Tuesday, January 05, 2010

On Refusing to be a "Good Jew"

The "good Jew" is a common trope in Jewish history. A statement attributed to a variety of Nazi officials was that every German "knows one good Jew" -- the exceptions that belie the general rule of Jewish mendacity, parochialism, ruthlessness, avarice, and evil. We should not be distracted. Meanwhile, within the Jewish community, there are those who assume they can escape anti-Semitism by becoming "the good Jew" -- by assimilating into the gentile majority, by adopting the political and ideological convictions of the surrounding society, and often by publicly and viciously repudiating those signals and signs which represent the Jewish community in the public eye. Some anti-Semites offer the same deal: you can escape the wrath coming down on the Jews, if only you turn on your fellows. It's hardly a situation unique to the Jews -- Malcolm X's "house negro" is the obvious analogue -- it's just our particular iteration of a common problem facing oppressed groups in societies shot through with racism.

The American poet Alice Walker had quote attributed to her, one that I've always found meaningful: "No one is your friend who demands your silence."

Alice Walker also recently took a trip to Gaza along with Code Pink, and had some interesting things to say about Israel:
There are differing opinions about this, of course, but my belief is that when a country primarily instills fear in the minds and hearts of the people of the world, it is no longer useful in joining the dialogue we need for saving the planet.

Ms. Walker's post is about many things (many not relating to Israel at all), but the discussion about Israel and Jews is intriguing to me. Not, primarily, because of the tension between the quote I knew from Ms. Walker, and her demand that Israeli Jews be silenced in the debate over the future of their country (and those who, it must be said, would comprise roughly 50% of the combined population of Israel and Palestine). It is the sad truth that commitment to the liberation of some people is often paired with belief in the suppression of others; it no longer surprises me to find that people with unimpeachable anti-racism credentials in one field succumb to horrific bigotry in another.

Rather, it is her discourse on Jews that interested me. Ms. Walker's ex-husband was Jewish, and she relates how, "like so many Jews in America, my former husband could not tolerate criticism of Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians."
I gave her [an old Palestinian woman] a gift I had brought, and she thanked me. Looking into my eyes she said: May God protect you from the Jews. When the young Palestinian interpreter told me what she’d said, I responded: It’s too late, I already married one. I said this partly because, like so many Jews in America, my former husband could not tolerate criticism of Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians. Our very different positions on what is happening now in Palestine/Israel and what has been happening for over fifty years, has been perhaps our most severe disagreement. It is a subject we have never been able to rationally discuss. He does not see the racist treatment of Palestinians as the same racist treatment of blacks and some Jews that he fought against so nobly in Mississippi.
This is one reason I understand the courage it takes for some Jews to speak out against Israeli brutality and against what they know are crimes against humanity. Most Jews who know their own history see how relentlessly the Israeli government is attempting to turn Palestinians into the “new Jews,” patterned on Jews of the holocaust era, as if someone must hold that place, in order for Jews to avoid it.

I hardly contest that many Jews have a blind-spot towards the sufferings of the Palestinian people -- it is a subject I have wrestled with deeply myself. But what strikes me here is the extraordinarily pronounced erasure of Jewish perspective and experience that Ms. Walker engages in. First, that she cannot even conceptualize the possibility that ingrained prejudice that Jews face worldwide, on a daily basis, is a relevant prism for viewing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Rebecca Lesses did a good job parsing all of this; I'd merely add that a woman who puts quotation marks around "holocaust" (lower-case as well) is unfortunately not an unlikely candidate for displaying this lack of empathy.

This, of course, goes back to her conviction that Israeli Jews (and, it seems, most Jews period) are not viable candidates to be discussants in questions of justice. It is a sentiment that makes sense only when one believes they have nothing to contribute. And that sentiment, in turn, relies on the larger claim that Jewish history and experience is effectively a null entity. Ultimately, that Jews themselves are unworthy of political equality. Perhaps this explains the "unholy glee", to quote Professor Lessee, Ms. Walker evinces "in the thought that Jews will once again be a minority in Palestine, as if this is really the correct state of affairs. Jews should know their place, which is not to be able to wield power by controlling their own independent state." The goal is the reinscription of domination over Jews. Equality is for equals. Jews are not equal. Jews must always exist, if they must at all, at the sufferance of others.

Second, one gets the clear feeling that Ms. Walker views the Jewish community in the same way that, well, Jews have most often been viewed throughout history: as diseased, as needing salvation by enlightened outsiders who come only to save us from ourselves. Ms. Walker laments that she was never able to "rationally discuss" the Israel/Palestine issue with her husband (who here is representative of the Jewish community). And why would she be expected to? In the context of Jewish rights, Jews are always taken to be irrational sociopaths, incapable of political communication, and worthy of social expulsion while our betters discuss our fate. Perhaps there is no tension after all between the views expressed here and her aforementioned quote -- one could hardly expect to be friends with such a creature. "Most Jews" don't take Ms. Walker's views on the conflict, but, she asserts, "Most Jews who know their own history" do. The beleaguered Jewish minority, those rare, special few who can transcend their provincial nature and see themselves for who they really are -- those are the saved, and the rest of us are the fallen. Ms. Walker wants to choose Jewish leaders for the Jews, because -- I can't stress this enough -- ultimately, Ms. Walker rejects the notion that Jews are deserving of autonomy and independent development. Jews don't have rights, Jews acceptable to Alice Walker have rights.

But let's talk about this claim about who knows what about Jewish history. I would have presumed I, being Jewish, would know my history quite well. I had forgotten the key clause -- being Jewish. Jews never have possessed the right to define the contours of what Judaism means. That right has always been appropriated by non-Jews like Ms. Walker. It goes without saying that her account of the history here is nearly unspeakably shallow. Jewish migration to what is now Israel predates the Holocaust, most Israeli Jews aren't of European descent (let alone resettled refugees from WWII -- the flatly racist erasure of the existence and history of Arab Jews continues apace here), the British opposed the partition plan, there are, in fact, quite few catastrophes post-dating WWII which would bear much resemblance to the Holocaust (although given the weak grasp Ms. Walker has on what the Holocaust -- excuse me, "holocaust" -- actually entailed, perhaps this is symptomatic of the greater flaw). None of this matters, though, because Ms. Walker possesses the trump card: She's not Jewish. You want to know the story of our "own history"? That's it in a nutshell.

