Wednesday, February 3, 2010

When Criticism of Israel Turns Into Anti-Semitism

The sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz recently took place. We certainly cannot forget what happened. As George Santayana said, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The consciousness of the Holocaust and the ever-growing need for a Jewish state can never be forgotten. The history of anti-Semitism makes Israel all the more controversial topic. This all begs a very important question: where does legitimate criticism of Israel end and bigotry begin?

A legitimate concern is that Israel can play the victim card to wiggle out of any criticism. We should be diligent to make sure it never happens, but as not happened yet because this is not how Israel has done business. On the contrary, it has learned how to stand on its own two feet and taken responsibility for its actions.

I love Israel. It’s a wonderful country. I plan on moving there some day. But if you think I can’t criticize Israel just because I’m a practicing, Zionist Jew, I can surprise you by giving my fair share. After the first time I went to Israel, I was surprised as to what sort of problems Israel had. Rivers were polluted and the highways were so littered that for a moment, I thought I was back in the United States. I found out that the Yitzhak Rabin assassination cause a rift between religious and secular people in Israel, much larger than anything here in America. What shocked me the most was the poverty in Israel, which is at about 20%.  It has gotten so bad that there is only one job for every eleven people applying.  Although the fact that the poverty itself was staggering, I was mostly surprised at who was the cause of the poverty. I know that Israeli Arabs have a while to go in terms of being fully trusted and enfranchised by the Israeli government (Life’s not fair, but if you had a bunch of hostile Arab nations surrounding you that yearned for your total annihilation, would you feel much different? Probably not!), which is why I thought they were the impoverished ones. Although a disproportionate amount is poor, it was amazing to find out that the primary cause of poverty were the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews. I was trying to pray at the Kotel for twenty minutes, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that six Haredi Jews were begging me for money. Here I am, trying to get in touch with Hashem at the most holy site in the world, and I have men with chutzpah who tell me that if I give them money, they can pray for me. Excuse me, pray for me?! I can pray for myself, thank you very much. I think in the process, I’ll pray that you learn the value of acquiring a job, because as Pirkei Avot 2:2 says, יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ, שיגיעת שניהם משכחת עוון, which means that Torah without a “worldly job” leads to sin.

This is just criticism I can give to Eretz Yisrael from being there for ten days! Looking at the issue from the lens of a American political pundit who is Jewish, I can point out a few others. One point of criticism is undoubtedly the Haredi establishment within Israeli politics. During the creation of the Jewish state, Israel has been trying to work out the dichotomy of having a liberal democracy and a religiously Jewish state. To appease the religious community, the secular government gave the religious establishment a slightly disproportionate amount of power. Now that power has grown and has been concentrated on the Far Right of the religious spectrum. The Israeli government will only finance Orthodox synagogues, usually with a Haredi bent. This means that non-Orthodox synagogues solely rely on private funding, which makes it more difficult to finance. The Haredim control the conversion process and has made the conversion process insufferable for those who want a halachic conversion. I personally know of at least four friends who have been turned away from Judaism precisely because of this issue. It’s astounding that thousands of perfectly good candidates who would have otherwise been good Jews have been deterred precisely because we have given into “stringency for stringency’s sake.” The biggest problem, though, is why they cause poverty. Essentially, they are the recipients of welfare checks in Israel. They feel that studying is such an ideal that the State should financially support them in their studies, and thereby exempt them from having an actual job. In spite of the fact they forget what the Sages say (see above), they purposefully perpetuate the welfare program in Israel, thereby economically crippling Israel.

A few other issues I can think of offhand. One of them is the treatment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Starting in the late 1970s, the state of Israel has been bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel and absorbing them. The Ethiopian Jews since then have had to deal with racism and bigotry as they get settled into Israel. A survey was done where most Israeli employers would rather not hire Ethiopians. The same goes for Arabs and Haredim, although based on what I just wrote, you can’t exactly blame them for the latter. It will probably take another couple of generations to get well-established. Another issue I take is with the secular part of Israel. Most, if not all, secular Israeli Jews have never stepped foot in a synagogue, let alone have a full understanding and appreciation of Judaism. The Israeli Department of Education needs to address this issue. Many of the secular Jews don’t understand why or what they’re fighting for when they are signed up for the IDF. Understanding would make IDF service more tolerable, thereby boosting militaristic morale.

Although I feel like I can write a book on this topic, I will end today’s criticism with the Israeli PR machine. My problem isn’t that it’s too empowering. It’s that it’s not large enough. It’s not reaching a broad enough audience. The only thing that makes the Palestinian cause a success is not the veracity behind it, but rather their success is based on their effectiveness at spinning lies and being able to disseminate that dreck to the broader, international community. I’m certainly not advocating that the Israeli government lie to get their point across, but if the Israelis had one ounce of zeal in their PR that the Palestinian Authority had, many in the international community would realize how wonderful Israel really is.

And in all honesty, people should know how wonderful Israel is. In spite of the plethora of criticism I can offer, I do so because I love the State of Israel, and I want to see it grow into an international beacon of hope in an otherwise dark and dreary world. Israel has made great progress since 1948, but they still have a long way to go to actualize that dream. My criticism of Israel comes with validity because 1) I want to see Israel thrive, and 2) I offer constructive criticism. The type of criticism I offer is in contradistinction to two other types of criticism—non-constructive and destructive.

Non-constructive. This is where a majority of people in the West regrettably fall. This sort of criticism comes out of the relativist attitude of giving equal validity to all sides of an argument. Although I can drive a semi-truck through that kind of thinking, it’s safe to say that it doesn’t bring anything positive to the discussion. Although these sorts of people say that “we need to hear both sides of the discussion,” the ironic truth is that on this issue, they don’t listen to the Israeli side. All they hear is what the Palestinian PR machine has to say on it, and end their alleged investigative inquiry at that. They don’t investigate the hatred for the Jews taught in Palestinian schools. They don’t investigate that Israel has tried to give Palestinians land during a number of times over the past few decades. They don’t investigate how neither Fatah nor Hamas will ever recognize a Jewish state. They don’t investigate anything the pro-Zionist side has to say. If they actually did any sort of investigating, they would realize that the Palestinians need to lie to get people’s attention, and that Israel is overwhelmingly in the right. It’s not as if Israel doesn’t want peace or hasn’t made any effort to extend the olive branch—trust me, its history is quite the contrary. But again, the problem is that everybody likes to have an opinion because people need to think they’re right about everything, even if the proper research hasn’t been done. Without having a grasp of the issues, these peoples’ analysis is incomplete at best, and thus non-constructive.

Destructive. This is the sort of criticism that comes from people that simply don’t like Jews or what Israel represents. Particularly for academics in the ivory tower, it has become more chic to hide their anti-Semitism and hide in the name of anti-Zionism. But Martin Luther King, Jr. had something to say about that misconception:

“And what is anti-Zionist? It is the denial to the Jewish people of a fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa and freely accord all other nations of the Globe. It is discrimination against Jews, my friend, because they are Jews. In short, it is anti-Semitism.”

You can usually tell this sort of criticism from a mile away. They will vehemently point out everything wrong Israel does, true or not, and vilify Israel while not saying a word about actual human rights violations going on in other countries.

Anti-Semitism is not dead. If anything, it’s “alive and kickin’.” Although there are many types, the two I would like to focus on, especially with regards to Israel, is religious and anti-global. The most notable form of religious anti-Semitism is Islamic anti-Semitism. By the time the twentieth century was over, Islamic anti-Semitism rose to a historic high, whereas Christian anti-Semitism has significantly waned. It is self-evident that this anti-Semitism is perpetuating the Israel-Arab conflict.

The other type of anti-Semitism comes from the Far Left, whether it comes from anti-globalists or academics. They call it anti-Zionism, but as Martin Luther King said, anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism. As I have stated in the past, these Leftists hate Israel because of what it represents—capitalism, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, nationalism, essentially, Israel represents everything the Left despises. To add onto that notion, they view Palestine as the “oppressed proletariat,” and advocates for “a Palestinian state” as a method of wealth and land redistribution, something which many on the Left are known for. In short, the Israel-Palestine issue is just another fight for socialism on the international level.

Conclusion. Never again! This chant was a post-Holocaust creation that still rings true today. We need to be able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate criticisms of Israel. Constructive criticism of Israel is acceptable, but if it is done one-sided or done out disproportionate anger, we have to combat it. If we are striving for a world of peace and harmony, we cannot let this sort of animosity exist. It cannot simply be pushed aside because historically speaking, that only ends up in mass murder of Jews. Anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments need to be fought on all levels because if not, George Santayana becomes correct, and history will repeat itself in the worst fashion possible.

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