Does Judaism back critique of Israel?
I am a Zionist. Every day I marvel at Israel’s achievements, I am awed by the soldiers who risk their lives so that I can be here, I am uplifted by a democracy where an Arab judge can sentence the Jewish ex-President to jail and I treasure the privilege of walking the streets of the Promised Land.
But living here comes with a price tag. Sometimes the harsh realities of Israel displace my Zionist dreams and the daily papers carry disturbing news of rampant government corruption and the harshness of the occupation. Edmund Burke is famous for saying that “All that it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to remain silent”; should this be our guiding principle, leading us to speak openly and critically about Israel’s flaws?
Historically, Jewish communities lived in terror of their gentile rulers, so anyone who broadcast our failings to the non-Jewish authorities was deemed a moser – the worst form of traitor. According to Maimonides, such people have no share in the world to come. There is even a lengthy halachic discussion about summarily executing Jews whose tale-telling endangers the community. (Rambam, Laws of Injury and Damages 8: 11). The Talmud describes rabbis who suffered unbearable bullying at the hands of Jewish thugs (Gittin 7a). When they begged their teachers for permission to report their tormentors to the Roman authorities, they were told to suffer in silence rather than to risk inflicting damage to the community.
With the rise of democracy across Europe, a sea change took place in rabbinic thinking. It was led by Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908), who argued that while loyalty to our people remains a crucial Jewish value, the law of the moser only applies to those who would be unfairly treated by the courts. In countries governed by the rule of law, there is no reason to obstruct the course of justice. Other scholars point out that when the condition of the Jewish people is fragile, sheltering wrongdoers is apt to provoke even greater antisemitism. So Jewish communities are at liberty and possibly duty bound to expose their villains.
So we can work with European judicial systems, but what about their foreign ministries whose statesmen consistently use harsh language to criticise Israel. Are they all antisemities? While their tone often seems unfair, their conclusions often match those of our own Israeli demographers, journalists and human rights organisations.
Ambassadors have to defend their government’s policies under all circumstances, so it is not surprising that Israel’s ambassador to London attempted to stifle all debate about these issues, declaring that anyone who criticises Israel simply gives ammunition to our enemies.
If only it were that simple. Professor Aviezer Ravitsky once said, “A Jew who doesn’t believe Israel should have the best army in the world betrays his grandchildren. But a Jew who doesn’t believe it should be the most moral army in the world betrays his grandparents.” This is what creates the tension between keeping quiet to satisfy the advocates of military strength and speaking out to support those campaigning for the morality of our country.
An intriguing passage in the Talmud states that were it not for the sins of the Jewish people, most of the Bible would never have been written (Nedarim 22b). Ideally, we would have managed with just the Chumash and the Book of Joshua. But when the Jewish people behaved unethically, the prophets spoke out, fearlessly criticising us, and their words were recorded in the Bible for all to see.
Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits reckoned that the issue of whether to speak out against Israel’s policies was “real and perplexing”, confessing that there was “none over which I agonised more often and with greater pangs of conscience”. His position was guided by a passage in the Talmud criticising religious leaders who see moral failings, but refuse to speak out (Sotah 22a). Such people, Rabbi Jakobovits said, “will be indicted before the bar of heaven and history for Jewish national aberrations compounded by their silence”.
In an emotional passage in his book If Only My People, Rav Jakobovits describes standing over the bed of the Israeli Ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov, victim of a terrorist attack, and wondering whether had he used his platform as Chief Rabbi to speak out about the suffering of Palestinians, he could have diminished the anger of the their leadership, reduced terrorism and saved lives.
Our rabbis teach that “all Jews are responsible for one another”; so each of us should love Israel and care for her security, prosperity and moral standing. We should educate our communities about Israel’s astonishing achievements, recognising the difficulties of maintaining democracy with the threats it faces and combating those who seek to delegitimise our Jewish state.
At the same time, the time has come to expose ourselves to the more difficult sides of modern Israel; listening carefully to different narratives and facing up to the flaws in our country. We must lovingly dedicate ourselves to making Israel the safest and most moral state in the world, offering every support to those organisations who tirelessly campaign to make Israel a stronger democracy and a light to the nations. In this way, we can, once again, make our Zionist dreams a reality.
Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue’s Tribe Israel, and directs the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at Hillel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Sponsored by the Hillel Foundation and Rabbis for Human Rights)
First appeared in www.thejc.com