent Jews in public positions defending his remarks, noting that it was high time “that honest and open discussions” about Israel took place in the public arena. Other Jewish leaders were chagrined or irritated, and issued mixed statements, while only a very few – most notably Jonathan Hoffman of the Zionist Federation and Lord Stanley Kalms – professed outright indignation.
Davis’s comments are disturbing because of who he is. As chairman of the UJIA, he has devoted much time and energy to raising funds for Israel. Yet he still used this language in a public forum. This means that a growing desire to openly criticize Israel is moving from the fringes of the Jewish community into the mainstream. This is the new discussion, and arguments about whether it should or shouldn’t be suppressed, are moot. It’s out there and it’s gaining momentum.
I’M ASSUMING that as a UK-born Israeli who has spent 25 years living, working, voting and paying taxes here, I can be part of this discussion. After all, if we’re going to be honest and open, it’s best to get a lot of stuff which hasn’t been articulated on the Israeli side out on the table.
But before I do this, I’m going to say that if your love of Israel is unconditional, if you’ve come to the conclusion that Israelis are pretty much doing the best they can and are paying a high price to do so, you can skip this article.
But if you’re thinking of joining this new chorus of public criticism, here are the two things that I would like to put across to you.
One: There are areas of criticism where you cause grave offense, and others where your input is necessary and welcome.
In the welcome category are issues which affect Jews everywhere, and where I would be glad to see a concerted joint effort and involvement in Israeli affairs. For example, I don’t see the Western Wall as Israeli only but as a Jewish historical and spiritual heritage that concerns us all. I’m increasingly alarmed at the haredi takeover of this site, and would love for women of all denominations to mount a campaign to claim equal and respectable space, freedom of worship and visual access to the men’s section. Similarly, the behavior of the rabbinical courts in matters of marriage, divorce and conversion affect all of us. I think it perfectly legitimate for there to be loud and furious debate on these issues across the globe.
I would also love to get more of your input and expertise for our school systems and community centers. The achievements of Diaspora communities in Jewish education and engagement, communal cohesion and responsibility and religious diversity and creativity could greatly benefit Israeli society, and have indeed already begun to do so.
But there are some in the UK Jewish community who seem increasingly inclined to level criticism in the grave offense category, on the subject of our conflict with the Palestinians, the finalization of our borders and our responses to provocation from Hamas and Hizbullah. On these issues, I believe you have no right to speak at all, mainly because you have not risked your lives and futures, and the lives and futures of your children, for Israel’s security. We may be equals in many things, but in this matter we are not, because we have not invested equally. We are separated by a vale of tears and an ocean of blood, mostly very young blood.
In my particular case, I’m separated from you guys by two Lebanon wars, two Gulf wars, two intifadas, two children who’ve completed army service and a third about to begin, seven general elections, four unsuccessful peace processes and five terrorist organizations operating in my region. So I don’t believe that your understanding of our region is as nuanced as er… mine.
I do see that these security issues affect your comfort level in British society. But the government can hardly be expected to make tough decisions on the basis of that. Anyway, I think we’ve each chosen our level of discomfort.
You chose the UK, so you get to squirm when the BBC reports, as a deliberate lie, that there’s been a massacre in Jenin. My neighbors and I, on the other hand, chose Israel, so we get to send our sons into Jenin, hoping against hope that they’ll come out again. Which they sometimes don’t (or do, but as paraplegics).
This is why the remarks you fling in our direction leave us astonished and dismayed.
We may not make a big deal of it, but we walk in shadow.
The chief rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks, understands this perfectly well. In a recent piece on the United Synagogue website, he wrote that the debate that has erupted over Davis’s remarks is “deflecting us from the real issue,” which is that Israel’s enemies – Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran – refuse to recognize its existence as a matter of religious principle. And as long as this is the case, he says, “there can be no peace, merely a series of staging posts on the way to a war that will not end until there is no Jewish state at all.”
THERE ARE other areas where the offense is not grave, just annoying. Take the issue of African refugees pouring across the border with Egypt in their tens of thousands.
Let’s see – the government has just allocated millions of shekels for the construction of a new transit center for these illegal immigrants.
I pay 50% income tax, so with the greatest compassion in the world, I’m not sure I want to finance their long term support. But no doubt, when the numbers in these temporary dwellings have swelled beyond the originally intended figures, and this holding facility becomes nothing more than an overcrowded slum, many Jews living outside of Israel will be campaigning for the food and health and shelter of these immigrants, and they'’ll be campaigning for me to pay for it.
Last year, my son spent three months of his IDF service on the Egyptian border, dragging the bodies of dead and wounded refugees to waiting ambulances because they’d been shot on the Egyptian side. One Eritrean, faint from hunger and exhaustion, sank to his knees and wrapped his arms around Yonatan’s legs when he discovered he’d reached the Israeli side. This refugee presumably hadn’t listened to CNN or BBC, so he didn’t know that Israel was a hotbed racism and apartheid. He only knew that nobody on the Israeli side would try to kill him, and that he’d get a hospital bed for his wounds and food and shelter for his family, before being released into Eilat to look for a job.
Of course this issue is ethically complex.
It’s just that I find the need of Jews living outside Israel to enlighten me on those complexities incredibly patronizing. What is their investment level in this social and political dilemma? If it’s zero, then that’s what the opinions are worth.
POINT TWO: What is the motivation behind this need for public criticism? This is a very important factor in the debate. I can castigate a friend or sibling if I believe her behavior to be selfish or unreasonable, but if I do so in public, I will only humiliate and wound her. I would be mad to think that making her look ridiculous in front of others, and permanently damaging their perception of her is going to produce good results. In fact, I would only do such a thing if my friend’s wellbeing were not the primary object. I might want to hurt her and put her down for complicated reasons of my own.
I speak for myself and many other Israelis when I say that for us, public criticism by UK Jews is suspect. For one, your call for “openness” has escalated at exactly the same rate as the delegitimization and demonization of Israel by the British establishment. This vindictive ostracizing of Israel has resulted in an extreme lowering of comfort levels for the Jewish community, as we’ve agreed. But should it result in your shouting to join that vindictiveness? And if you join in, does it increase your status and respectability in British society? My feeling is that it certainly does. So you’ll forgive me if I doubt the integrity of your backing the shrill accusations of the British government and media.
I actually think this discomfort is an encouraging sign that the heart and soul of British Jewry is in good working order. If British Jews were not viscerally connected to Israel, the feeling would be one of apathy or contempt, not discomfort. But they are connected.
To so many of them, Israel is precious and important. When they land at Ben-Gurion Airport, their hearts are filled with belonging.
This is something we all share, we who live here and we who come to visit. To sever us from this profound recognition and unity in our psyche, to force us to feel that we have no choice but to expunge it, is to cripple us indeed. So my suggestion to you is don’t agree to be crippled. Hold your head high, take it on the chin, fight it like a lion or leave.
Where does that leave us, you and I? I personally would rather we did not go this route.
But if you would like to criticize Israel as much as you like, then I, by the same token, will feel free to criticize you as much as I like. We will call this new way of relating “tough love.”
We will use the two-directional model, instead of Diaspora Jews behaving as if their criticism is a lifesaving antibiotic, which Israel, the ever truculent child, refuses to swallow.
In conclusion, I’d like to invite Jonathan Hoffman, Lord Kalms and Chief Rabbi Sacks to dinner the next time they are in Beit Shemesh. In a crisis, it sure is nice to know who your friends are. As for poor Mick Davis, he will not get even one bite of my fabulous lasagna.
The writer is a filmmaker.