"No one is your friend who demands your silence." The great thing about quotes such as this is that they transcend the author -- they become clarion calls for justice even when their progenitors stray from the path. I do not believe that mutual communication -- open ears and open hearts -- is a luxury in the quest for justice; I believe it is indispensable. As Iris Marion Young wrote, "Normative judgment is best understood as the product of dialogue under conditions of equality and mutual respect. Ideally, the outcome of such dialogue and judgment is just and legitimate only if all the affected perspectives have a voice." It is incumbent upon Jews and Israelis to listen and hear the claims and assertions of Arabs and Palestinians, and Christians and atheists and Europeans and non-Jewish people of color, because that is what political equality and mutual co-existence demand. But it is likewise incumbent upon non-Jews and non-Israelis to hear the narratives and stories of the Jewish people -- to accept that our narratives and stories and experiences and history have meaning and value and worth, and cannot be dismissed as they so often have simply because you're not Jewish and so you can. That way lies the route to oppression. That way is, indeed, the embodiment of the oppression that I as a Jew must struggle against on a daily basis. Ms. Walker, intentionally or not, is part of that oppressive structure which chokes off my life and contributes to the (frankly not unreasonable, given our history) belief amongst Jews that we will never be safe unless we are in a situation where outsiders aren't in a position to dominate us. By her own standards she is not my friend; she is not an ally I can rely upon in times of trouble, or injustice, or hate or violence or need. I don't think it is an expression of shrill Jewish craziness to believe that a discussion between Alice Walker and Ismail Haniyeh (but from which Jews (excepting, of course, the permissible "good Jews") are proactively excluded) is one unlikely to result in a just outcome vis-a-vis the Jews. And I do not see it as being either in my personal interests, or the interests of international justice, to buy into a framework in which I am pre-emptively labeled the enemy.

I noted once before my affinity for Christine Littleton's claim that the feminist method starts "with the very radical act of taking women seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us." I firmly believe that the route to all egalitarian treatment lies in the same prescription. I refuse to be a "good Jew", because I refuse to accept, as Ms. Walker would have me do, the notion that my experience as a Jew is worthless, that I must defer to the non-Jewish world in determining what it means to be Jewish and what constitutes Jewish authenticity, that it is the natural order of things that I be subject to the will and dominance of others, or that I be, in short, a second class citizen of the world. Such a refusal bears little relation to what is said about Jews -- by Ms. Walker or others. But that makes it even more important that we be the ones to start saying them. And that means we can't be "good Jews".


Peter Orlowicz said...

Hmm. Admittedly, I haven't gone back and read Ms. Walker's original essay you're responding to, but I don't think I agree with you that declining to uncritically accept Israeli perspectives on Palestine is equivalent to bigotry and refusing the Jewish people a dignity of self-determination.

You say at one point, "First, that she cannot even conceptualize the possibility that ingrained prejudice that Jews face worldwide, on a daily basis, is a relevant prism for viewing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict." It's exactly this prism that makes me suspicious of attitudes and positions voiced by Israelis regarding this issue. At the least, there is a likelihood of serious bias, not against Israel, but the bias of the speaker because of that history or prejudice. Being a victim of a tragedy shouldn't necessarily give an individual or group of people special authority to speak on a subject, as long as those who do express an opinion or position are well-informed about the topic. One shouldn't have to be a military officer to have a valid perspective on the war in Afghanistan, one shouldn't have special authority about sex offender laws because your child was molested, and one shouldn't have to have experienced anti-Semitism or resided in Israel to have an opinion on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Furthermore, I think the rest of society has a right, if not a responsibility, to be aware of and suspicious of the bias or prism all three parties bring to the discussion. Unfortunately, in some segments of all of these populations, the prevailing attitude is that those who don't share that unique experience don;t have the right to be critical ("like so many Jews in America, my former husband could not tolerate criticism of Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians.") I don't see that intolerance as being prima facie evidence of bigotry or racism targeted against those people. Needless to say, I certainly don't see how this leads inexorably to your later conclusions regarding the perception of Jews as unworthy of political equality or self-determination.

How does one criticize Israel in a way that doesn't contribute to the oppressive structure imposed upon Jews by outsiders that you posit in the second to last paragraph? Why can't Arabs, Christians, Palestinians, whomever, simply say, "Your opinions and perspectives have value, but we disagree and think you're wrong in your conclusions"? How does that sound different than what you're arguing against?

None of this is to say Jews or Israelis aren't entitled to their perspective on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Just because they have one, though, doesn't make it controlling; there's a far cry between having one's perspective critically analyzed or questioned, and not being entitled to one in the first place. You seem to be arguing the latter one, and I tend to see it more as the former.

N. Friedman said...


I do not think that Mr. Schraub is asking anyone to put aside critical faculties. He is pointing out that negating the Jewish perspective on Israel and Jews and Jewish history is a form of bigotry, which it is.

You write: "It's exactly this prism that makes me suspicious of attitudes and positions voiced by Israelis regarding this issue. At the least, there is a likelihood of serious bias, not against Israel, but the bias of the speaker because of that history or prejudice."

In reply, it seems to me that as it relates to Israel, it is not possible for any Westerner of Christian to speak without bias about Israel but that does not negate any Westerner's right to speak about Israel. Regarding the bias of Christians or persons who, to follow the current Pope, are in some way Christian in their cultural identity or worldview, Christianity's very founding concerns the interpretation of events in which Jews are prime actors. Hence, Jews are, by definition, understood symbolically in Christianity.

