Criticizing Israeli Policies is Not Anti-Semitic

Let me state at the outset that I am a dual Israeli-American who served in the Israeli army. Now to the topic at hand.

A recent flurry of reporting has highlighted the tendency to equate criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism—seen as problematic for some Democrats who quietly have problems with Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land but appreciate Israel’s role as a steadfast U.S. ally. [See: Prominent Democrats Form Pro-Israel Group to Counter Skepticism on the Left.] The latest flap came when Democratic Rep. Ilhan OMar, one of two Muslim-American women in Congress, tweeted criticism of the strident pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) suggesting that their campaign contributions had been used to buy support for Israel from U.S. lawmakers.

While Omar’s tweets were heavy-handed and construed by some as playing on unsavory stereotypes of Jewish money buying influence, the underlying contention—that AIPAC, in particular, has used contributions and lobbying to influence lawmakers is hardly controversial. That, indeed, is what lobbyists do. While apologizing for the tone of her comments, Omar—to her credit—did not back down from her contention that lobbying and contributions play an outsized role in American politics.

According to The Hill, Omar wrote: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”  She continued: “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

The premise of AIPAC and others unwilling to render any judgment on Israel is that it is not possible to be critical of current Israeli policies under Benjamin Netanyahu without being anti-semitic or against Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognized borders. This is both ludicrous and an offense to free speech. It is akin to saying that you cannot be a supporter of the United States if you oppose the policies of Donald Trump and his administration. This is so patently absurd that it strikes me as sad that this continues to be a matter of serious debate.

Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock (photo by Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons)

Back in 1978, I moved to Israel, where I served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as an infantry soldier, combining military service with farming as part of the Nachal infantry brigade. When not in training or on active duty, I lived on a kibbutz on the Kinneret (aka the Sea of Galilee), where I milked cows, harvested dates, and picked bananas.

Among Israelis, particularly those in Nachal, there was no conflict in having both a profound love of country and profound reservations about the policies of the Israeli right. I grew up as a so-called birthright Jew—my family lineage is Jewish as far back as we know. I also grew up believing that the most central tenet of Jewish culture included the pursuit of social justice and care for the world. The concept has a name in Hebrew–Tikkun Olam—literally “repair of the world.”

During my time in the IDF, I had occasion to serve on the West Bank to protect Palestinian residents from potential reprisals by right-wing Jewish settlers in Hebron following a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) massacre of six of the settlers. The fear was that the settlers would go on the rampage—launching a pogrom. This was the word that was used—and one would have to be immune to irony not to be shaken by the implications.

If Democrats here oppose anti-immigrant policies and the vilification of women and minorities—-why do they characterize as “anti-Israel” or “anti-semitic” almost anyone who questions the ongoing expropriation of Palestinian land and the de facto apartheid that characterizes substantial segments of Israeli society? I mean this question rhetorically–clearly, the answer is that Democrats fear that this issue will be exploited—as it has—by Republicans for political advantage.

A further irony is that Republicans—the party of untrammeled private property rights–have no problem with the massive violation of property rights entailed in Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land.

It is true that Israel has a population of non-Jewish citizen Arabs who have the same rights as other Israelis. But there is a growing, entirely disenfranchised population of non-Jewish inhabitants under occupation, who have little hope and few opportunities. The criticism of Netanyahu’s aggressive settlement building, which can occur only by taking land from Palestinians, is no more a criticism of Israel’s right to exist then is criticism of Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents if they enter the U.S. without documentation a criticism of Americans’ right to exist in peace and harmony.

I am not naive enough to be surprised that rational, reasonable, ethical criticism of Israeli policies has been weaponized by the Right. But the idea that massive land expropriation and continued oppression of a disenfranchised population of nearly 4 million Palestinians are worthy of serious criticism should not be a matter of debate. An indefinite occupation is eventually untenable—and should the Israeli government officially annex the territories without granting full citizenship status to its inhabitants, the situation will become increasingly intolerable for Palestinians. Israelis may be able to continue to crush dissent by periodic attacks on guerrilla enclaves that exist in civilian areas, leading inevitably to more and more civilian deaths—and for most Jewish Israelis, numb to the perpetual conflict, life will go on. But it will continue to corrode the beating heart of Israeli society.

