Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thinking Critically About "Uncritical"

One hears the refrain thrown out repeatedly, even casually -- the great mass of Jews (or perhaps most Americans, but mainly Jews) who are "uncritical supporters of Israel." Often times it comes from Jews who claim to have been blind before they learned to see. Here's Antony Lowenstein:
Although support for the Jewish state has been an unofficial second religion for Jews for decades – in my own family it was simply expected that Israel would be uncritically backed in times of war and peace, with Palestinians demonised as unreasonable and violent – times are changing.
And here's Bonnie Honig: "Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel."

It comes in academic tomes -- Laurence Silberstein's chapter on "American Jewry's Identification with Israel" uses variations on the word "uncritical" (or synonyms) four times in its first page. It comes in pleas that I might generally support, such as in this letter from Israelis for a Sustainable Future: "The belief that being “pro-Israel” means uncritically supporting the actions of the Israeli government and military does not help the Israeli people."

And so it is that Gil Troy, responding to (natch) Joseph Palermo calling him "an uncritical booster of Israel", writes the following:
Calling me “an uncritical booster” suggests I am more propagandist than analyst, more cheerleader than thinker. It plays into stereotypes of pro-Israel types as monolithic and blind to any Israeli faults – an absurdity considering the many passionate debates constantly roiling the Zionist community. It legitimizes the delegitimization of Israel through a perverse reverse projection. While escalating every Israeli imperfection into proof that Israel should not exist, delegitimizers project their absolutist all-or-nothing attitudes onto Israel’s supporters. Underlying this is an unfair singling out of Israel as a country on probation, acceptable only if it behaves well. The charge also reflects an anti-Zionist prejudice assuming that thinking people can only support Israel by bypassing logic.

Contrary to Palermo’s caricature, I have publicly criticized Prime Minister Bibi Netanhyau for failing to lead boldly, charging him with acting like a Chicago ward heeler rather than a statesman. I have said that Israeli leaders should be driving the peace train rather than Barack Obama or John Kerry, tapping Israel’s world-famous creativity to find solutions. I criticized anti-Arab violence long before the horrific revenge killing last month. I have criticized the chief rabbinate for being too rigid.

In short, just like a patriotic American criticizes the United States – while still loving it; just like a devoted wife criticizes her husband while still loving him; I criticize Israel – without questioning Israel’s right to exist. To support Israel one need not mortgage one’s soul or override one’s critical faculties. In fact, democratic Israel invites thoughtful supporters, loving critics, ardent advocates for different solutions to the country’s various problems.
He's right of course. But there's something deeply pathetic about this laundry list of times he's criticized Israel -- as if this will at all alter the refrain; as if proof that Jews (and not just the Naomi Klein fans of the bunch) criticize Israel on a regular basis is even relevant to the belief in question.

Because on face, the idea that there is any significant subset of Jews who are "uncritical supporters of Israel" is not just untrue; it's transparently ludicrous. Anybody who's had an opinion on Israel is critical of it, at least some of the time -- the odds that multi-million person sovereign nation would always in all cases map on precisely to anyone's idiosyncratic policy preferences (much less somehow managing to unite the entire Jewish community writ large in "uncritical" support) is obviously absurd.
"Israel critic" is an incredibly broad term that probably encompasses every single person who has ever had an opinion on the subject -- including Israel's defenders. I am a defender of Israel, I am also a critic of Israel. Caring about something means having opinions about it, it would be a remarkable coincidence if my opinions about Israel (or any other country, or institution, or person) perfectly tracked Israel's actions. ZOA is a critic of Israel, as it has every right to be. The point being, first and foremost, that those who adopt the mantle "critic of Israel" are in reality a narrow and provincial subset of the class, who should not be allowed to insist that the vast majority of Jews are mindless zombies "incapable of criticism of Israel."
When they say "uncritical of Israel", they mean "not criticizing the things I want criticized, in the manner I want to see them criticized." But that Jews reject particular forms of criticism does not make them "uncritical", that's an exercise of critical faculties.

Simply put, I'm sick of hearing about this mythical sector of uncritical Israel supporters. It doesn't exist. But the people who partake in the refrain are people who seemingly can't make the, dare I say critical, distinction between disagreeing with a specific criticism and being incapable of criticism.

1 comment:

Malcolm Schosha said...

I never met a Zionist who was not critical of Israel, and who did not have many criticisms of Israel. It follows that, if anti-Zionists are allowed to define themselves as 'critics of Israel', then all Zionists are also anti-Zionists, which is absurd.

It seems to me that Anti-Zionists need to classify Zionists as uncritical supporters of Israel to disguise their own actual position in regard to Israel, and to have at hand an easy argument to defend themselves. In fact, very few anti-Zionists are interested in offering constructive criticism to Israel. Their anti-Zionism is somewhat similar in that respect to the anti-Soviet position of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was not interested in making constructive criticisms of the Soviet Union, he just wanted it gone.

The fact is that anti-Zionists view Israel is a cancerous neocolonialist or neoimperialist state, and other such arguments that demand the elimination of Israel. By allowing anti-Zionists to claim a position as critics, instead of what they actually are, Zionists are playing into the hands of people who are enemies, and who are not at all the critics they claim to be.