Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Talking About Israel When Israel's at War

This exchange between Jeremy Ben-Ami (J Street) and Yossi Klein Halevi (Shalom Hartman Institute) is a model for how intelligent, civil discussion (and disagreement!) can occur within the Jewish community on Israel. Needless to say, on the merits I agree with Ben-Ami on the propriety of criticizing Israeli policies while Israel is at war -- as both participants agree, being at war is not exactly a conducive scenario for thinking clearly, and Ben-Ami is quite right that a default of silence is a "dangerous gift of unquestioned power to those choose to engage in hostilities."

I also note that Halevi's position isn't entirely clear -- his "head" seems to agree with Ben-Ami on all points, but he is worried about issues of "tone" and the pragmatic effects of making such critiques in the middle of wartime hostilities. Both of these concerns are legitimate, but both also are compatible with well-taken criticism. The issues, and the lack of resolution, Halevi raises are also implied from Phoebe's post here, which likewise tries to grapple with the tensions between being an honest critics who care about Israel while swimming in a pool that contains many dishonest critics who don't. There's no question there are difficulties there, but we have to be attentive to both sides of the problem: those who criticize Israel from a vantage point of caring about Jewish rights, equality, and security have to be attentive to the broader environment where many do not care about these things, but we can't let the presence of these people act to sabotage actually taking necessary steps required to preserve Jewish equality and self-determination either.

In news unrelated except in that it signals a probable improvement in the tone of the Israel debate -- ZOA appears to be in chaos. Is there some irony in applauding the demise of a Israel-related Jewish group while also extolling the importance of tone? Sure is -- but I think ZOA has been such an unabashedly negative influence on these questions and such a prominent contributor to rendering the debate toxic that I'm willing to swallow it.

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