In Ms. Walker's rant, we have Jews interpreted as Jews, taking the view that Jews have this or that essential attribute making their voices worthless. This, coming from a person raised in the American south in circumstances which almost guarantee that she has a religious background - not that I wish to psychoanalyze her. Not considered by her is the possibility she, not Israeli or other Jews, has a bias that disqualifies her opinion.

You write: "How does one criticize Israel in a way that doesn't contribute to the oppressive structure imposed upon Jews by outsiders that you posit in the second to last paragraph?" Why, prey-tell, is Israel is such need of criticism that a question like yours even needs to be asked? Is Russia, which treats its population, not to mention those many countries it has essentially an occupation army in (e.g. Chechnya) not more in need of criticism. I am not against criticism. I am, however, against hypocrisy which wants to find awful things to say about Israel in a world in which Israel's evils do not even make the top 4/5 of evils. Hence, we have those who scream about Israel, the apartheid state, in order to advance the interest of what state? Saudi Arabia, that land of equality and religious freedom? Perhaps, you see my point. This need to criticize Israel thing is all nonsense.

David Schraub said...

I'm not sure how you push from my "a relevant prism" to an implied "the only relevant/allowed/permitted prism." Indeed, I'm perplexed on why you think I'm making a claim that even remotely resembles something like "Israeli perspectives must be accepted uncritically", or "only Jews and Israelis have the right to comment on Israel," given that in this post (and elsewhere) I explicitly reject both.

What I will argue is incapsulated in the Young quote towards the bottom, "Ideally, the outcome of such dialogue and judgment is just and legitimate only if all the affected perspectives have a voice." It's an indictment of Ms. Walker, who advocates excluding certain relevant perspectives (Israelis) from the conversation entirely. This in no way commits one to an argument that an "unaffected perspective" (if such a thing exists) ought not be permitted a voice.

Let's say I'm a policymaker tasked with formulating policy related to Afghanistan. I'd want to hear informed views of the affected perspectives on the conflict (such as military officers, anti-terrorism experts, Afghan citizens, etc.; also certain important facets of the issue, such as military cost, democratic legitimacy, legality, etc.). Certainly, less affected perspectives (I'm not 100% convinced there is such thing as a truly unaffected perspective) can contribute too, if they wish, but not hearing from Calgary sheep farmers is not the sort of discursive lapse as not hearing from the Afghan government on the subject. If the policymaker didn't take into account Afghan perspectives at all, that would be a grave moral failing given the degree that perspective is implicated in the policy; ditto a discussion "should we invade more troops" that didn't analyze at all the military costs.

Likewise, I think any discussion of Israel that doesn't include the ingrained history and presence of anti-Semitism is gravely lacking (a stance which in no way precludes affirming that other perspectives must be included as well).

I will say here that while I think external experts can make important contributions here, I don't think perspective is substitutable for democratic reasons -- if you told me you were going to create a conference on the rights of Jews, and it would include 100 of the most eminent scholars of Judaism, all non-Jewish, I'd object. Not because only Jews have the right to speak, but because no conversation on the topic can proceed without Jews being included. I'll also argue against the idea of the non-biased party. We're all tinted by our background and experiences, and "not having experienced anti-Semitism" is as much of a tint as "having experienced anti-Semitism" -- the problem with your position is implicitly adopts a baseline of the dominant group's experience, who are taken to be untainted by aberrant experience, and I reject that. To the extent I'm willing to hierarchize perspectives, it is that a) we should affirmatively try to hear from perspectives that are generally suppressed, because they are more likely to provide relevant information we'd otherwise miss, and b) we should give some weight to more-affected perspectives, both because they have a stake in the controversy and are thus more likely to have thought about it deeply, and because they have to actually live with the consequences and thus should have a strong say in the policy discussion which will end up governing their life (self-determination).

So to sum up: Demanding X be included does not equal demanding not-X be excluded. Demanding X be included and treated with respect does not mean X must be treated non-critically.

(On the lament of how one can criticize Israel without meeting these objections, see this comment).

Peter Orlowicz said...

Mr./Ms. Friedman,

I believe Israel should be as open to criticism as any other member of the world community. Just because there are other places in the world that exhibit greater willingness to engage in morally questionable activity doesn't exempt Israel from scrutiny. Nor, for that matter, does it exempt the United States. Should we refuse to be critical of American treatment of suspected terrorists or military tribunals just because the rest of the world is so much worse? I'm not singling out Israel for criticism, except insofar as some segments of the world population believe Israel should be immune from criticism.


Where you're losing me, then, is where Ms. Walker's assessment of "many American Jews are intolerant of criticism of Israel" equates to "Jewish perspective about Israel is valueless." Maybe this is where not reading the entire source article is showing. The excerpts you quoted from Ms. Walker didn't demonstrate to me the desire to completely exclude Jewish perspectives from the debate that you argue here.

As for being unbiased, there may be no such thing as an entirely unbiased person, you're correct; certain kinds of bias, though, are easier to recognize and compensate for than others, and thus make less of an impact on rational decisionmaking. This is why doctors don;t do surgery on family members, why lawyers can't represent a party in a lawsuit when they have adverse interests, and why criminal defense attorneys don't want mothers with small children on the jury if their client is charged with molesting a first grader. Not all bias is created equal, and we should be entitled to weigh other people's opinions with that bias in mind, and assign credibility accordingly.

I'm also cynical enough to believe that not everyone's opinion or perspective is equally valid, either. I don't, for instance, believe that in a conversation about religion that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Shinto, Hinduism and Buddhism have to engage with Scientology or Branch Davidians on an equal footing. I'm not equating Jewish feelings re: Israel-Palestine with Scientology, mind you, but this 'everyone is equally entitled to a seat at the table no matter how crazy' is too simplistic and idealistic for me.

N. Friedman said...


I was not saying that Israel should be immune from criticism. Reasonable criticism is always ok.

Rather, I am saying that the need for criticism of Israel seems more a desire to criticize in order to be critical of Israel, regardless of its behavior. In other words, the main goal of the criticism appears to be defamation, in order to undermine Israel entirely and not to make a rational critique of this or that thing Israel does.

