Criticism of Israel

by Rabbi David Zaslow

The problem with criticism of Israel is not the criticism, per se. The problem is lack of contextualization, inaccurate comparisons, and exaggerated or misused language. In any authentic democracy, the responsibility of informed citizens is to support, debate, or protest policies or actions by its government. What we’ve seen in Israel over the last weeks is an extraordinary example of a vital democracy in action. So, when I criticize Israeli governmental policies, and I have much to criticize, I am obliged to do it with all the passion that is called for AND place that criticism in its proper context. That context is within the Middle East— where there are no other democracies that insure its citizens the right to assemble and protest. 

Personally, I am deeply worried about the right wing shift of Israel’s government. I am concerned that Netanyahu’s proposal of “reforms” are a smoke screen that would likely lead to an erosion of democracy. I am deeply troubled by the growing power of both the nationalists and the religious right eroding more and more rights of liberal Jewish religious denominations. I am angry at Netanyahu’s betrayal of an agreement he once signed onto with the Women of the Wall. But my protestations need to be placed in their proper perspective. 

When I put my criticism, anger, and complaints about this or that Israeli policy in context to the rest of the Middle East, I clearly see that Israel is exhibiting the struggles of any vital democracy. We know that Israel is the only pluralistic democracy of its kind in the Middle East.  Especially as a rabbi, I would never simply criticize Israel without honoring its democracy, and the vital role Israel plays in inspiring democratic movements throughout the Middle East. Nor would I fail to mention the very undemocratic Palestinian governments (the PA and Hamas). At the same time, I would never blindly support “Israel, right or wrong” without my obligation as a Zionist to criticize and protest policies I disagree with or even find appalling. 

Exaggerated language is the other issue that concerns me, especially for those of us who are Jewish leaders. The use of words like apartheid, racist, authoritarian, colonial, or fascist to describe Israel are simply (and dangerously) wrong, and mislead or confuse those in our communities whom we hope to educate about what is happening in Israel today. Because we see racism in Israel does not make the entire nation racist. Israeli policies may anger and upset me (and many of them do in the current government) but I believe it is incumbent upon me not to make public statements without putting my criticisms in proper context, and watching my own tendency toward exaggerated language, rooted in my personal frustration. Israel is a wonderful, inspiring, startup nation, and a democracy. It not only needs our criticism now, more than ever, but also our love and support. The two (love and criticism) can be written about and spoken about in the same statement. 


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