Posted by: sean | September 1, 2006

On criticizing Israel

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Rosa Brooks makes the obvious point that in the US, anyone who criticizes Israeli actions is pilloried as an anti-semite. The latest case being Ken Roth (whose father fled Nazi Germany), the executive director of Human Rights Watch:

But what’s most troubling about the vitriol directed at Roth and his organization isn’t that it’s savage, unfounded and fantastical. What’s most troubling is that it’s typical. Typical, that is, of what anyone rash enough to criticize Israel can expect to encounter. In the United States today, it just isn’t possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism. Think Israel’s tactics against Hezbollah were too heavy-handed, or that Israel hasn’t always been wholly fair to the Palestinians, or that the United States should reconsider its unquestioning financial and military support for Israel? Shhh: Don’t voice those sentiments unless you want to be called an anti-Semite — and probably a terrorist sympathizer to boot.

How did adopting a reflexively pro-Israel stance come to be a mandatory aspect of American Jewish identity? Skepticism — a willingness to ask tough questions, a refusal to embrace dogma — has always been central to the Jewish intellectual tradition. Ironically, this tradition remains alive in Israel, where respected public figures routinely criticize the government in far harsher terms than those used by Human Rights Watch.

In a climate in which good-faith criticism of Israel is automatically denounced as anti-Semitic, everyone loses. Israeli policies are a major source of discord in the Islamic world, and anger at Israel usually spills over into anger at the U.S., Israel’s biggest backer.

It’s really a shame that this even needs to be brought up, but people in the US seem incapable of making the distinction between being Jewish and being Israeli. For some strange reason, this relationship seems to only exist for Israel. No one accuses anyone of being anti-islamic when Iran or Saudi Arabia is the object of criticism, so why should it be different for Israel?



  1. Answer: Identity Politics. A hard reality that’s too often taken for granted.

    However, I’m not so sure if Americans are incapable of understanding the distinction between “Israeli” and “Jewish” relative to other places in the world. In fact, many Jewish-Americans go to Europe and report very ambivalent feelings about who they really are; i.e. explaining the identity of “secular Jewish” to bewildered self-proclaimed secular Seculars.

    Still, to be fair, we can’t undermine the complexities of “identity” itself. The Western-historical treatment of Jews has been extremely unjust; Jews are thought to have more than they really do. The emphasis is *already* given, whether we like it or not. The Western world needs to take such criticisms seriously.

    And yes, we should all start talking about the effects of discrimination against Muslims. However, in order to do this, the society must be courageous enough to talk about such things in the first place. It requires humility and the removal of denial. When such events as immigration riots occur, for example, such a society must be deeply ignorant when the debate is relegated to everything else except the society’s own unelightened racism, ignorance, and intolerance.

    The fact of the matter is that we must talk about the nature of prejudice, hatred, and intolerance before proceeding to make any sort of bombastic conclusions. Take it from me.


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