Recall your Nietzsche... To have to defend oneself verbally is already to have lost the battle. With that aphorism, albeit paraphrased, in mind, I always wonder why people see such a need to state that it is important to find a way to criticize Israel. I rather think that, given its circumstances of being surrounded by states and people who wish its demise, Israel's accomplishments, not to mention its survival, is something to praise, not to find reasons to criticize.

Maybe that just me. And, maybe its me who sees criticism being replaced with defamation that makes me wonder about those who see it as being important to find a way to criticize Israel. I suggest, instead, that such people get their priorities straight, criticizing countries that really are abominable rather than countries which, given their circumstances, behave rather well, all things considered.

Oh, I am a Mr.

David Schraub said...

What I was getting at in the relevant block quote is this. Ms. Walker notices that she and her husband were unable to have a "rational discussion" about Israel and Palestine. From my vantage point, I'd suspect that the husband had blindspots vis-a-vis the sufferings of the Palestinians, and the wife had blindspots vis-a-vis the sufferings of Jews and Israelis. But Ms. Walker hoists the blame solely on the husband -- he has a blindspot, he can't see the truth, because (this part is implied), he is blinded by his Judaism and isn't part of the enlightened few who have escaped. What she doesn't contemplate is that she might be missing something too -- that he had a valid perspective and argument that she was not able to grasp. Her tenor wasn't "we had long discussions on this, and though I take seriously X, Y, and Z aspects of Jewish history, and understand how the precarious status of Jews in the global community could legitimately make them support policies A, B, and C, I don't agree with his prescriptions." It was "we couldn't have a serious conversation, because on this issue he was functionally insane." That's disrespectful.

Couple that with her above position that Israeli Jews are unworthy of even having a seat at the discussion, making them equivalent of the Scientologists in your hypothetical (not saying you agree with her, only that she is, in fact, taking the position you disavow), and I think my conclusion was warranted.

On bias, sure some biases are easier to spot, but that doesn't mean your exception applies to my rule. It is not clear either that the "bias" of being Jewish and having been subjected to anti-Semitism is any more difficult to spot than the "bias" of being non-Jewish and not being so subjected, or that the former bias is more corrupting to political discourse than the latter.

Finally, while I agree that not all positions are created equal, I'd in fact be very uncomfortable with socio-political regime which was making decisions on the rights of Scientologists but refused to allow them to contribute to the discussion.

I also think this discussion would benefit greatly from Young's distinction between "perspective" (what I'm talking about) and "opinions" or (what she calls) "interests". I can't summarize it in a comment, but see this post.

Rebecca said...

And with regard to Alice Walker's arguments with her husband about Israel - I suspect that although she says that her disagreement with him about Israel/Palestine was the most severe she had with him, there must also be other personal (non-political difference) issues between them, since she is no longer married to him.

Thank you for jumping off from my discussion!

David Schraub said...

My understanding is they divorced pretty amicably and remained on good terms (though that knowledge is not that reliable).

Bruce said...

This was a beautiful piece of writing David, and from your heart I can tell. Thank you.

As to Ms. Walker's description of her husband, I link to an article about her estrangement from her iwn daughter; apparently they do not speak. Is it fair to bring this up? I think in this case, absolutely, particularly since it is she who focused so much on her husband as her own public metaphor for an entire People.


M.S. said...

Never commented before, been lurking, and now I have to say that your bit about Jews on Jewish history is much appreciated.

I remember being in the so-called "anti-war" movement and having someone just start screaming at me and how ignorant I was for feeling unease at the insane arguments being made against Israel.

Unless I'm mistaken, your argument seems to center more on Jews as individuals (or at least not as perceived mass conspirators), and while I haven't read verbatim Ms. Walker's rubbish, I'm willing to wager she subscribes to a "the majority of (unacceptable) Jews have been brainwashed by their presumably Jewish educational institutions and we must re-educate them to the correct (read, our) way of thinking" nonsense that seems quite prevalent amongst "anti-Zionists".

Rebecca said...

The other thing (well, one of) that I find so wrong about that essay is that Ms. Walker's reaction to "May God protect you from the Jews" is (paraphrased) "Yeah, my husband didn't agree with me about the Middle East." They're not the same thing. Yeah, one's Judaism may inform one's position on the Middle East, but she's asserting that a religion is equivalent to an extremist political position.

...which sort of leads nicely into my comment on your title and opening paragraphs, which is that they hold some irony for me as the messages I'm always getting are that, to be a good Jew, I have to uncritically support Israel's military actions.

David Schraub said...

See maybe this is a generational thing, or maybe this is an oddity of the synagogue I grew up in, but I never felt that message is being pervasive. There's plenty of criticism towards Israel on this blog -- some expressed in quite harsh terms -- but I've never felt any true threat to my standing as a Jew.

Do I know folks who harp on me for supporting J Street or harshly condemning the settlements? Sure. But they usually seem pretty marginal to me. By and large, I just haven't felt the pressure that I'm told will inevitably come pouring down on me if I dare deviate from extremist pro-Israel orthodoxy. And the reason, I suspect, is because I have plenty on my ledger demonstrating that I care about Israel, care about Jews, and am working to preserve our status as equal human beings.

Rebecca said...

I'm sure there are plenty of people in my Jewish community who don't just fall behind the Israeli government on everything. They might even be people in authority, rabbis, cantors - I don't know. The policy on specific, concrete discussion of the situation seems to be a don't-ask-don't-tell, and the void is filled in by loud members of my parents' and grandparents' generation, and some in my own, who think that if you don't shut your mouth you're On Their Side. (They don't know who They are, of course.)

David Schraub said...

Perhaps I'm at a happy confluence of location and generation. My home synagogue boasts, among others, Tom Friedman and Dennis Ross, so some of it's most prominent members are also prominent (sometimes) critics of Israel. And given the status of Israel on college campuses (less of a problem at American universities, but still more and more of an issue), I think it is pretty rare to find a young American Jew who thinks she'll be ostracized from her age-peers if she is mildly critical of the state.

