Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Great Diaspora Dilemma: To Criticize or Not to Criticize

By Gil Troy
THE JEWISH TRIBUNE, April 19, 2007, p.5

To criticize or not to criticize, that is the great Diaspora dilemma. Those of us deeply engaged in Israel , viewing Zionism as the Jewish national liberation movement, seek ever more involvement in Israeli life. We recognize that the state of our homeland will determine our Jewish future. We know that true love, for countries and individuals, involves seeing the warts as well as the wonders, so we can demand better. Why should we silence ourselves, refraining from criticizing the Jewish state?
At the same time, we Diaspora Jews vote with our feet, choosing not to participate fully in our great national Jewish adventure by living elsewhere. We give what we choose not what we must. We do not pay taxes to the third Jewish Commonwealth. We do not vote in the first Jewish democracy. We and our children do not serve in the modern Jewish army. Given our limited, voluntary investment in blood, sweat, and tears, how dare we dictate decisions about Israel ’s borders, about life and death questions plaguing Israel ’s citizens?
Extremes on the left and the right have been myopic, inconsistent. Traditionally, right-wingers supported Israel “right or wrong,” demonizing dissenters. Starting with the Oslo years, and peaking with the Gaza Disengagement, many Diaspora rightists denounced Israel and the Israeli Army. Meanwhile, too many leftist Jews are what others have called “proud to be ashamed to be Jewish.” These people only identify publicly as Jews to criticize Israel – often viciously.
We could all use some Vitamin “H” – humility. Like all armchair statesman and laptop warriors, I have strong opinions about Israel ’s borders, Israel ’s relations with the Palestinians, Israel ’s strengths and flaws. I happily share them at my dinner table. But even there – and certainly in public – I am humbled by my choice not to put my life, or my kids’ lives, on the line. I do not think it is proper for me to preach to our Israeli brothers and sisters where to draw the line between themselves and their enemies. Under Israel ’s Law of Return I can acquire citizenship instantly and plunge into the debate wholeheartedly. Until that day comes, I choose to stay humble, to keep my opinions on this complicated, existential issue private.
My instincts to be humble are reinforced by the fact that we are not operating in an honest environment. Israel has been subjected to a vicious, disproportionate ideological assault. I am loathe to join the pile-on, and I loathe those who do pile on, attacking Israel without acknowledging Israel’s search for peace, Israel’s willingness to compromise, Israel’s right to self-defense. So I defend Israel ardently, without an asterisk, without feeling constrained by my decision to sit out the border debate, for now. There are so many bigger issues concerning the Palestinians’ immoral decision to turn from negotiations to terror, the world’s amoral acquiescence, the toxicity of Palestinian political culture, the one-sided application of human rights law, the travesty the United Nations has become, the tragedy of Arab autocracy and rejectionism. All these make whatever mistakes Israel has made pale in comparison.
Still, as someone passionately committed to Israel ’s future, for my sake, for my kids’ sake, for my people’s sake, I have no problem criticizing Israel constructively, appropriately, empathetically. I mourn the growing gap between rich and poor, the weakening education system, the epidemic political corruption, Israeli intellectuals’ self-loathing and hypercritical behavior, the Rabbinate’s ham-handed policies which have alienated generations of Israelis, Israeli secular culture’s materialistic paganism, the social, economic, and educational inequities afflicting Israeli Arabs, the harshness of Israeli political culture and street life. All those problems keep my critical faculties more than engaged. Of course, they are balanced out by my wonder at Israelis’ personal generosity, warmth in hospitality, cultural creativity, improvisational entrepreneurship; my appreciation for the remarkable attempts to plant liberal ideas of democracy, liberty, equality in the Middle East’s rocky soil, for the richness of Jewish life throughout the country, and for the idealism, altruism, courage, and humanity I witnessed last summer during the war against Hezbollah..
Thus, just as I avoid opining publicly on military matters, given my fortunate ignorance and insulation from such concerns, I feel particularly emboldened to ply my expertise as both critic and cheerleader when it comes to fostering a vibrant modern Jewish identity, building an effective and humane democracy, nurturing a muscular but moderate middle path. Just as we all could spend more time emphasizing Israel ’s accomplishments not Israel ’s mistakes, we all should spend more time focusing on those areas where our standing is clear, our input constructive, our expertise helpful. North American Jews justifiably bristle when some Israelis cross the Atlantic to lecture us that our communities are dying or that we are not fully realized Jews in the Diaspora. We should extend to Israelis the same courtesy we demand from them.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today.

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