Remember: when loyalty is blind, you can’t see straight

By Richard Verber, May 19, 2013
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I was standing in Auschwitz last month when news filtered through that Margaret Thatcher had died. After flying home from March of the Living, we landed to newspapers, television and social media saturated with analysis of her time at the top.

Views were strong. There were those arguing with passion that she had saved Britain, successfully taking on the unions and forging economic stability. Equally strident critics blamed her for destroying communities, particularly in working-class, northern cities.

Twitter - the social media platform whose greatest success is perhaps to give a voice to the voiceless - was unrelenting in its coverage. And the photos and videos from parties marking her death found a ready audience online.

Two things struck me as I caught up with all of the commotion. First, how deeply un-Jewish the celebrations were but, more usefully, how the debate over Thatcher's legacy has a lot to teach us about how we talk about Israel today.

We are so keen to label each other 'anti-Israel'

Judaism doesn't take kindly to celebrating people's deaths - even those who might have made us suffer. Two of our most popular festivals are marked by consciously recognising the personal sorrows of people who have caused us harm.

On Pesach, at the Seder table, we spill a few drops of our wine at the mention of each of the 10 plagues. While the plagues were an essential part of the process leading to the Children of Israel's emancipation from Egypt, we deliberately waste some of our wine - a substance that is generally a symbol of rejoicing - in recognition of the suffering of the Egyptians.

And on Rosh Hashanah, we remember the suffering of the mother of Sisera, whose story is told in the book of Judges. Sisera is a brutal and violent Assyrian warrior who spends much of his time raping and pillaging. He is killed, memorably, by Yael after a battle with the Israelites.

The following evening, when Sisera doesn't return from the battlefield, his mother, full of anguish, stares out of the window hoping he'll soon come home. She consoles herself that he is probably busy enjoying the spoils of war and she cries 101 times in anger at the Israelites.

The shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah somehow counteract her curses. But she whimpers 101 times; we blow the shofar only 100, holding back one blast to show our compassion for a weeping mother.

Britain was clearly divided on whether it should weep over Thatcher's death. Britons of all ages - even those born after her time in office - had an opinion. Yet strikingly, even when the criticism was at its most unpleasant, or praise at its most fulsome, none of the debate was deemed "anti-British". Political disagreements were seismic, full of bile (and at times hatred), but recognised as part of mainstream public discourse. The Jewish community played a part in the debate too: responses ranged from fond recollections of how Thatcher enjoyed a good relationship with British Jews to a high-profile funeral snub. Again, though, nothing which was termed "anti-British".

Why is it, then, that when our small and fractious community comes to discuss Israeli politics, we are only too keen to label each other as "anti-Israel" or "anti-Zionist" if we find that someone has a different opinion to our own? When was the last time you heard a critic of Francois Hollande, the French president, be called "anti-France"?

If only we could discuss Israel with the same maturity we (perhaps) approach British politics. The idea of using support for every single government policy as a yardstick by which to measure one's patriotism is nonsense (unless, perhaps, you find yourself in North Korea).

Mark Twain, he so beloved of those in need of a good quote, got it right. In 1905 he wrote the essay The Czar's Soliloquy. "The only rational patriotism," he said, "is loyalty to the nation ALL the time, loyalty to the government when it deserves it".

There seems to be greater tolerance for exploring the nuances of British politics than those of Israel. As a community, 65 years after Israel's establishment, we need to move away from our knee-jerk reaction of crying foul whenever we perceive someone to be criticising Israel. Of course, assaults sometimes come from those who have no desire to see a Jewish state flourishing in the Middle East and such attacks need to be called out for what they are. But a robust democracy can cope with robust debate and doesn't require repetitive, unflinching, unthinking advocacy whatever the circumstances.

Blind loyalty doesn't exist in any democracy in the world. It shouldn't with Israel either.

Richard Verber tweets as @richardverber

Last updated: 4:45pm, May 19 2013