N. Friedman said...


The question I still have, while I read you expressing your bona fides about being able to criticize Israel, is to figure out why you think that criticism is a badge of honor. I do not get it.

I state that as a person who, were it my country, I would not favor of planting villages onto the captured territories. But, I also state that as a person who wonders how, in the scheme of things, raising that criticism to high pitch does anything other than assist those who wish to delegitimize Israel. To what end is your criticism? Or, to be more precise, how does one, without losing one's morals, criticize a country to which one is not a citizen while standing next to a rabble who (a) will use your criticism to support their argument and (b) will advance their argument that Israel is an evil to be eliminated? I do not think it is possible.

I also think, speaking as a lawyer and amateur historian, that one is ill-advised to spend one's time criticizing if one's goal includes protecting the object of your criticism. That is a bad legal strategy and one which, historically speaking, normally fails. That is why image advisers, for example, do not take that approach. In this regard, one is better advised to posit an alternative narrative in which Israel is not appropriately hated. That is, in fact, easier to do than meets the eye because Israel has a lot of good going for it. Later, after the effort at delegitimizing Israel is defeated, we can all worry about whether Israel's presence on the captured territories is something to fight or merely one of those things that happens when a country conquers adjacent land.

Think about it.

PG said...

N. Friedman,

What is happening in Israel and its repercussions worldwide goes far beyond an "image problem" or even a specific matter for litigation. You cannot divorce Israel's being established as a state that legitimately deserves the massive economic and military support it receives from the U.S., from how it behaves in those territories that the U.S. does not officially recognize as being part of Israel. It's not a court case where you can artificially pick out the facts that are "relevant" and ignore those that you don't want to discuss; there is no judge who can keep your adversary from raising those points that you consider "irrelevant and prejudicial."

If David wishes to cast himself as purely an advocate for Israel -- one who breaches his duties by engaging in criticism of his client, to use your lawyer analogy -- then your advice would make sense. But that's not his project here, with regard to Israel or really anything else, so far as I can tell. He is trying to be honest, to tell all of the truth as he understands it, and there is no one and nothing he admires -- not even Martha Nussbaum! -- that will be beyond criticism if one is being honest.

N. Friedman said...


I do not agree with your point regarding honesty. I think that David thinks he is being honest but when speaking in a crowd filled with, say, the KKK, one does not spend one's time criticizing African Americans for, say, not doing a good job educating their children. That amounts to helping the KKK and, moreover, says to the world that the KKK is not wholly wrong such that, perhaps, the KKK has a point.

So, I think your point is not well taken. The way to help Israel is to improve the country's image. One cannot possibly do that by spending one's time asserting that the country is doing bad things by building villages on land adjacent to Israel. Rather, it merely magnifies the argument by the Israel haters that Israel is bad, such that the choice is between dismantlement (i.e. what the Israel haters want) and reform (i.e. what David wants). Note that the Israel haters state that all of Israel is a settlement, which in a sense is true. The argument goes that Israel is a settler state and the villages in the conquered territories are merely the worst aspect that really, if one looks carefully, applies to Israel as a whole.

I can assure you that such is not a winning argument. And, this is not about the court room. I can assure you that Tiger Wood's PR firm will not spend its time criticizing him for his dalliances. They will change the topic entirely. That, I submit to you, is what the Israelis need to do in the worst possible way. Otherwise, the choice will merely be about how bad Israel is, since that is all the public will hear from the varying forms of criticism.

N. Friedman said...


I wrote to PG and stated: "I can assure you that such is not a winning argument." I should have stated the following:

I can assure you that criticizing Israel, under the current circumstances, is not a winning argument if one wants to help Israel survive.

David Schraub said...

I do not agree with your point regarding honesty. I think that David thinks he is being honest but when speaking in a crowd filled with, say, the KKK, one does not spend one's time criticizing African Americans for, say, not doing a good job educating their children. That amounts to helping the KKK and, moreover, says to the world that the KKK is not wholly wrong such that, perhaps, the KKK has a point.

But who is my audience? Of course, my blog has only some 200 hits a day, most of whom are looking for my advice on hiring prostitutes or hating on google, so this is largely hypothetical. But in theory, my audience is not solely or even primarily comprised of Israel's haters. Just as much, my audience includes defenders of Israel, perhaps even people integral in policymaking regarding Israel. I agree, in fact, that were I speaking in front of a group of Israel-haters, it wouldn't be the forum to rally up support against the settlements. But does that mean by the same token, if my audience is ZOA members, I shouldn't be speaking about anti-Semitism directed as anti-Israel criticism? Since my blog is a mixed audience, I simply speak my mind, and I think that works out fine.

The other thing is that while I agree that a state is threatened when it is primarily seen as worthy of being despised, a state is also vulnerable when it ignores demographic realities and is content to indefinitely perpetuate an anti-democratic regime of occupation. Different people are more likely to exacerbate different threats, which goes to awareness of the audience, but I don't think I do Israel any favors by ignoring one threat to focus exclusively on the other.

Different threats call for different responses. Israel is in the unfortunate situation of facing many threats. Hence, anyone with a holistic concern for Israel's security and wellbeing is going have to keep a lot of different balls in the air (and that doesn't even go to the issue that, like all people, I have interests beyond support for Israel. That's a big one, but it's not the only commitment I hold -- nor should it be).

ilona@osrael said...

the problem of palestinians that they are totally desinformed by their goverment. maybe some action of israel are not very justy, but when we enforce constractions on the bought land-palestinian people that have never heard about 'keren kayemet le israel' are simply shoked by action of israel and sure it provocates serious agression between our people..

N. Friedman said...


Your argument seems to be two things at once. First, you have it that your audience is small. Second, you argument that it is important to criticize Israel anyway, e.g., for "demographic" reasons and due to the "occupation."

