Should Zionists bother engaging Israel critics?

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 8/7/14

For those of you who are avid readers of my work (basically my Grandma), you probably noticed that I did not write a piece last month. Given the fighting and the general explosion of rage and hate, I felt that I had nothing useful to add to the conversation. Having now read Michael Koplow’s excellent piece on accepting the world as it is, not as we think it should be, I felt that maybe, just maybe, I could be of some use.

During Operation Cast Lead in 2009, I was a member of the United Kingdom’s National Union of Students, National Executive Committee. I was one of the 27 students responsible for leading the National Union of 7 million students. Much of my role during that year was dealing with the protests and motions regarding Israel’s war in Gaza.

It was a harrowing experience, but it taught me a valuable lesson that I feel could be useful to Jews in countries that are facing mass demonstrations against Israel’s actions: Those who wish to make the case for Israel need to do so by separating the protesters’ language from their complaints. Supporters of Israel need to be united in rejecting hate speech, and in their acceptance of legitimate criticism of the positions of the government of Israel.

This is not an easy thing to do.

Too many complaints against Israel’s actions are dressed in language that is meant to cause offense toward Jews. To give a protest an emotive kick, Nazi language and symbols (such as ghettoes and swastikas) are brought into the protests. The Community Security Trust has done a tremendous job explaining why the usage of these analogies and symbols are unacceptable.

The question then becomes: Is it worth engaging with critics of Israel who often couch their criticism in language that packs an emotive – and at times hateful – punch?

To many, the answer is no. All these people are anti-Semites, they say, finding proof in the protesters’ slogans and protest sites. There is no rationalizing or arguing, they say, with people who start discussions with analogies that bring up the worst moments of Jewish history.

I understand this position. Yet there is a problem with it: There are tens of thousands of people worldwide who are marching against Israel, and they need to be told, in a way that they understand, that some of the language they use is unacceptable, even though the complaints they are making may be legitimate.

It is, sadly, not good enough for Jews to live in splendid isolation while stating that all who surround them are hatemongers, if one wants to advocate for Israel. And it is certainly not effective for Jews to try to obliterate all criticism due to it being dressed in racist language. Doing so damages Israel’s case, for it creates the impression that supporters of Israel are shutting down debate, rather than welcoming it.

What my experience on the NEC taught me was to separate the language and the complaint. I would argue that apart from a vocal minority, few of the thousands who are marching in pro-Palestinian demonstrations – at least in the United Kingdom – are anti-Semites. They have complaints and they wish to make them, so long as they don’t use language that’s beyond the pale.

The right and the left of the Jewish community need to unite in calling out emotive language and educating those who use it of the hate it spreads. If they continue to use offensive terminology to make their protest, and if they continue to set Jewish history as its backdrop, then it is fair to label them as anti-Semites, but not before we have explained why the language is offensive.

The urgency of this has been demonstrated by Gilad Lotan’s phenomenal work, mapping social media on the Israel-Gaza fighting. Advocates for each side live in different social media universes – their filter bubbles so strong that they only see things they agree with. Worryingly for pro-Israel advocates, their network is smaller and involves far less mainstream media.

During the current Israeli military operation, Protective Edge, the anti-Semitism in Europe has gotten so bad that the UN secretary-general has had to address it. I know, as someone who faced this in 2008-09, that it feels particularly unfair that it should be the victim of hate’s job to educate those who are screaming at them what they are doing wrong. Yet there are few other choices. Wishing the haters away will not change the dynamic. Complaining about how the field has been set up is not going to help you win a game that is ongoing.

There are few lonelier places than Israel advocacy in the Diaspora. I hope that my experience can bring some thought to those wishing to face down protests this time around.

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