When American Jews are confronted with actions of the Jewish state that they believe to be wrong or immoral, do they have the right to publicly criticize Israel? Moreover, assuming for a moment that they have the right, should they exercise it? In other words, is their criticism actually helping Israel or is it only providing ammunition for our enemies to further harm Israel?
While American Jews are faced with such difficult questions, not surprisingly their counterparts in Israel are strongly against Diaspora Jewry publicly criticizing Israel in any shape or form. In addition, feeling increasingly threatened and ostracized, Israel now more than ever expects to receive strong support from Diaspora Jewry, especially from the large and powerful American Jewish community.
What then is the proper path to follow? For starters, since the Jewish nation is comprised of every Jew and the land of Israel, eretz yisrael, belongs to every Jew, then certainly American Jews can speak their mind about events in Israel. No one is suggesting that these two cornerstones of our tradition, namely that all Jews have an intrinsic connection with each other as well as with a common land, be tinkered with. However, since we don't live in a bubble and the situation is obviously more complex, the subject needs to be further analyzed from both sides of the coin.
From the Israeli perspective, one argument frequently heard is that American Jews should not speak out against Israel since they have little or no understanding of the reality of life in the Middle East. Bluntly stated, Israel's neighbors are not Canada and Mexico. This line of thinking helps explain why many left-leaning Israeli Jews are frequently very different from their American counterparts.
Unlike a Jew living in America, the typical left-wing Israeli has to deal with army service, wars and terrorist attacks. Thus, although he may support certain policies that are considered left-wing, he usually doesn't do this out of a naïve belief that Jews and Arabs will soon become best of friends or that relinquishing more land will actually bring an end to the region's hostilities.
Another common assumption in Israel is that those American Jews who feel uncomfortable about Israeli actions or policies are probably struggling with their own Jewish identity. With assimilation ravaging American Jewry, it's only natural that one's Jewish identity frequently takes backstage to other identities that are a part of one's psychological makeup. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the most steadfast supporters of Israel usually come from Jews who are more traditional since for them the Jewish component is a dominant factor of their identity.
Finally, on a psychological level some claim that Israeli activities that appear harsh or unjust would make an American Jew with a relatively weak Jewish identity feel uncomfortable in his non-Jewish environment. Thus, by criticizing Israel perhaps he is subconsciously trying to be accepted by the non-Jewish world around him.
These are some of the claims from the Israeli angle, in addition to the ubiquitous "if you don't live here, don't tell us what to do" claim.
Nonetheless, in spite of any truth that these arguments may contain, as previously stated American Jews have the right to express their beliefs. True, perhaps they should ask themselves why they are criticizing – to honestly help Israel or to merely alleviate their own uncomfortable situation – but this is a side issue. The point is they can criticize.
Having said all that, perhaps there is something else going on here. Unlike the Middle Eastern culture that has an aspect of tribal affiliation and less internal criticism, American culture is hypothetically based upon an objective pursuit of truth and justice. Therefore, being influenced by the surrounding culture, American Jews tend to give precedence to what they consider the pursuit of truth and justice as opposed to simply granting unconditional loyalty to other Jews.
On the surface this is quite a noble quality, one worthy of exporting to the rest of humanity. However, this otherwise praiseworthy approach also contains two potential flaws. One is the assumption of objectivity and the second is the very understanding of such terms as “truth” and “justice”.
The combined effect today of both the media and the many powerful public relations, marketing and advertising firms is arguably more influential than ever before in shaping the mindset of the average person. Together with this powerful group there is the academic world with its own unique ability to penetrate all sorts of ideas into society.
The problem is that many of the people who have the power to influence are heavily biased when it comes to Israel. For instance, I remember being fed seemingly endless Edward Said and Noam Chomsky while working on my master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies. Although a small minority of students sensed that something was wrong and that the studies were biased, most did not have the tools to argue with our well published and seemingly brilliant political science professor. For the majority of the students, the professor's words were simply accepted as irrefutable truth.
The point is that there are many intelligent and powerful people, be it in the media or in the academic world, with a very biased approach when it comes to Israel and through their positions of influence they easily blow away the assumed theory of objectivity.
The second problem is frequently just an outgrowth of the first problem since it is people with an agenda that often shape our understanding of what constitutes truth and justice or right and wrong when assessing Israel. Moreover, even in the best-case scenario where this is not happening, the basic understandings that most American Jews have of these concepts usually come from non-Jewish sources. Although occasionally these are similar to Jewish concepts of morality, sometimes they’re not.
Thus rather than judging the Jewish State based upon the rich tradition of Jewish morality and ethics, Israel is ironically being judged by good-intentioned Jews according to non-Jewish morality.
To summarize, American Jews definitely have the right to express their opinion regarding the Jewish State since Israel, like any nation, is certainly not absolved from criticism. However, while continuing with the pursuit of the lofty ideals mentioned above, American Jews need to be more cognizant of the fact that both their understanding of these very ideals and of the actual events that transpire in Israel are frequently influenced by people with a very clear and biased agenda.