Peace with Realism

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Self-Criticism in Context

Before addressing the issues of Jewish idealism and the fear of being Jewish, it is necessary to say something about the enterprise of self-criticism itself. Questioning unfair criticism does not imply a refusal to entertain any criticism. Sometimes during debates, after refuting an opponent's unjust criticism, I have been accused of rejecting all criticism. This is a desperate tactic that Israel's opponents often use: "You don't like what we say, therefore you are unwilling to consider any criticism at all." In addition, because it has become increasingly fashionable nowadays to accuse anyone who defends Israel of trying to silence the other side with charges of anti-Semitism, it now seems almost a requirement to keep repeating that there is nothing inherently illegitimate or anti-Semitic about criticizing the state of Israel or its policies. So I am willing to repeat it once more now and hopefully put it to rest for the remainder of the discussion. It is not the fact of criticism but the type of criticism that determines whether it is unfair or even anti-Semitic. Similarly, self-criticism also can be either healthy self-examination or a morbid and irrational attack upon the self.

The capacity for self-criticism can be a powerful strength. Many societies perished because they justified everything they did and refused to confront their weaknesses. But especially in today's charged political climate, self-criticism must be delivered with a sense of balance. It should not be based on the same double standard which, when used by others judging Israel, becomes anti-Semitic. The intent of self-criticism should be to repair and to construct, not demolish. Above all, our self-criticism must not place upon our own shoulders the portion of responsibility that rightfully belongs to others.

I am a firm believer in self-criticism. I have criticized Israel, at times strongly, elsewhere on this site. That has gotten me disapproval from some and respect from others. Careful readers of this site will know I take the position that Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza has been a disaster both for the Palestinians and for Israel, and it must come to an end as quickly as possible - but only in a way that will preserve Israel's security. Israel has made mistakes contributing to the current impasse, particularly during the years of rapid settlement growth, but Israel is by no means solely responsible for the crisis. The root of the problem from the very beginning, before Israel's presence in the territories, and even before the state of Israel was established, is Arab rejectionism - the absolute and violent Arab opposition to any Jewish self-determination anywhere in the Middle East. The Arabs' refusal to make peace with Israel under any terms has kept the conflict alive in spite of Israel's efforts at the negotiating table.

Israel's critics, including its Jewish ones, are trying to rewrite history. Contrary to the impression they often leave, Israel was not created by a horde of conquering Jewish invaders. It came into being through a United Nations resolution, which the Arab states defied and launched a war to defeat. Similarly, Israel did not set out to conquer the Palestinians in 1967. Its presence in the territories is the direct result of an aggressive war planned and instigated by Arab states - including Jordan and its Palestinians - for the purpose of destroying Israel. I would have preferred that Israel had followed Ben Gurion's advice and withdrawn immediately from all the captured territory save Jerusalem and the Golan. Instead Israel waited for the Arabs to negotiate. This was not unreasonable, since Israel did not simply want to go back to the status quo ante and risk another war, but wanted an agreement that would produce lasting peace. The Arab states emphatically rejected any agreement at the 1967 Khartoum Conference. Thus either option, staying in the territories or withdrawing, entailed a price for Israel. I believe Israel chose the option with the higher price. Others will disagree.

I go through all this simply to demonstrate that one can criticize Israel while still respecting the complexity of the situation. One can recognize the hardships that Israel's presence in the territories places on the Palestinians while still admitting Israel's right and its need to defend itself and protect its civilians. That is a far cry from painting Israel as the reincarnation of Hitler and the Palestinians as the new innocent Christ child once again about to be slain in the manger by a rapacious Herod.

Perhaps the bottom line is that self-criticism, while a virtue, must be given in love, not hurled in anger.

The following example of Jewish self-criticism by a public figure, together with its response, will provide an illustration. Avraham Burg is a former Speaker of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset). In 2003 he published an article in newspapers round the world that created no small amount of controversy. Here are just a few of his remarks:

The Zionist revolution has always rested on two pillars: a just path and an ethical leadership. Neither of these is operative any longer. The Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice....

