On Behalf Of Israel’s Foul-Weather Fans …

by Jonah Shepp

In a response to the repeated assertions by the likes of Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, and Peter Beinart that Israel’s actions are making it harder for liberal Zionists like themselves to defend their positions, Shmuel Rosner accuses these writers of being “fair-weather fans” of the Jewish state:

Sometimes it feels as if liberal Zionist critics are trying to ensure that Israel’s deeds do not rub off on them. At other times, it feels as if they’re trying to clear their conscience of something for which they feel partially responsible. They seem to believe that the implied threat that Israel might lose Jewish supporters abroad will somehow convince the government to alter its policies. This is a self-aggrandizing fantasy and reveals a poor grasp of the way Israel operates. To put it bluntly: These Jews are very important, but not nearly important enough to make Israelis pursue policies that put Israeli lives at risk.

Let me be clear: I believe Israel’s relations with Jews around the world are crucially important. Indeed, I’ve devoted a great deal of my career to thinking and writing about this topic. I often find myself preaching to Israelis about the need to be more considerate of more liberal Jewish views on issues ranging from religious conversion to women’s prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. But I would never expect Israelis to gamble on our security and our lives for the sake of accommodating the political sensitivities of people who live far away.

Rosner is clearly letting his passions get in the way of his reasoning here. We Jews who criticize Israel aren’t asking Israelis to “gamble on their security”; indeed, the point liberal Zionists have been trying to get across for decades now is that the policy of complete disregard for Palestinian rights and grievances that Israel has adopted is, in fact, gambling on the security of Israelis and Jews everywhere by calling the Zionist project’s long-term sustainability into question. We’re not asking Israel to be less heavy-handed and more conciliatory out of concern for our own consciences, but rather out of recognition that Israel cannot be secure as a Jewish homeland if it continues to lash out reactively at Palestinian resistance rather than honestly and justly addressing the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians as a result of its creation and the ongoing suffering that engenders that resistance. Chait hits back at Rosner, who he says mischaracterizes his argument entirely by conflating feelings with opinions:

My Zionism — that is, my belief that the Jewish people, like other people, deserve a homeland where they can live free of persecution — is immutable. My disposition as a defender of Israel depends on the character of the Israeli state. A decade ago, I’d argue, it was a fair reading of the facts to view Israel as a state that mostly desired peace and whose use of force was mostly justifiable. I think that argument has weakened substantially in the intervening years.

To provide a corresponding example, right now I’d describe myself as pro-Ukraine — my analysis is that Ukraine is mostly within its rights, and that the cause of its current conflict lies mostly in the aggressive intentions of Russia. It is possible the world will change in such a way that I no longer regard this as true. Now, I lack the sort of personal and cultural attachment to Ukraine that I have to Israel. But the emotional component is not all that matters.

Responding to John Podhoretz, who applauds Rosner’s piece, Larison finds the line of thinking that Rosner and Podhoretz advance disturbing:

I have often cited the Russian proverb that Solzhenitsyn used, “The yes-man is your enemy, but your friend will argue with you.” … The main mistake that Rosner and Podhoretz make, unsurprisingly, is that they consider otherwise sympathetic critics to be “fair-weather” friends when these are potentially some of the best friends that Israelis have precisely because they don’t simply back whatever the Israeli government happens to do. Considering the stifling of dissent inside Israel that has been taking place lately, that would seem to be all the more valuable. But then one would have to understand the value of dissent against reckless and hawkish policies to appreciate that, and naturally Podhoretz doesn’t.

The odd thing about these complaints is that there is less sympathy for Israel around the world now than at almost any time that I can remember in the last twenty years. One would think that “pro-Israel” hawkish Americans and Israelis would be more appreciative of the sympathizers that Israel does have, including the critical ones, but instead the latter are treated dismissively and berated for having the temerity to express their concern. As this rate, there will continue to be fewer sympathizers as it becomes clear that friendly criticism is just falling on deaf ears.

My fear is that Larison is absolutely right about this, and that the Israeli state and its polity have both become so convinced of their categorical righteousness that legitimate criticism becomes impossible to imagine. This sensitivity speaks to the existential paranoia that underpins Zionism, and while that paranoia is understandable given what we Jews have been through, it leaves Israel operating in an alternate reality in which all criticism of Israel is anti-Zionism, all anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, and thus anti-Semitism becomes the sole and sufficient cause of all criticism of Israel, even from Jews!

Not only is this perception incorrect, it’s also self-destructive. There’s no point pretending that Israel does no wrong, has no hard choices to make, and faces no uncertainty in its future. And that’s why, like Chait, Klein, and Beinart, I criticize Israel for the same reason Israel gives for doing the things I criticize: out of concern for my safety as a Jew on this earth.