I am often asked by non-Jewish friends how the bar on criticism of Israel is exercised among Jews. I have struggled to explain the social prohibitions on such talk, whether in the synagogue, the New York Times, or academia, because I did not grow up inside the Jewish organizational sphere. And so I listened with keen interest to a recent dialogue at JCC Manhattan between two leading rabbis, Ayelet Cohen, 40, and David Ellenson, 68, about their reluctance to criticize Israel publicly.
The conversation was notable for two confessions from Ellenson: that he and Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt criticized Israel for the first time ever, over the Jewish nationality law, in the Wall Street Journal last December (this piece) only after they were pressed to do so by a member of the Israeli Knesset; and that he had first observed Israel’s discriminatory practices against Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem–not paving roads in Palestinian sections– 18 years ago but that he had declined to criticize these Jim Crow conditions, and indeed felt queasy about speaking publicly about them in New York that night.
Why did he feel such inhibition? The rabbis invoked the idea that the Jewish people are one, in Israel and the United States, and there is a sacred responsibility to support one another; and Cohen laid out a rule she is uncomfortable with: that American Jews have no right to criticize Israel because they don’t serve in the army there.
The talk took place on February 23 and was called, “At a Crossroads: American Jews’ Relationship to Israel.” Ellenson is the Chancellor Emeritus of Hebrew Union College. Cohen is director of the Center for Jewish Living and the David H. Sonabend Center for Israel at the JCC and served for many years as the leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT congregation.
Here are three excerpts:
You said a phrase before, Can you be critical of Israel and still love it infinitely when you know that there are people who are bent on the destruction of the state? And I think that’s such a salient question. Do I love Israel infinitely? I feel like I love Israel the way I love my family. Infinite love and infinite awareness and patience and despair over its complications and its failings and wanting to believe that it can yet be the best of itself…. [Cohen remembers a childhood friend killed in a terrorist bombing of a bus 19 years ago in Jerusalem].
So when we think of criticism and talk about criticism– and I remember always that sense of, Any criticism of Israel is not OK, belies a lack of love for Israel, and is not appropriate for Americans. If you want to criticize Israel, make aliyah, live in Israel, fight in the army of Israel and then you have a right to criticize, and if you don’t do that you have no right to have any opinion except for a supportive opinion.
Recently, in fact just last December… Deborah Lipstadt and I wrote an article, an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal against the proposed nationality law that prior to his dissolution of the government, where Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted Israel declared officially as a Jewish state, to not really emphasize the democratic character of Israel. I do think Israel is a Jewish state, I have no problem with that. But I began to think, that well, timing-wise, prudentially, pragmatically this is not a very wise time to engage in that kind of position. I think Dr. Lipstadt and I when we wrote this op-ed, we both said it was the first time to our knowledge that we had ever voiced any critique of the Israeli government…
I do think that for Jews who are committed to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel, that we American Jews not only have the ability to make our views felt but I think American Jews are really obligated– if one believes that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh-bazeh, that we have one people, that there’s echad unity, and that Jews are responsible for one another, then I think American Jews should speak out on issues of concern to them…
In this sense, I guess I can reveal this. What actually motivated Deborah and I to write this is that a friend of ours who is a member of the Knesset called us privately and said it’s very important for American Jews who support this position– in this case opposition to the passage of the nationality law– to express their views, that will help us a great deal in the Knesset. I see that as completely legitimate, but I cannot say I still feel in my heart of hearts completely comfortable with being critical.
The other point that I would make, and this is what it means to awaken to another narrative. When I used to live in Jerusalem, I would note that in areas or neighborhoods that were Arab, that for example the streets would be completely paved in Abu Tor, let’s say in the Jewish section, and, as soon as you go 20 feet more, into the Arab neighborhoods, the streets simply would not be paved. I don’t know why now, in 2015, when I saw these things in 97, 98, 2000, it didn’t bother me more, but I think we haven’t as Jews– and the state of Israel hasn’t done all it could or should have done frankly [speaks haltingly] to support its Arab citizens.
Even here it’s difficult for me to make that as a public statement. But I am beginning to be awakened to that much more. But that’s a personal trajectory on my part. It’s different than the topic tonight, which is how is it that we do go about engaging in it. If Jews like you and me can’t begin to engage in this without being accused of being somehow traitors to the Jewish people, we’re not going to have many Jews left.
You said before, you were talking about the oft quoted phrase that all of Israel is responsible for each other… We talk so much about the American Jewish responsibility to Israel and the sacred obligation to support Israel– and where I have so often felt as a progressive American Jew, Are you supporting me back? Where is the support? .. Where is that obligation to world Jewry, to the incredible flourishing of progressive Jewry… ?
Back when Alan Dershowitz was attacking the Israel lobby theory as anti-Semitic, I discovered his own comments that American Jews had a “sacred mission” to support Israel. These rabbis affirm that; and it seems to me as problematic as any other religious demand on civic life, say, opposition to stem-cell research.
The conversation was circumscribed. Cohen repeatedly referred to younger Jews who are critical of the occupation, and who derive their Jewish identity from that opposition. But the conversation pointedly excluded anti-Zionists or non-Zionists, indeed defined American Jews as the subset of Jews who support Israel. Cohen got the name of Jewish Voice for Peace wrong — Jewish Voices for Peace, she said; and Ellenson could not remember the right name for Students for Justice in Palestine and also called BDS (boycott divestment and sanctions) DBS.
These rabbis are deeply immured in a communal conversation, which is why I think people should respect Ellenson making this public break. Obviously it gives him pain to issue the criticisms that he does. (BTW, Palestinians who support the right of return don’t have to break with their siblings, parents and grandparents; no, they affirm that community by doing so.)
But of course Ellenson was silent for over 15 years about conditions that if they existed in the U.S. would be the target of angry protest by progressive Jews. And this speaks to the conundrum for young Jews, the Open Hillel folks who are breaking with their elders. If this is the Jewish communal conversation, where will you find leadership on the question of Palestinian human rights? From Palestinians.