Criticism of Israel: Whose right is it, anyway?

IsraelRallyHuddlePark 3Aug2014 (46) (3)

 To criticize or praise Israel? When South African Jews filled a Johannesburg park in August 2014 to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, other Jews from a group called Jewish Voice For A Just Peace gathered across the road to protest Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian territories 

IT is not unusual for elder South African politicians to use their anti-apartheid struggle credentials as political capital, as if their views are superior to others.

The issue found a reverse echo in Israel last week, when Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely – an ardent right-winger and settlement supporter – contemptuously criticised American Jews who “never send their children to fight for their country (America)… most of them are having quite convenient lives.” And they don’t really care about the kotel, she added. She, on the other hand, lives in Israel and serves in the IDF, as if that makes her views superior to Jews who don’t – which means most American Jews. Her comments outraged sections of American Jewry. A response in Israeli media from a high-ranking US military officer listed Jews who fought with the US army in World War Two, and hold high military positions today.

Hotovely also disparages Diaspora Jews who criticise Israel’s weakening of liberal values, and the occupation. Sadly, many American Jews – the world’s second largest Jewish community after Israel – who are overwhelmingly liberal, do not see Israel as part of their identity, but a problem evoking antagonism from other people because of the occupation. US Jews dislike racism and religious extremism. Despite being only 2 percent of America’s population, they played a huge part in the civil rights movement, and continue to do so in culture, the arts, politics and the economy.

Their relationship with Israel has weakened as the country has moved towards right-wing extremism and nationalism. If they have a Reform or Conservative religious identity – as the majority of American Jews do – they accuse Israel of acting arrogantly as if it held a copyright on Judaism. They perceive Israel’s Orthodox establishment as being contemptuous of other streams.

Israel was created as a worldwide Jewish project to be a moral, democratic state for all inhabitants, with the intention of being intimately connected to the Diaspora. Do Israeli public officials have the right to criticise Diaspora communities. Could Hotovely’s attack on US Jews also be applied to South African Jewry?

And should South African Jews criticise Israel, against the accusation that they don’t live there, face Middle East dangers, serve in the IDF, and so on?

South African Jewish institutions are loath to criticise Israel, believing it gives ammunition to anti-Israel groups such as BDS. The recent controversy provoked by a Johannesburg Reform shul inviting people with BDS connections to its sukkah, highlighted the issue. At Israeli-oriented events such as Yom Ha’atzmaut in Johannesburg, left-wing Jews demonstrate against Israeli actions, and promote the Palestinian cause, evoking anger among mainstream Jewry. Even moderate Jewish groups who support Israel passionately, but demand an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories are often branded, without any evidence, as belonging to BDS in order to silence them. They are accused of being traitors.

The SA political environment is receptive to attacks on Israel. The Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress, Jesse Duarte, for example, published an article in the Daily Maverick this week in anticipation of the ANC leadership conference later this month, saying: “Israel has continued to violate international law, occupation continues and the brutality of the Israeli system of oppression has, rightly, been likened to apartheid … As the ANC therefore prepares for its National Conference, South Africa’s future relations with Israel hangs in the balance and rightly so.”

For SA Jews who support Israel but oppose the occupation, it is a difficult line to tread. But it must not stifle meaningful debate about Israel, including praise and criticism where necessary. Like South African struggle veterans’ critiques of the ANC and South Africa, this kind of engagement is crucial.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

 

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