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Op-Ed

How to Support Israel While Being Critical

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in The Times of Israel on May 8, 2012

The question of how to define what it means to be pro-Israel has risen to the surface with the emergence of a group like J Street, and a writer like Peter Beinart.

J Street, the Washington, DC-based lobbying group that is strongly critical of the Netanyahu government's policies and of the positions taken by mainstream American Jewish organizations, refers to itself as a pro-Israel organization. And Beinart, who has written a book, "The Crisis of Zionism" and is also critical of Israeli and American Jewish policies, speaks of his Zionist roots and Jewish credentials.

Several broad points need saying early on. It benefits the Jewish community to have as large a tent as possible, encompassing a diversity of viewpoints regarding Israel and its policies. It enables as many people as possible to feel themselves part of the community and can help attract individuals who otherwise may be alienated or indifferent.

Just as in Israeli society, so here, there should be room for disagreement on a whole host of issues concerning Israel's security, the conflict with the Palestinians, and relations with the Arab world, Iran and the United States.

There is no monopoly on truth here.

Caring about Israel and its future cannot simply be measured by whether one always agrees with Israeli government policy. Indeed, it is not only the left that takes issue with the current government, but some on the right at times as well. For example, the Netanyahu government has called for a two-state solution, but there are those on the right who advocate Israel asserting its sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, which contradicts and would negate a two-state solution.

The point is that irrespective of whether one agrees or not with particular criticisms of Israeli policy, such criticisms in themselves obviously do not exclude one from being called pro-Israel or a Zionist.

Where things get murkier is when the preponderance of statements, positions, comments or resolutions read like criticism or condemnation of Israel.

It is one thing to be critical of Israeli settlement policy or to argue that Israel ought to be drawing up its own peace initiative rather than rely simply on the formula of coming to the table without preconditions. It is quite another matter when in addition to these comments there is nothing about the various moves toward peace that Israel has taken, and which have been met by Palestinian rejection and violence; or nothing about Hamas rejectionism and the teaching of hate on Palestinian Authority television.

In other words, in dealing with a situation which is complex at best, casting Israel simply as the party responsible for the stalemate and for all the difficulties of the Palestinians, at the very least raises a question as to whether that is a pro-Israel position.

Defenders of these unidimensional approaches, like Beinart and, more recently, Paul Krugman, reason that Israel is heading off a cliff and they are its true friends for setting off the alarm.

These defenses would be more credible if they weren't so selective with their facts. Ignoring, omitting or distorting important pieces of information undermines the claim that it's all tough love.

So, how to truly express support for Israel while not denying or repressing one's discomfit with certain Israeli policies and decisions? I think Leon Wieseltier, in a recent piece called "the Lost Art," said it well.

He described his own "bitterness" over the government's refusal to "press relentlessly and imaginatively" for an answer to the Palestinian problem. But, he says, "my own bitterness is not all I need to know." He talks of the obstacles created by Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas. He talks of the responsibility of the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis, for their plight. He notes that Israel faces real threats from outside, as well as from within.

And he concludes:

So Israel must be defended and Israel must be criticized. Almost nobody today any longer practices the lost art of doing both at the same time…

I don't cite Wieseltier because I agree with everything he said. I don't.

I do think, however, that he has provided a useful framework for evaluating not whether someone's criticism is right or wrong, but whether or not it fits under the rubric of "pro-Israel" or not.

Much to ponder.

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