When I was serving, I remember passing through the teeming, squalid refugee camps on the Gaza strip—and initially being shocked at the conditions. Rudimentary public health has been destroyed—to the extent that safe drinking water is virtually non-existent. An article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that 97 percent of Gaza drinking water is contaminated by sewage and salt. Restrictions on the movement of staple food items have led to breadlines. Yet almost never are such issues raised by either Democrats or Republicans, and they receive little—and transient–coverage by major U.S. media.

Bread lines in Gaza (photography by Al Jazeera English, Wikimedia Commons)

The continued occupation has already damaged the soul of the Israeli nation, which, on its founding, set the goal of being “a light unto the nations.” It is no surprise that the corrupt Netanyahu regime has been credibly accused of trading influence for favorable news coverage, and of accepting bribes in exchange for political favors. Oppression and corruption invariably go hand-in-hand.

It is unfortunate that some extreme voices on the Left are, indeed, anti-semitic–Louis Farrakhan comes to mind–and it is true that their joining of antisemitism and criticism of Israel has tainted the conversation. But the existence of people who are both bigots and critics of Israeli policy should not delegitimize honest dialogue about what is going on in Israel—and the Right’s weaponization of reasonable criticism of Israeli policies should not be accepted without rebuttal.

A strong case can be made that opposing land expropriation and ongoing conflict is ultimately the best policy for both Jewish Israelis and the occupied Palestinian population. Having lived in Israel for three years, it is not hard to imagine how the symbiotic energies of these two peoples could result in an explosion of innovation in agriculture, energy production, and technology. It is impossible to overstate the way in which a continual state of low-level conflict has drained energy from the creative potential of both Israelis and Palestinians. I am certain that a real resolution with a compromise on both sides, would be deeply disappointing to those who are truly anti-semitic and anti-Israel. It would, indeed, be the best revenge.

What My Time in the Israeli Army Taught Me About Walls

It has become a popular “what-about-ism” to point to the Israeli wall separating parts of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza as justification for a similar barrier to be built on the U.S.-Mexico border by the Trump administration. There are a lot of problems with this comparison, but I will start from my own experience serving as an infantryman in the Israeli Army from 1978-1981.

Israel’s Wall (photo by Justin McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons)

While I was serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), I came across various barriers, but the one I saw along the Israel-Lebanon border was designed with two barbed wire fences separated by a wide area of raked ground. I do not recall if the fence was electrified, but the primary deterrent was that in order to cross from South Lebanon (I was stationed in Metula much of the time) into Israel it was necessary to cross the raked dirt–which would leave footprints. A jeep patrolled and re-raked the area constantly. There were also sentries at various points. The setup was low tech—but effective.

Keep in mind that this was to deter those who wanted to infiltrate Israel to KILL people–not to find a job and make a better life for their families. The new Israeli wall, while surely effective, is primarily a political statement and a symbol—presumably it would demarcate the limits of any Palestinian state or autonomous area. It is a “fact on the ground.”

In this sense, the Israeli wall has something in common with Trump’s proposed wall—one is as much a symbol as a security barrier, while the proposed U.S.-Mexico wall would be primarily a symbol. Like the actual Israeli wall, the proposed U.S. wall would separate communities and interfere with commerce. And like the Israeli wall, it would be an ugly monstrosity and would interfere with ecosystems that are organically connected.

Often in the Trump era I find myself writing about things that seem absurdly obvious. Is there anyone who really believes that the Israeli security situation (regardless of what one may think about Israeli policies towards its Palestinian population) is analogous to the situation on our southwest border? If such is the case, it is probably impossible to persuade them that the costs of a wall here far outweigh any potential benefits.

U.S.-Mexico Border Fence in El Paso, Texas (photo office of Rep. Phil Gingrey, U.S. Congress)

That said, the use of fencing, as well as drones and additional border patrol officers is a reasonable part of any solution to the influx of people seeking better lives in the United States. In addition—and is this not obvious?—we need more judges and administrators to help give people an expeditious means of having their asylum applications heard and adjudicated. The criteria that should be used in evaluating asylum requests is a different topic for another day. But I tend to see things through a lens that reminds me that “there but for the grace of God go I.”