If you talk to people working in the human rights field, many will tell you that they view their work as an expression of their political and moral beliefs. More often than not, those beliefs are grounded in religious faith.
That is true for me. I am Jewish and I am an asylum lawyer. I view my work as an expression of my Jewish values. These values are derived not just from our sacred texts–which encourage discussion, debate, and self reflection–but also from our experience as a people who lived in exile and faced centuries of persecution. For me, Jewish values include respecting the life and dignity of all people, trying to understand “the other,” trying to understand myself, and sympathizing with the powerless. All this is a good fit with asylum law where I represent foreign people who face harm or death from governments or terrorist groups. But how do these values align with support for Israel?
There was a time when I felt that my values were largely consistent with supporting Israel. After all, it is a small country, created by refugees and surrounded by enemies. But more recently, it has become harder for me to be “pro-Israel,” as that term is generally understood. It’s not that I don’t support Israel and believe it should exist as a Jewish state. I do. But I have found that in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to reconcile the values that guide my life and career with being “pro-Israel.” There are several reasons for this.
For one, it is difficult to accept the dishonesty of the pro-Israel side. Of course, this is not a problem confined to supporters of Israel. If anything, I see more dishonesty from opponents of Israel. But since I am Jewish and concerned about the behavior of my side, it is difficult to square my Jewish values with the pro-Israel propaganda that I daily see in the news. An example of this is how Israel’s supporters consistently put forth a narrative that exonerates Israel for any blame in the current conflict. It is true that Hamas initiated the recent fighting, but that is hardly the beginning of the story. Israel seems always to have an excuse for failing to make concessions or reign in settlers. As a result, moderate Palestinians are undermined (since they cannot show progress to their constituents) and extremists are empowered. A more honest evaluation would include self criticism–what have Israel and its supporters done wrong? How have their actions contributed to the cycle of violence? How have Israeli policies encouraged Jewish extremism? This type of analysis, I have never heard from the pro-Israel camp.
Also, I have great difficulty accepting the alliance of pro-Israel Jews with Neo-Conservatives and Christian Zionists. I find the Neo-Conservative’s view on the use of force to be immoral and anti-Jewish, not to mention cynical, short-sighted, and ineffective. Exhibit No. 1 in that regard is our war in Iraq. As for the Christian Zionists–people like John Hagee of Christians United for Israel–their purported love of Israel seems a thinly veiled proxy for hating Muslims. If there ever came a time when Israel was actually able to make peace with the Arabs, the Christian Zionists would be opposed: Peace with Muslims is not compatible with their world view. The values of Neo-Conservatives and Christian Zionists are profoundly contrary to my own. And while I understand that the enemy of my enemy is sometimes my friend, for me, certain alliances are beyond the pale.
I also have trouble with the knee-jerk defensiveness of the pro-Israel camp, which is eager to label any expression of anti-Zionism as Antisemitism. Sometimes anti-Zionism is Antisemitism, and sometimes it is not. But there is a flip side to that coin: For many years, Jews have made the State of Israel an integral part of our religion. Synagogues have Israeli flags and signs supporting Israel, we celebrate Israeli Independence Day, we send our young people to Israel to study, we raise money for Israel. In other words, we have made Judaism and Zionism synonymous. In that case, it is hard to fault our enemies for confusing the two concepts. Frankly, I think our attachment to Israel is a good thing. What I oppose is the assumption that all criticism of Israel is made in bad faith, which allows us to avoid the difficult task of self examination.
Linked to the issue of defensiveness is the on-going effort by Israel supporters to stifle speech that they view as anti-Israel. They threaten funding sources, ban (or attempt to ban) disfavored speakers from Jewish events, label leftist Jewish groups “traitors,” and they rejected the dovish J Street’s attempt to join the Presidents Conference, an umbrella organization of Jewish-American agencies. If the pro-Israel camp sought to counter the ideas they find offensive, that would be one thing. But instead, they seek to eliminate those ideas. I am a believer in free speech and in the (very Jewish) idea of debating issues. To me, these efforts to squelch speech and avoid engagement on difficult issues is offensive.
Finally, I do not appreciate the effort of Israel supporters to deflect attention from Gaza by comparing it to the much more deadly situations in Syria or Iraq. While I think it is legitimate to ask non-Jews and non-Palestinians why they are more concerned about Gaza than Syria, I do not think that question is appropriate for Jews (or–obviously–Palestinians). As Jews, we should be concerned about the behavior of other Jews. We should question Israel’s policies that we disagree with. The fact that others are behaving worse than us does not seem a valid justification for our own actions.
I remember an incident from when I lived in Israel–way back in 1990. I was visiting the Jewish settlers in Hebron, a large Arab town in the West Bank. We went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is considered the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a holy place for Jews and Muslims. We were in the Jewish section when the settlers started singing “Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” and dancing. They danced into the Muslim part and interrupted a dozen old Muslim men who were praying. At the moment, I felt I had to choose sides–with the settlers or with the Muslims. I am sorry to say that I chose to dance and sing with my fellow Jews. The old Muslim men stopped their prayers and watched us quietly, humiliated.
I still believe that there is a choice to make, but it is not a choice between Jews and Muslims or Israelis and Palestinians. It is a choice between right and wrong. I am pro-Israel in that I believe Israel should exist as a Jewish democratic state and that it has the right to defend itself from terrorists’ missiles and tunnels. But if “pro-Israel” means persecuting, humiliating, and de-humanizing Palestinians, refusing to make concessions for peace, demonizing opponents, stifling speech, and making alliances with morally bankrupt groups, you can count me out.