DANIEL GORDIS , THE JERUSALEM POST
It’s been one of those months, with its renewed call for “balance” and “honesty” in discussion of Israel. First there was the Goldstone report, with its accusations that Israel committed war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Goldstone was followed by the J Street Conference, celebrated by many as an opportunity to demonstrate their devotion to Israel by encouraging the US to get tough with it, to force it out of the militant and pro-occupation mind-set it has allegedly forged for itself.
Then there was the appearance in English of Tel Aviv University Prof. Shlomo Sand’s new book, The Invention of the Jewish People, with its claim that the concept of a Jewish people was a late invention, which the Zionists cynically manipulated to justify their taking land from the indigenous Arabs. Finally, verging on the surreal, Donald Bostrom, the Swedish journalist who authored the article accusing Israel of harvesting organs from Palestinian victims of Cast Lead, was invited to a conference in the Negev.
The utterly predictable responses are not terribly interesting. On one side of the divide, there are those who assail Goldstone for unfairness, J Street for allowing its campus activists to drop the “pro-Israel” portion of its “pro-Israel, pro-peace” moniker, Shlomo Sand for shoddy and self-hating scholarship and the Dimona Media Conference, which invited Bostrom, for utter naïveté.
There may be much merit to these accusations, but they have a serious downside, as well. Too often, those who rush to Israel’s defense have no interest in the undeniable suffering on the other side of the border. In knee-jerk fashion, they strive to silence any criticism, even in cases when its policies might well be wrong.
But no society benefits from an absence of criticism, and no nation improves without vigorous debate. Could we be effective parents without letting our children know when they disappoint us? Citizenship may not be all that different. In the long run, support that seeks to suppress debate will do us as much harm as good.
BUT ON the other side of the divide is a growing group so insistent on dialogue that it’s no longer clear to what they are most fundamentally committed. When a group of American rabbis visited Jerusalem last week, one of them remarked that it was unfortunate that Ramallah wasn’t on the itinerary. “Why visit Ramallah?” another member of the group asked. “Because Ramallah is also part of our story,” was the response. “More than Holon? Are you distressed that we’re not visiting Holon?” was the question that followed. To that, the first rabbi had no response.
Why, indeed, should Ramallah matter to us more than Holon? And why hide our pro-Israel position (if that’s really what we are) simply to appeal to more college students? Had Theodor Herzl adopted that stance with the sultan, or had Chaim Weizmann been bashful in London, would we have a state? Had Golda Meir been self-conscious about her convictions in the face of an American community not entirely certain that a Jewish state was a good idea, where would we be? One shudders to imagine.
Have we become so utterly addicted to dialogue with our enemies that we would rather visit their cities than our own? Have we lost the ability to say, “If you breathe new life into the age-old blood libel, we will shun you”? Would we invite Alfred Dreyfus’s accusers here for dialogue, were they alive today? We have real enemies. Have we so lost sight of that that we forget that anything we say, to paraphrase Miranda, “can and will be used against us”?
If those who insist on silencing any critique of Israel fail us because their passion threatens to squelch the debate we desperately need, those passionately committed to open debate suffer from the opposite problem – they do not recognize that they are unwittingly playing right into the hands of those determined to destroy us.
Take Sand’s book, The Invention of the Jewish People. It is, ostensibly, nothing but an academic hypothesis. Why all the tumult, numerous young American Jews have asked me. Perhaps Sands errs in some of his claims, but so, too, do many academic tomes.
What’s so dangerous is clear on the Amazon page for Sand’s book. Take a look at the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section. There’s Avi Shlaim, the well known post-Zionist, and his Israel and Palestine: Reflections, Revisions, Refutations. Next to it, sporting a cover with both a swastika and a Star of David, Debating the Holocaust: A New Look at Both Sides, as if there’s actually something to debate. Then, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide. And Palestine in Pieces: Graphic Perspectives.
Surely, Sand must have known how his book would be used.
But there are critics of Israel who genuinely do not wish to do it harm. And these people ought to bear one central fact in mind: In today’s climate, anything we say can, and indeed will, be used against us.
Yes, there is moral failure and dangerous shortsightedness in refusing to hold ourselves and our government to standards of which we, and our children, will be proud. Of course Israel needs nuanced moral critique; no true lover of Zion would want that critique silenced.
But there is also suicidal folly in denying what we know: Were the UN to vote today on the creation of Israel, the motion would fail. The outcome of November 29, 1947 would not be repeated, for the world has decided that Israel was a mistake. No other country anywhere is subjected to debate as to whether it should exist. And that is the fact that matters more than any other.
Given that, the ultimate question is the one that the biblical Joshua posed to the angel (Joshua 5:13): “Are you with us, or do you seek our destruction?” It is frustrating, and tragic – but right now, in the world in which we live, those are our only choices.