The first argument is sort of a point, I suppose. But, what if your blog catches on? Will that make you more concerned that your arguments will be misused by Israel haters? To judge by your second argument - and here are your words: "a state is also vulnerable when it ignores ..." - you see compelling reasons to be critical. So, the first reason is more than likely a smokescreen for your real concern, the occupation. I trust that your concern about demographics is a disguised version of concern about the occupation.

Let's talk about demographics. Consider: the same demographic facts - if they are really facts - can be used to advance any number of arguments including arguments to cede land to Palestinian Arabs, to draw Israel's boundaries, ala FM Lieberman's proposal, in order to maximize Israel's Jewish population or, for those who want to follow the approach used by Greece and Turkey, even to expel Palestinian Arabs en masse. I rather doubt that the demographic argument is one of your real arguments but let us suppose that such is what, in fact, propels your need to criticize Israel.

You will note that Israel's concern about demographics is used by Israel's enemies to claim that Israel is a racist country. In fact, the idea of Israel acting to augment its Jewish and/or cede land to diminish its non-Jewish population has been deemed racist by supposed champions of anti-racism. Recall the hullabaloo when the demagogue FM Lieberman proposed that Israel cede land that would place some Israeli Arabs outside of Israel. So, there is no winning by presenting that argument. And, how is this your problem? Has Chicago been moved to outside Tel Aviv?

Regarding the occupation, Israel's enemies assert that all of Israel is a settlement and Israel a settler state. You meet them half-way, asserting that some of Israel's territory is a settlement and those who move to settlements are settlers. How does it help Israel to make your argument? It cannot help Israel. It merely, to consider this in legal terms, skips the guilt or innocence finding for the penalty phase.

Again, I am not an advocate for settlers or settlements. I am, however, quite sure that Israel's democratic character is no more at stake due to occupation or any imagined demographic scenario than was Britain's when it ruled half the world. In other words, it is a nonsense argument.

The real issue is whether Israel will survive. That depends on its not becoming delegitimized and/or physically destroyed. It does not depend on whether Israel occupies or does not occupy adjoining land. Which is to say, occupation is properly a compelling issue for those who hate Israel, not for you or me.


David Schraub said...

I just disagree with you regarding the degree to which occupation threatens Israel's bodily integrity, and democratic and Jewish character. But I find it completely baffling that only Israel-haters seem to have any agency in your equation. It's a rather bizarre claim that I have to constrain my speech on matters of significant political, social, and moral concern (a fact which is the only warrant I need to meet the immediate threshold of a right comment -- you keep asking why I "need" to criticize Israel; but the answer is being an engaged global citizen means being a curious commentator on global affairs. The burden on you is to establish why this is an exceptional case) because of how anti-Semites and racists might draw succor from it. And there is no indication in your account that Jews, or supporters of Israel have any role to play in the conversation except a reactive or defensive one. There's nothing we can do except bob, weave, and duck away from the unrelenting and invulnerable assault of our critics.

I refuse to buy into that framework for two reasons. First, it has no critical bite: the presumption seems to be that any "critical" discussion of Israel will inevitably threaten the state's existence, and must be refrained from. But any theory which asserts such an expansive view of the power of anti-Israel forces surely can't think that they will be flummoxed by a stance of refusing to broke any criticism. And indeed, we know they're not -- the broke no criticism stance gets turned into an assertion of Jewish psychosis justifying our social exclusion.

Second, the whole reason I support Israel and other assertions of Jewish autonomy is precisely so I wouldn't have to reflexively defer to the opinions of outsiders in my public political participation. It would be an ironic coincidence if the end result of this goal was a perpetual stance of cowering fear in the face of a vast anti-Semitic conspiracy, because self-assertion would threaten my now-in-name-only independence.

I'm not trying to convert psychopaths on the whole "Israel is a settler colony that must be destroyed" bit. They're my enemies; I'm trying to show that they're wrong. But my ability to make compelling arguments on the point is significantly restricted if the field of moral arguments I'm allowed to bring to bear are only those which don't conflict any Israeli policy ever. Speaking as a debater, that's a recipe for insuring failure.

N. Friedman said...


You make some interesting points.

The reason that Israel's occupation became an issue, much less an issue for so-called global citizens, is that Israel haters made it an issue. Israel's friends always thought it more important to talk about how Israel made the desert bloom.

Be that as it may, Israel's enemies have succeeded in convincing some of Israel's friends that occupying the captured territories is a great evil. I can only imagine David Ben-Gurion turning over in his grave upon hearing such nonsense. Now, that is quite different from his real argument that Israel ought hold out the possibility of ceding that land or, in fact, just ceding it as a sign of good faith.

The issues you should be focusing upon, instead of waxing elegant about the evil of occupation, is how Israel is the world's leading source, per capita, of innovation, second only to the US in total innovation. That is an achievement of truly miraculous proportions, one to gloat about and one that advances Israel's survival. Instead, you let yourself be drawn - in order, evidently, to be a good global citizen (a bit like the behaving like the "Good Jew" that prompted your original argument) - into someone else's argument, giving it legitimacy.

Surely, you have the right to make any arguments you like. But, doing it to be global citizen is, well, being pushed by those like Ms. Walker who will listen only to Jews who advance her position. Why play that game? I do not understand your position at all.

David Schraub said...

I have enough faith in Israel's survival without seeing the need for me to give it a 24 hour handjob. Why do I, particularly, need to focus on Israel's innovation versus occupation? Israel hardly needs my encouragement (aside from that I give through the marketplace) to continue being an economic power. It seems to need more inducement to end the occupation. Of course, if my audience is those who need far more reminding of Israel's beneficent contributions to the world than they do of its shortcomings, I'm happy to talk about the former. But there's no reason you give to make it a universal rule, except this paranoid account of the irresistible, irrepressible anti-Israel force (an account which I've already explained why I don't buy and doesn't actually have any bite anyway). I have opinions on the occupation not because I think Alice Walker's game looks fun, but because I have opinions about democratic values, political obligations, state organization, Judaism, and other relevant fields. That's all I need.

