The gloves are off

December 10, 2010 by

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In a recent speech, Mr Davis berated the Israeli prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, “for lacking the courage to take the steps” to advance the peace process, arguing that “I don’t understand the lack of strategy in Israel.” He also predicted an “apartheid state” unless Israel was able to achieve a two-state solution.

His remarks called a furor in the UK Jewish community, with many prominent UK Jews in public positions defending his remarks, noting that it was high time “that honest and open discussions” about Israel took place in the public arena.

Others Jewish leaders were chagrined or irritated and issued mixed statements, while only a very few, most notably Jonathan Hoffman of Zionist Federation and Lord Stanley Kalms, professed outright indignation.

Mick Davis’s remarks are disturbing because of who he is. Browsing the internet and reading a number of his speeches, as well as listening to his address at the rally in London during Operation Cast Lead, I’ve come to the conclusion that his heart is in the right place. I’m sure he loves Israel and wants to do his best for her. I’m sure he has raised and will continue to raise significant sums for the UJIA, which will enrich the lives of many in my country. Yet he still used this language in the public forum.

This means that a growing desire to openly criticize Israel is moving from the fringes of the Jewish community into the mainstream. This is the new discussion, and arguments about whether it should or shouldn’t be suppressed, are moot. It’s out there and it’s gaining momentum.

I’m assuming that as a UK-born Israeli who has spent 25 years living, working, voting and paying taxes in Israel, I can be part of this discussion? After all, if we’re going to be honest and open, it’s best to get a lot of stuff which hasn’t quite been articulated, out on the table.

One: It’s important that you understand that there are areas of criticism where you cause grave offence, and others where your input is necessary and welcome.

In the welcome category are issues which impact directly on Jews everywhere, where I would be glad of – not criticism as such – but concerted joint effort and involvement in Israel’s affairs. For example, I don’t see the Western Wall as an Israeli issue only but as a Jewish historical and spiritual heritage that should embrace all of us. I’m increasingly alarmed at the ultra-orthodox takeover of this site, and I would love for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox women to mount a concerted campaign to claim equal and respectable space, freedom of worship, and visual access to the men’s section.

Similarly, the behavior of the Israeli rabbinical courts in matters of marriage, divorce and conversion affect all of us. I think it perfectly legitimate for there to be loud and furious debate on these issues across the globe, and I would like to see rabbis the world over mobilized to this effect.

I would also love to get more of your input and expertise for our school systems and our community centers. The achievements of Diaspora communities in Jewish education and engagement, communal cohesion and responsibility, and religious diversity and creativity in the synagogue could greatly benefit Israeli society and have indeed already begun to do so. I would like to see the skills and initiatives of gifted UK Jewish professionals harnessed and adapted for Israeli Jewish life.

But there are some of you in the UK Jewish community who seem increasingly inclined to level criticism in the grave offence category, on the subject of our conflict with the Palestinians, the finalization of our borders, and our responses to provocation from Hamas and Hizballah. On these issues I believe you have no right to speak at all, mainly because you have not risked your lives and futures, and the lives and futures of your children, for Israel’s security.

We may be equals in many things, but in this matter we are not equals, because we have not invested equally. We are separated by a vale of tears and an ocean of blood, mostly very young blood. In my particular case, I’m separated from you guys by two Lebanon Wars, two Gulf Wars, two Intifadas, two children who’ve completed army service and a third about to begin, seven general elections, four unsuccessful peace processes, and five terrorist organizations operating in my region.

So I don’t believe that your understanding of our region is as nuanced as er… mine. Or Bibi Netanyahu’s for that matter.The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks touched upon this in his response to Mr. Davis’s remarks, when he said: “… it is the people of Israel who suffer the direct consequences of the forces ranged against them and it is their children who are in the front line of its defence.”

I do see that these security issues impact your comfort level in British society. But the Israeli government can hardly be expected to make tough war-and-peace, life-and-death decisions on the basis of that. Anyway, I think we’ve each chosen our level of discomfort, you and I.

You chose the UK, so you get to squirm and squiggle when the BBC reports, as a deliberate lie, that there’s been a massacre in Jenin. I and my neighbours on the other hand, chose Israel, so we get to send our sons into Jenin, hoping against hope that they’ll actually come out again. Which they sometimes don’t. (Or do, but as paraplegics.) What’s that I hear you say? That you would like to live your life as a Jew without any discomfort? You sure did choose the wrong religion, then.

