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The right to criticize Israel is beside the point

The issue isn’t whether it’s OK to criticize the government of a democracy, but whether that democracy has a right to exist and to defend itself.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2018 AIPAC Policy Conference. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2018 AIPAC Policy Conference. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In an election season in which we are awash in polls, we’ve now been given one more telling us something that everybody already knew. A new group founded by Jewish Democrats called the Jewish Electorate Institute has commissioned and published a poll that says Jewish voters back Democrats over Republicans by a 74-26 margin in the upcoming midterm elections. For good measure, it also informs us that Jews disapprove of U.S. President Donald Trump’s performance in office by a 75-25 margin.

This is what the news business calls a “dog bites man” story. But there was one question the survey raised that is worthy of comment: whether or not American Jews thought they had a right to criticize Israel’s government. A majority of them believe they do, with 59 percent saying that you could be both pro-Israel and still disagree with some or many of the Israeli government’s policies.

This result is being trumpeted by groups critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as proof that they are more representative of American Jewish opinion than those U.S. Jews who are supportive of the government. It is also put forward as a vindication of sorts for a liberal Zionist perspective on the Middle East conflict that argues that American Jews not only have a right to oppose Netanyahu’s policies, but a duty to push for pressure on the Jewish state to change its ways while still being able to claim the label of pro-Israel.

But those heralding its results are missing the point. The issue isn’t whether it’s OK to criticize the government of a democracy, but whether that democracy has a right to exist and to defend itself. Even more to the point, the key question is whether Israel’s voters have a right to have their judgment respected by those who would like to push foreign governments to put intolerable pressure on their government to do things its people have clearly said they oppose.

As for Jewish support for the Democrats, this isn’t really news. While Trump is arguably the most supportive U.S. president of Israel in memory, nothing he has or could do, including moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, was ever going to change the minds of voters who are among the most loyal Democrats of any demographic group.

Equally unremarkable is the notion that it is permissible for Jews to criticize the Israeli government.

Of course, Jews can disagree with Netanyahu or any Israeli government. Israel is a democracy, and every day most Jews there have something critical to say about the Knesset, the cabinet and the maddening bureaucracy that regularly drives them crazy. Like all human creations, the State of Israel isn’t perfect, and it is no more exempt from critical scrutiny than any other democracy.

While American Jews do not have the same skin in the game as Israelis, those of us who care about Israel are by no means obligated to say that everything their government says and does is smart or good, any more than we would be to do the same about Congress or any U.S. administration.

But the point about criticism of Israel is that what’s up for debate is not so much the wisdom of its leaders, but the right of the Jews to have a state with a government. The crux of the conflict in the Middle East isn’t whether Netanyahu deserves a fifth term as prime minister when he will likely face Israel’s voters again next year. Nor is it whether any or all of his policies are wise.

The reason why the pro-Israel community’s instinct is to rally around the Israeli government is that a 100-year-old war on Zionism continues with the Palestinians and their supporters still hoping to undo the verdict of history. As long as many around the world are still bent on destroying the Jewish state—whether by terrorism, economic warfare (the BDS movement) or pushing for a “right of return” by the descendants of the 1948 Palestinian refugees—those who care about its existence and longevity need to be mindful that Israel is still at war and its right to defend itself must be protected. Those like the members of Jewish Voice for Peace, who espouse anti-Zionism, are not criticizing Israel; they are giving aid and support to those who continue to pursue the war against its existence.

Even more to the point, Israel’s people have a right to expect that their foreign friends will extend them the respect they deserve. There’s nothing wrong with carping about Netanyahu if you think he and the majority of Israel’s voters who put him in power are wrong. However, attempts to reverse the verdict of Israeli democracy via foreign pressure are not the actions of a friend of the Jewish state.

What’s really obnoxious is not dissent against Netanyahu, but American Jews acting as if there isn’t a consensus in Israel about the lack of a Palestinian peace partner or the madness of repeating Ariel Sharon’s 2005 experiment in the West Bank, which could lead to the possibility of an even more dangerous terrorist state there than the one that was created in Gaza.

What’s even more obnoxious is claiming that Israeli democracy is in peril when your only real complaint about it is that you don’t like the verdict of Israeli voters.

Equally absurd is pretending that American kibitzers know more about the conflict that the Israeli people, or the idea that Israel needs to be saved from itself.

So while American Jews can criticize Israel without joining its enemies, the issue isn’t the legitimacy of dissent, but the need to understand what is at stake at a time of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. There’s no need to suppress debate about important questions. Yet as we engage in vigorous discussions of important issues, it is still important for Jews who care about Israel to understand that their actions are not taking place in a vacuum.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS —Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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