I spoke at the Pine Brook Jewish Center in Montville over the weekend, and during the Q and A someone asked if I thought The New York Times was biased against Israel. I gave my usual answer, which is that I think the Times, serving a disproportionately large Jewish audience, often engages in a “family” conversation that many Jews don’t want their gentile neighbors to hear.
I gave this example: If my newspaper were to report that the tragic Carmel forest fires have led to a bitter debate in Israel about accountability and preparedness, few would accuse us of bias.
But if the Times were to print a front-page story about the fire’s rancorous political fallout, they’d be accused of insensitivity and worse. Isn’t it just like the Times, after all, to focus on Israel’s flaws instead of say, the heroism of its firefighters and the human and environmental costs of the tragedy? (Never mind that the Israeli newspapers are pulling no punches in this regard, publishing op-eds fiercer than anything that might appear in the Times.)
This “not for the neighbors” mindset was on display after Jeffrey Goldberg, a veteran Middle East hand and blogger for the Atlantic, wrote a post saying people should ignore the Jewish National Fund’s Forest Fire Emergency Campaign. “Israel is a rich country. The fact that it doesn’t possess adequate firefighting equipment is its own fault,” he wrote. “At some point, the good-hearted Diaspora Jews who still think of Israel as a charity case are going to have to tell their cousins to learn to fully-fund basic services like firefighting if they want to be thought of as citizens of an advanced country.”
Ouch. The reaction, you might imagine, was vitriolic and often profane. “You Leftist American Jews are so grotesque,” ran one comment. Another cursed him as one of the “Jew-haters who look for new ways to punish Israel.” The conservative website RightNetwork announced that “The Atlantic today is urging liberals to turn their back on Israel.”
In truth, Goldberg is neither a leftist nor a self-hater. He’s an American Jew who served in the IDF, earned his reporting chops at the Jewish Forward, painted frightening portraits of Hamas for The New Yorker, and frequently attacks fellow Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan for demonizing Israel. He’s no fan of the settlements, but he’s also been accused of “war-mongering” for his sobering reports on the Iranian nuclear threat.
Goldberg’s mistake, if you want to call it that, was two-fold.
First, he unfairly conflated American-Jewish philanthropy with Israeli domestic policy. JNF doesn’t have a perfect track record in its decades of support for Israel, but it has served as an iconic bridge between Israel and the Diaspora. Israel is meant to be the home of the Jewish people, but it’s also a sovereign nation. Since American Jews can’t vote there and don’t pay taxes to its government, their connection is cemented and personalized through philanthropy, whether through JNF, the federations, or hundreds of other conduits.
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg has written that Diaspora fund-raising for Israel is a statement that “Jewish fate is indivisible.” The money we raise for Israel isn’t chicken feed, but it’s a fraction of Israel’s own GDP and the American foreign aid package. When an Israeli fire truck bears the name of the Weinstein Family from Miami, it doesn’t imply that Israel has outsourced its public services. It’s a statement by the Weinsteins that they value Jewish lives, and by the JNF that Zionism is a global Jewish movement. It’s a partnership, not a charity. If Israel uses such gifts as an excuse to underfund its own services, that’s not the JNF’s fault. As a thinking American Jew, you can help outfit an Israeli firefighter and still insist that Israel live up to its responsibilities.
Goldberg also touched a nerve by bringing an internal Israeli debate, and Israeli debating style, to a general interest American media outlet. If you think the Times is critical of Israel, you should read the Israeli press. A Ynet columnist called the fires “a disaster produced by politicians who care about sectarian rather than national affairs.” “We have no national leadership here that is capable of rising above the immediate problems,” wrote Nahum Barnea in Yediot Ahronot. Even an American immigrant, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, caught the bug, scoring Benjamin Netanyahu’s “nauseatingly self-congratulatory” post-fire press conference and lamenting that “this country is in infinitely worse shape than we might wish to admit.”
Many American Jews are uncomfortable talking that way about Israel, or hearing others talk that way. Israel has enough critics, they argue, without Jews and, certainly, American Jews, piling on. They want Jewish support of Israel to be uncritical; in essence, a blank check.
Others insist we have every right to clock in on the Israeli debate, and to put our money where our mouths are. If that ends up embarrassing Israel or the organizations that support it, so be it.
Somewhere between these extremes is a relationship we — and Israel — can live with. People who love one another support one another and sometimes criticize one another — and sometimes all at the same time. It’s called a family.