What is needed is a new vision of a just society and the political will to implement it.....

The Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or antimissile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. In this we have failed....

Traveling on the fast highway that takes you from Ramot on Jerusalem's northern edge to Gilo on the southern edge, a 12-minute trip just west of the Palestinian roadblocks, it's hard to comprehend the humiliating experience of the despised Arab who must creep for hours along the pocked, blockaded roads assigned to him. One road for the occupier, one road for the occupied....

Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism. They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation, because their own lives are torture. They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites, because they have children and parents at home who are hungry and humiliated.

The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs.(5)

How should we evaluate this? Some of Burg's points are fair. The experiences of Arabs living under Israeli jurisdiction need to be known and taken seriously. But Burg frames his argument in extreme terms. He writes as if the sole responsibility for the conflict, for Arabs killing both themselves and innocent Israeli civilians, is Israel's. He discounts the stated intentions of Arab terrorists to destroy Israel no matter what its borders, no matter what concessions it may make, because to them Israel's very existence is anathema. He ignores Israel's need to develop the weaponry he condemns: ever since it came into existence, Israel has been threatened by its Arab neighbors with wars of extinction. But note Burg's use of prophetic imagery: Israel must be a "light unto the nations." Burg expresses the idealism and social conscience that are a key part of Jewish tradition. But Burg's idealism is misguided, because it is unbalanced. For all his condemnation of Israeli society, he has not one critical word for Israel's enemies.

Burg, and many others like him, learned only half the lesson of the Hebrew prophets. The prophets were harsh in their self-criticism, but they were not unbalanced. They knew their own people were not the sole focus of evil in the world. Therefore they pronounced lengthy judgments against the other nations as well. Only a selective reading of the prophets - such as we find in many non-Jewish sources - leads to the impression that the Jews alone are to be criticized, or are worse than anybody else.

Here is one person's rebuttal to Burg:

I must protest against your level of argumentation and style. Your presentation of issues is irresponsible, undemocratic and lacking in basic honesty. It ignores all the great values that form the basis of the Jewish state up to this day. In very general accusations characteristic of your whole article you state that today's Israeli nation (!) rests on a "scaffolding of corruption."

There's no word about Israel being a state with a highly developed judicial system, where courts are open to all sectors of Israeli society, Arabs included, and where corruption in all its manifestations is fought. There's nothing about Israel being a tiny state surrounded by totalitarian governments not bound by the rule of law; nothing about the vast majority of its people being dedicated to their country without any personal corruption whatsoever....

How can you ignore the Jewish-historical approach in your analysis of events? One example: Tens of thousands of Arabs worked in Israel for many, many years. Their entering the country began to be problematical only after terrorists started being smuggled in with the workers. To talk about the Palestinians' difficulties with roadblocks without mentioning the reasons that led to those roadblocks being constructed is morally questionable.

Even worse: You invent the lie that Israel has "ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians." You describe all Israel as an inhuman entity, causing irreparable damage to Israel's moral image.

As you surely know, the truth is just the opposite: Despite Palestinian children being educated to become suicide murderers, despite their being abused as shields for terrorists, Israel does whatever possible to avoid causing them unnecessary harm.

For example, twenty-three Israeli soldiers were sacrificed in Jenin in order to avoid a massive attack on the civilian population. In another recent example, last week Israel could have killed Hamas's leaders in Gaza, but the IDF refrained from using a more powerful bomb than it did so as not to endanger too many civilians. I don't know any other nation in the world that would act with such moral considerations in their fight against frightfully inhuman terrorists.(6)

While Cohn's rebuttal goes on to express positions with which I take some issue, in these passages he provides a necessary corrective to Burg's one-sided exaggerations. Without the balance of considering the responsibility of all sides to the conflict, a balance the prophets themselves practiced, self-criticism becomes self-demonization.

It is fair to conclude that one central problem with many Jewish critics of Israel is an unbalanced and misguided idealism.

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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism