Dissent may be the highest form of freedom but that’s not how some of Israel’s staunchest defenders see it. For these hardliners, criticizing the Jewish state is tantamount to anti-Semitism, even when those doing the criticizing are Jewish. Treating dissent harshly may be seen like a good way of inoculating Israel from supposedly unfair scrutiny, but it does the opposite, hastening the country’s own self-destructive descent.
The reflexive push back is distressingly common, but its latest manifestation dates to the Obama administration’s insistence that Israel freeze settlement construction in the occupied territories. With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations hanging in the balance, and with the recent expiration of Israel’s 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement growth (housing development continued in East Jerusalem), the gloves have come off.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set the tone. While claiming some of Israel’s critics are trying to “de-legitimize” the state, Netanyahu has sought to de-legitimize his political foes, including Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. He allegedly called the White House advisers “self-hating Jews” for their advocacy of a tough line on the Jewish state. Never mind that Emanuel served as a civilian volunteer in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War or that Axelrod has spoken repeatedly with pride about his Jewish heritage. Both are turncoats.
Israel’s hotheaded foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman outdid Netanyahu by condemning a threatened boycott by left-wing Israeli artists of a theater in a West Bank Jewish settlement. He likened such activism to “cultural terrorism.” His thirst for bombast unquenched, Lieberman, who lives on a settlement himself, then urged that state support be cut off for artists who accuse Israel of being an “apartheid state.” Apparently, Lieberman forgot that defense minister Ehud Barak took a similar line when observing that failure to make peace with the Palestinians risks turning Israel into a you-know-what.
The campaign against Israel’s critics has not spared Alfred Grosser, a prominent intellectual who escaped the Nazi regime. Grosser’s vocal criticism of the Jewish state—he has called for full equality for Arabs in Israel and said that Israeli policies are most responsible for “promoting anti-Semitism globally”—prompted Emmanuel Nahshon, an official at the Israeli embassy in Germany, to question his fitness to speak in Frankfurt early this week on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Grosser’s “illegitimate and immoral” views on Israel, Nahshon implied, should have disqualified him.
The bullying means by which Israel’s defenders try to stifle dissent from Jewish critics mimics the bullying means by which the rights of Arabs in the occupied territories are stifled. That persecution of the Arab “other” has redounded on outspoken Jews underscores the morally corrosive consequences of the Israeli occupation. It is a dangerous irony, as a society intolerant of dissent is a society incapable of change.
That threat is particularly salient with respect to Israel. As defense minister Barak and many others with unimpeachable Zionist credentials have pointed out, Israel faces an existential threat. In the absence of a two-state solution, it will likely cease to be democratic and therefore, in due course, will likely cease to exist (at least as a Jewish state). Consequently, every settlement built in the West Bank and every housing unit constructed in East Jerusalem should be seen as the danger to Israel that it is. What, then, could be more patriotic than objecting to the ongoing annexation of Palestinian land?
Israeli gadfly Gideon Levy makes this very point. In a column in Ha’aretz entitled, “Dear American Jews, If You Love Israel – Criticize it,” Levy speaks out against his country’s mythmakers who promote fear for diversionary reasons. He acknowledges that anti-Semitism exists, but not to the extent that Israeli leaders claim. “Nor is there any ‘de-legitimization of Israel,’” he says, “There is only de-legitimization of Israel’s policy of force and occupation.”
Levy concludes starkly: “Your beloved Israel is addicted. It is addicted to occupation and aggression, and someone has to wean it from these addictions. Like any other junkie, it is incapable of helping itself. Thus the job falls to you…If Israel is dear to you—and that is true of most of you—then be honest enough to criticize it as it deserves.” These are powerful words from a “good Tel Aviv boy” whose father fled Prague just ahead of the Nazis. Levy obviously loves his country but fears for its future.
Hold on. Can someone considered “a security risk” by several Israeli ministers because of his iconoclasm really be patriotic? Not when dissent is a disqualifying factor.