There are other areas where the offence is not grave, just annoying. Take the issue of African refugees pouring across the open border with Egypt in their tens of thousands. The Israeli government has just allocated millions of shekels for the construction of a new transit center for these illegal immigrants. I pay 50% income tax, so with the greatest compassion in the world, I’m not sure I want to finance their long term support. But no doubt, when the numbers in these temporary dwellings have swelled beyond the originally intended figures, and this holding facility becomes nothing more than an overcrowded slum, many Jews living outside of Israel will be campaigning for the food and health and shelter of these immigrants, and they’’ll be campaigning for me to pay for it.

Last year, my son spent three months of his IDF service on the Egyptian border dragging the bodies of dead and wounded refugees to waiting ambulances because they’d been shot on the Egyptian side. One Eritrean, faint from hunger and exhaustion, sunk to his knees and wrapped his arms around Yonatan’s legs when he discovered he’d reached the Israeli side. This refugee presumably hadn’t listened to CNN or BBC, so he didn’t know that Israel was a denizen of racism and apartheid. He only knew that nobody on the Israeli side would try and kill him, and that he’d get a hospital bed for his wounds and food and shelter for his family, before being released into Eilat to look for a job.

Of course this issue is ethically complex. It’s just that I find the need of Jews living outside of Israel to enlighten me on those complexities incredibly patronizing. What is their investment level in this social and political dilemma? If it’s zero, then that’s what the opinions are worth.

Point Two: What is the motivation behind this need for public criticism?

This is a very important dimension of the debate. I can castigate a friend or a sibling if I believe their behavior to be selfish or unreasonable, but if I do so in public, I will only humiliate and wound her. I would be mad to think that making her look ridiculous to others, and permanently damaging their perception of her, is going to alter her behavior or produce good results. In fact, I would only do such a thing if my friend’s well-being were not the primary object. I might want to hurt her and put her down for complicated reasons of my own.

I speak for myself and many other Israelis when I say that for us, public criticism of Israel from UK Jews is suspect. We feel that it’s, well, not exactly coming from the healthiest and wholest of places in the Diaspora Jewish psyche, that minefield of conflicting prejudices and loyalties.

For one thing, your call for “openness” has escalated at exactly the same rate as the delegitimization and demonization of Israel by the British establishment. This vindictive ostrasization of Israel in the UK has resulted in an extreme lowering of comfort levels for the Jewish community, as we have agreed. But should it result in your shouting to the rooftops to join in with that vindictiveness? And if you join in, does it increase your status and respectability in British Society? My feeling is that it most certainly does.

So you’ll forgive me if I doubt the integrity of your backing the shrill accusations of the British government and media. It’s hard for me to take you seriously, when I know what you have to gain by supporting them, and what you have to lose by opposing them.

Actually, I think that the rising levels of discomfort are an encouraging sign that the heart and soul of British Jewry is in good working order. If British Jews were not viscerally connected to Israel, the feeling would be one of apathy or contempt, not discomfort. But they are connected. To so many of them, Israel is precious and important. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a modern miracle of astounding proportions. Its achievements in medicine, agriculture, science, and hi-tech, have impacted the health and well-being of millions. Above all, it’s a Jewish country with a Jewish majority, a place where Jews don’t have to negotiate the terms of their acceptance into the mainstream, because they are the mainstream.

Where does that leave us, you and I? I personally recommend that you don’t criticize us in areas where you have made no sacrifice, effort or contribution. I also think that public criticism is by its very nature, destructive and alienating. If you feel validated and vindicated by blasting us on TV or in the press, then you need to ask yourself why this is so.

If however, you are determined to criticize Israel as much as you like, then I, by the same token, will feel free to criticize you as much as I like. We will call this new way of relating “Tough Love”. We will use the two-directional model, instead of the model of Diaspora Jews behaving as if their criticism is a life-saving nasty-tasting antibiotic, which Israel, the ever truculent child, refuses to swallow to heal its inflammation.

No doubt, words like “Apartheid” and “Betrayal” will be used. But who knows? Every relationship in the world, if committed, must move beyond stasis and staleness into unexplored territory.

In conclusion, I’d like to invite Jonathan Hoffman, Lord Kalms and the Chief Rabbi to dinner the next time they are in the Bet Shemesh area. In a crisis, it sure is nice to know who your friends are. Jonathan Wittenberg, who backs public debate about Israel but has at least linked it to responsibility and involvement, can join us for dessert. As for poor Mick Davis, he will not get even one bite of my fabulous lasagna.

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