Should American Jews criticize Israel?
They certainly can. Whether they should depends on the policy. Doing it in the context of an overall commitment to Israel is essential. We should do it in a manner that shows our devotion to Israel, our connection to Israel, our willingness to fight for it. For instance: I have publicly criticized Israel for not recognizing the Armenian genocide. Why don’t they? Because they don’t want to alienate the tyrant in Istanbul. Israel is clearly wrong in this regard: Erdogan has dismantled democracy in Turkey, and besides, Israel has a moral obligation to recognize the Armenian genocide. But my criticism is couched as a compliment; I know I’m appealing to a country of conscience.
Are there times or circumstances when criticism is off-limits?
It depends on the forum and the criticism. We should act with the knowledge that our criticism could be misused and misconstrued. An example: Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in August 2018 criticizing Israel’s nation-state law and asking whether Israel was “losing its way.” This was an unjust criticism in the world’s most influential newspaper. It allowed people to say, “Look! Even the president of the WJC says Israel is on its way to becoming Iran!” The criticism was ignorant, it was in the wrong forum, and it was so nebulous that it could be used liberally by Israel’s enemies. That’s bad criticism.
The New York Times constantly browbeats Israel and not long ago had to apologize for printing a blatantly anti-Semitic cartoon. Does that mean you should never criticize Israel in The New York Times? Not at all! I read The Times every day. I buy ads in it. But if you’re going to criticize Israel there, don’t give Israel’s enemies a baseball bat.
Also, criticism should not be condescending. So many friends of Israel want to save Israel from itself. How kind. Take Peter Beinart, whom I’ve debated many times. When Peter was stopped at Ben-Gurion Airport, I wrote publicly saying it was ridiculous. In Peter’s mind, he’s doing what’s best for Israel by being so harsh. I think it comes from a loving part of his heart, but it’s like a parent who overdoes the criticism until it becomes injurious to the child. And Peter will impute to Israel’s enemies noble intentions which he denies to Israel. Go figure.
Some people say if you don’t live in Israel, you shouldn’t criticize it. I reject that; if you can’t criticize a country, you’re saying it’s not subject to democratic norms. But I had two children who served in the IDF, and let me tell you, your view changes completely when you have a child in the army. I know Israel has to defend itself, but did I think twice before saying Israel needs to go in and clean out Gaza? Of course I did. It gives you humility. It changes the calculus.
Is there a duty to defend Israel when others criticize it?
Most of the time, absolutely. I certainly feel it’s my obligation, because most of the criticism is unfair or motivated by anti-Semitism or hypocrisy. Take Natalie Portman: She refused to travel to Israel to accept the Genesis Prize because of what was happening in Gaza. But she attended the Shanghai Film Festival in 2014. At the time, the Chinese government was holding its own Nobel Peace Prize winner in prison. Is Natalie Portman anti-Semitic? Of course not. But celebrities in Hollywood don’t like being out of step with their colleagues. There’s a lot of peer pressure and social pressure. It was cowardice.
Should American Jews support bills in Congress that would criminalize support for BDS?
If BDS were a legitimate movement attempting to promote Palestinian rights, of course I would favor letting it be heard. I don’t deny there is a Palestinian narrative, even if I don’t agree with it. But BDS’s intention is to strangle Israel economically and destroy the world’s only Jewish state. During World War II, Winston Churchill didn’t fear the Luftwaffe or the Battle of Britain—his fear, repeatedly stated, was that Britain would starve economically, that the German U-boats would sink enough merchant ships that Britain, an island, would have no food. That’s BDS. So it should absolutely be banned and boycotted because it’s an attempt to destroy an American ally.
Does the government of Israel represent you?
Obviously, I’m not an Israeli citizen, though some of my children are. But if you’re asking whether the government of Benjamin Netanyahu represents my values, I’ll say this: I have known Netanyahu for 30 years and I consider him a Jewish patriot. Like any world leader, he has his flaws. But in the core areas, he’s distinguished himself as a historic prime minister. He’s kept Israel safe, stopped terrorism and made sure Israel has ties with every region and country. And the economy is flourishing as never before.
Could anything cause you to break all ties with Israel?
I cannot imagine any such scenario, ever, any more than I could break with my own Jewish identity, G-d forbid, or with the US. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said America has concentration camps, I criticized her statement, not because we don’t have a humanitarian crisis on the border, but because I know that America is a kind-hearted nation and a just democracy, and if we appeal to its conscience, it will change. For Israel, it’s the same. Israel is a just and righteous country with a heart of integrity and compassion. I often say that I love Israel because I’m Jewish, but I respect it because it’s a majestic democracy. If Israel were to cease being a democracy, which is unthinkable, I’d still love it and be attached to it as my ancestral homeland, but I would work to restore democratic principles. But that’s a theoretical impossibility. I know Israel’s heart, and I know it will always do the right thing. Israel is the light of the Jewish people and a great light to the world.
Shmuley Boteach is a rabbi, author of more than 30 books and founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network.