Again, this is about my ability to be an autonomous human subject as a Jew. That means, fundamentally, I get to have my own opinions on what Israel (or France or Saudi Arabia or Uganda for that matter) does right and wrong, and express them. I agree that expression ought be constrained to the extent that it would conflict with various political values I hold (such as, inter alia, respect for Jewish equality, or Israel's security). I simply disagree about the causal chain you draw, whereby the positions I'm putting forward are in conflict with any of those. Indeed, my interpretation of the situation we're in now is much the opposite -- enabling certain current Israeli policies through uncritical support is more threatening to Israel's existence (again, I know we disagree here). But my experience in a lifetime of friendship is that "Part of being an ally means sometimes taking your friends aside and telling them when they need to chill." Otherwise, you don't have a friend, you have a sycophant.

N. Friedman said...


You are, of course, entitled to your view.

You write: "It seems to need more inducement to end the occupation."

My question: How could you, who live in the US, possibly know whether Israel needs an inducement to end the occupation or, for that matter, to end the occupation? Your statement is pure demagoguery.

I do not know whether Israel should keep or give back the land it conquered. I can imagine that it could, as occurs with nearly all countries that cede land for a promise of peace, be taken by Israel's enemies as a sign of weakness and lead to more bloodshed. Then again, it might lead to peace. I am, however, not arrogant enough to think I know the outcome and surely not arrogant enough to think that Israel needs to be induced by me to do something of, to say the least, uncertain impact when, in fact, I would not have to live with the results.

How can you be so certain that ending the occupation will help, not hurt, Israel? I think that you are merely spouting stuff you heard in college, stuff that has not been fully considered.

It is hubris to substitute your perception, as an outsider who would not be harmed by a bad outcome, for that of the Israelis. Most Israelis think that there is no peace, at least now, to be had. Rather compelling scholarship, such as that by Benny Morris, suggests that such a view is not untenable. Yet, you think you know more than those who would be impacted directly and those, like Morris, who have expertise. Does that not bother you?

Recall, ceding land in Lebanon has not bought Israel much good. And, neither has ceding land in Gaza. Maybe, three times will prove the charm. I hope so but I am not arrogant enough to think I should push the Israelis to do something of rather uncertain outcome. And, to think the outcome is something you can predict clearly is to be naive. Practicing law for 30 years has informed me that no case is sure, no case is a slam dunk.

My point. You are taking definitive positions on things you have no imaginable basis to think, advancing a view for which you would not have to suffer or enjoy the consequences. So, to make it central to what you think is, to me, not clear thinking.

As for, sometimes the best way to help a friend is to be critical, that assumes you have the background to be helpful. What are your qualifications to say that you know better than the Israelis what they should do with the land they conquered?

David Schraub said...

First, Israelis aren't the only relevant players here. At the very least, I have to analyze whether the likely prospective harm to Israel is substantially larger than the likely prospective gains to the Palestinians.

Second, I agree that we should generally have a rebuttable presumption in favor of deference to local majorities in terms of governing their own affairs. But it can be overcome, and several factors point in this direction here -- the weight of the normative issues at stake (Israel's existence is important to Jews worldwide -- we do have to live with the consequences of its demise, as it makes Jews everywhere less safe; and of course the issues of democratic equality are extremely important), the fact that America (and the global Jewish community, for that matter) gives substantial aid to Israel and thus has some right to influence how that aid is spent (or under what conditions it continues to give it), and the impact the conflict has on the stability of the region writ large, among others. Finally, deference is justified because we want to respect the democratic decision-making by the most-affected parties, here, Israelis and Palestinians. But deferring only to Israeli decisions doesn't accomplish this -- we have a democratic distortion where one side has far more influence over the day-to-day progression of the relationship than the other. Deferring strictly to the Israelis doesn't work because (for obvious reasons) they are likely to overweigh some benefits/harms (their own) and underweigh others (Palestinians').

Third, I agree that it is hardly inevitable that withdrawal from the territories will lead to peace. But unless withdrawal makes the situation substantially worse, then Israel should still withdraw because lack of peace + self-determination for Palestinians > lack of peace - self-determination for Palestinians. And there is good reason to believe that even a continuing Israeli/Palestinian conflict that is state-state, rather than insurgency-counterinsurgency, represents a superior state of affairs. That reason is simple: we (by which I mean human beings) know how to manage state-state conflict. We've been doing it for hundreds of years. The rules are clear. The mechanisms by which they start and end are well known. They've been modeled. They're explored territory. By contrast, state-NGO conflict is far, far more difficult, as Israel is finding out. Israel has had relatively little trouble dispatching state threats to its territory (indeed, it hasn't encountered one in some 35 years now). Non-state actors (PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.) have proven far more nettlesome.

To model my position, I'm justified in calling for an end to the occupation IF (something like)

(Legitimate Benefits to Israelis)(Probability of Occurrence) + (Legitimate Benefits to Palestinians)(Probability of Occurrence) > (Legitimate Harms to Israelis)(Probability) + (Legitimate Harms to Palestinians)(Probability).

N. Friedman said...


I have been reading a very lengthy book about 15th Century Spain, which I think has applicability to our discussion. In 15th Century Spain (or, I would trust, pretty much anywhere else in Europe or the Arab regions of that time), there was, as the author notes, no possibility of government action that could not somehow be justified by religion.

Now, that way of thinking and politics, while not wholly or even mostly true of the today's West or Israel, is still entirely true in Palestinian Arab society and the greater Middle East. So, I read your discussion about democracy, as if it were the same thing for Israel and Palestinian Arabs, and wonder what you studied in college. Clearly, you missed the courses on the world before the 20th Century because you are comparing apples and oranges as if they were the same thing. They are not.

The other point I would like to make is that you think a peace is currently realistic. You even think there is some sort of equation for examining the issue. That, to me, sounds like wishful thinking. The Arabs and Israelis have been going at it for generations now. The present is one of the least opportune times for peace because the need to justify things religiously is more acute today in the Arab regions than it was, say, 30 years ago. And think of where the idea got the likes of Sadat. Religion, in its current form among Arabs, is the enemy of peace. Today's Tom Friedman column states the following: A Feb. 20, 2005, Internet posting attributed to the son and quoted by The Associated Press said: “I imagine how the great jihad will take place, how the Muslims will win ... and rule the whole world, and establish the greatest empire once again!!!”

There is no peace with people who think such things. And, that is, in reality, the Hamas view and the view of even seemingly more pragmatic groups like Fatah. Until that view runs its course, if it does, there is no peace to be had.

Your assumption is that Israel's ceding land will end the interest of, say, Syria to pay terrorists to act against Israel. That seems to be a far fetched assumption. The terror strategy, to the extent that it has weakened Israel, will continue to be used because, the bottom line here, is most Arabs want Israel to vanish, if not now then as soon as such is practical. So, I can only assume that any paper settlement, were even that to be possible, would not end terror and would not end demands. It would merely create a short hiatus before violence would resume.

David Schraub said...

I don't think this conversation is productive anymore. My analytical model expressly contemplated peace not being achieved, and still predicts superior outcomes from ending the occupation. Hence, your continued assertions that peace may not happen upon withdrawal are irrelevant -- I quite account for them.

As for the world before the 20th century, one of the nice things about living in the 21st century is that we don't have to live in the 18th, and thus can dispense with such outdated and morally abhorrent notions such as believing that one has to earn one's right to political representation and equal citizenship.

N. Friedman said...


You end your discussion by noting that we live in the 21st Century and you link to an argument which is entirely unrelated to my position. Clearly, you did not understand what I wrote.

I have nothing against Palestinian Arabs or their having a state - unless that state means the demise of Israel. I do not care what form of government they embrace. And, I surely do not oppose efforts to try to solve the dispute. While I think such efforts will go nowhere, one never knows and, as I noted, they have to live with the results, not you or me.

On the other hand, one thing I know is that you and I do not have to live with the outcome so you and I have no moral right to demand anything of those directly effected. That is an offensive, immoral point of view.

My last point... Unlike where you live in Chicago, the 21st Century mode of thinking has really not penetrated the Middle East so thoroughly. Life in that region is guided by religious notions to a large extent and in a way that is difficult for people from our sort of background to imagine. That is a fact whether or not you want to believe it and that fact has substantial implications for why things are the way they are in the Arab regions and why the dispute has, thus far, not been resolved. And, without understanding that fact, you have no understanding of why the Israelis so adamantly disagree with your way of thinking.

PG said...

On the other hand, one thing I know is that you and I do not have to live with the outcome so you and I have no moral right to demand anything of those directly effected. That is an offensive, immoral point of view.

Is N. Friedman under the impression that Israel has no friends or allies among other governments -- particularly, the government of my country and David's? If I do not have a right even to argue for Israel's doing X vs. Y -- if N. Friedman demands my silence as a condition of being a "real" friend of Israel -- then why should I support U.S. government policies that support Israel?

Because Israel *is* peculiarly at risk and discriminated against, the U.S. government responds not only with the sort of political, economic and military support with which most people are familiar, but even with trade policies that sometimes harshly affect Americans who had no notion of being anti-Israel.

For example, the anti-boycott laws impose a fine of up to $50,000 or five times the value of the exports involved, whichever is greater, and imprisonment of up to five years, on small businessmen who accept a letter of credit from anti-Israel foreign government entities that includes boycott terms or conditions.

Such laws are tenable only to the extent that support for Israel and fighting back against its enemies is sufficiently important to the American people that we accept harms even to those who were merely negligent or ignorant. But if Americans' opinions are so irrelevant to Israel's conduct that it is positively offensive and immoral for us even to state such opinions, who is being silenced now?

N. Friedman said...


You have posted a far more interesting and logical argument than any I have seen on this website, one which has given me some pause. Thank you.

If I understand you correctly, your argument, in a nutshell, is that my argument, if consistently followed, does not allow me to advance views related to Israel. As such, I am not in a position, if I want to be consistent, to support, for example, maintaining US laws that protect Israel from the Arab boycott because I am not directly impacted.

My response is this. I think you have slightly misread my argument. My view is that we do not know better than Israelis what is in Israel's interest.

My view is that one can say they think the occupation is a good or a bad idea. One can say they favor ending the occupation. One cannot say they know better than Israelis what is in Israel's interest, most especially when such a person is not directly impacted by such a statement. That is called being arrogant.

My recollection is that Israel supports efforts to undermine the Arab boycott. So, I am not disregarding the view of Israelis on the theory - the one pushed by David - that he know more than Israel what is in Israel's best interest. He has no such idea. And, he lacks the expertise to hold the views he holds.

David, to note, made his point that he thinks that he knows better than Israelis the need to cede land to Arabs for a Palestinian Arab state. My response is to call his view arrogant and hubristic. And my reason for not just calling it wrong is that he does not have to live with the consequences of his views.

PG said...

One cannot say they know better than Israelis what is in Israel's interest, most especially when such a person is not directly impacted by such a statement.

Do you take this view on every nation, or just Israel? For example, if I said, "Iranians would be better off if they got rid of their corrupt theocratic government and used their oil wealth to diversify their economy and improve education for rural and low income people," would you see this as arrogant on my part? Because of course there are some Iranians who agree with me -- just as there are some Israelis who agree with David -- but you apparently believe that so long as this does not appear to be the majority sentiment, it is "arrogant" for one to say "This would be better than your status quo."

N. Friedman said...


I hold that view more or less consistently.

What Iran is doing may well be in Iran's interest. I cannot judge that. It may make sense for Iran or it may be a folly. My guess, in that Iran seems to be advancing its cause notwithstanding Western pressure, is that Iran is advancing its stated goals. But, of course, it is for Iranians to determine their interests, not for me.

What I can judge is that what Iran is doing is not in my interest.

N. Friedman said...

I note the following article in view of this comment by you: "but the answer is being an engaged global citizen means being a curious commentator on global affairs."

There is no such thing as a global citizen. Pretending that such things exist is not a good idea, as Professor Walzer notes.