Critics and kibitzers
I was cc’ed on a mass e-mail this week that included an article by Rabbi Michael Lerner outlining his solution to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Not surprisingly, the editor of the left-wing Tikkun called for an immediate ceasefire imposed by an international force empowered to arrest “anyone” who violates it. Lerner objects to the “carte blanche” given by the United States to Israel to defend itself from Hamas, calls for an “international conference” to create a Palestinian state, and suggests a “truth and reconciliation” process between the two sides.
Lerner places the balance of responsibility for ending the conflict on Israel, and portrays Hamas, when he bothers to mention them at all, as a nettlesome distraction from the nonviolence that apparently is the trademark of the Palestinian Authority.
I’m guessing that the sender, because he did not comment on Lerner’s piece, assumed his recipients would agree with it. Indeed, one person offered an “amen,” but most of the comments I saw called Lerner naive and one-sided, and suggested he needed a history lesson. One respondent seemed to speak for a lot of the recipients when he wrote, “Why is there an assumption that some of us who are progressive Democrats on a wide range of the other issues might be soft on Israel and agree with this [naive] bulls–t from Rabbi Lerner? Look folks, I’m as hard-line as you can get when it comes to Israel’s safety and security. Regarding Gaza, to hell with John Lennon. Give force a chance.”
I think the last comment, coming from an activist who heads a major advocacy group for progressive issues, might surprise folk. The trend, only intensified by the presidential race, is to assume that our politics, foreign and domestic, have become binary. If you’re a Lefty, that makes you an apologist for terror, a hopeless idealist, or a dangerously “useful idiot” for Israel’s enemies.
In fact, I know a lot of folks who are hungry for a two-state solution and want Israel to be as aggressive diplomatically as they are on the battlefield, and yet feel deeply the pain of Israelis under the barrage of Hamas rockets. They recognize that no country could stand by while an enemy pelted it with rockets and realize that, the squawks of editorial writers notwithstanding, Israel is showing uncommon restraint in a region where attacks on civilians are a military strategy, not an unintended consequence of war.
If they have misgivings, it is not about the right of Israel to defend itself, or the reality of rooting out an enemy that hides among civilians. The responsible criticism of the current action doesn’t second-guess the military or the operation, but rather the government decisions that preceded the current clash and will shape a long-term solution to the immediate crisis.
Consider a statement by another Rabbi Michael — Michael Melchior, who served in the Knesset as part of a joint Labor-Meimad list. “I have been walking around lately with an inner feeling that is deep and painful: that despite the fact that what we are doing is justified, it is not a real long-term strategy and has no chance to solve the problem of the residents of the south and of the State of Israel,” he wrote on Facebook. The alternative, writes Melchior, is a long-term truce with Hamas, combined with “accelerated negotiations for a comprehensive and just peace based on two states for two peoples with the Palestinian leadership team.”
So what’s the difference between the two Michaels? One is obvious: Melchior, as a resident of Israel, has skin in the game. He has established his credibility not only by living in Israel but by serving its people at some of the highest levels of government. By contrast, Lerner is not only American, but his (emphasis on “his”) solutions seem oddly divorced from the Israeli reality. When he discusses a solution, he refers readers to his own books — and not to a movement or thinkers in Israel, where, believe me, all the possibilities for peace are widely discussed. By neither quoting Israelis nor demonstrating that he is up on the current Israeli conversation, Lerner seems to be writing from a great distance.
Of course you can criticize Israel if you don’t live there, but you must demonstrate that you are part of a conversation taking place in Israel, which has become that much easier in the era of social media. I’d like to redefine advocacy for Israel not as unquestioned support for the current Israeli government, but empathy with a political culture that is as diverse and argumentative as the Knesset itself.
Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, writing this week for the Jewish Week, calls on Diaspora critics to show humility and sensitivity — and more. “What I need to hear from Diaspora critics during war is a sense of shared anxiety, anguish, fate,” he writes.
Yes, there are distinct American interests in the Middle East, and you don’t need a hechsher from Israel to advocate for them. But if you are going to inject yourself in the Israeli conversation about security issues, you need to show that you understand the realities on the ground there and that you can point to the Israelis who agree with you.
Because nobody likes a kibitzer.