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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Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and Jewish supremacists

This article first appeared in Haaretz 5/16/14

Hayim Nahman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, stated during the 1920s that the Jews would know that their dream of a nation state had been fulfilled when there were Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and a Jewish police force. David Ben Gurion, picking up on this theme, said while in office as the first Israeli prime minister, “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.” We can now add to this list of prostitutes and thieves, Jewish racial supremacists.

The concept of “price tag” is very simple. When the Israeli government pursues a policy that members of the far-right do not like, they create a “cost” for the government of Israel by attacking the Arab community. Settler violence against Palestinians saw a 57 percent uptick in the first seven months of 2011, according to UN data, and since then it has continued despite condemnations from every political sector in Israel.

Over the past year, price tagging has metastasized from a phenomenon restricted to the Palestinian territories to infecting Israel within the Green Line. Car tires have been slashed while mosques and churches have been vandalized – each with a distinct political message.

“Close mosques not yeshivas,” said the graffiti in the northern Israeli-Arab town Fureidis. “Mohammed is a pig,” “mutual responsibility,” “Terror stones,” and “regards from Boaz and David Chai” were the statements left on the wall of mosque of Baqa al-Gharbiyye. Boaz and David are the names of two individuals whose movements were restricted by the Israel Defense Forces.

The Jewish supremacists who commit these acts are doing so much like the aristocracy of a previous time who would employ a whipping boy. Unwilling to strike their own child, they would hire a child from a lower class to whip when their own offspring misbehaved. These thugs have made the calculation not to attack Jewish institutions, but those of the Arab other, causing them harm to make political statements against their own government’s policies of which they disapprove.

If a Jewish police force can deal with Jewish prostitution and Jewish thieves within the Jewish state, then why do they seem so incapable of dealing with Jewish racism? After a spate of “price tag” attacks, two ministers said they would urge the cabinet to allow the full array of security measures to deal with the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks, including administrative detention, by classifying offenders as terrorists.

Whether they are defined as terrorists, neo-Nazis (as author Amos Oz put it) or racist thugs, they need to be stopped. How does one do this?

With communal tensions simmering and Pope Francis on his way to the holy land, the Israeli security apparatus believes that the best way of dealing with hate crimes is to see them as a security problem. When it comes to security the Jewish state is an expert in all manners of tactics to secure the safety of its people.

Yet the tactics of security do nothing to deal with the strategic threat that these racist crimes pose to society at large. You cannot lock up everyone who makes a racist statement. The cancer at the heart of “price-tagging” has been growing for years.

There are no short-term fixes to this problem. If the Jewish state is to be a normal state, it needs to learn off other normal states how to deal with racism.

The key is through education. While “price tag” attacks certainly pose a security problem, the heart of the matter lies in education. Efforts need to be made through the education system to demonstrate the unacceptability of racism. Zero tolerance needs to be adopted. From sportsmen to public officials, all must be held accountable for racist statements and acts.

The Jewish state would do well to consult the Jewish Diaspora, a leader in the anti-racism and anti-fascism coalitions around the world, on strategies concerning how to defeat racism through education. They could speak to the Anti-Defamation League on the anti-bulling and cyber bulling campaigns they run across the United States. They could consult the Community Security Trust on how to create a police force that is sensitive to the needs of all racial groups within society.

There are constant debates about whether racism in Israel is the cause of the conflict with the Palestinians or a symptom of the conflict. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, we can all agree that we can not allow hatred to foster lest it consume us all.