We Need More ‘Dirty Laundry’ Conversations About Israel


When I invite guests for dinner, I clean up my apartment, and put the dirty laundry in the closet. But it’s usually in full sight when I’m home with family.

Jews have traditionally acted similarly regarding Israel. In public discourse, support for Israel is forceful on issues related to war and peace. Within the family, though, there often is lively discussion of fears and hopes, with recognition that choices are very difficult and outcomes uncertain.

Conversations reveal the deep loyalty that many Jews have toward Israel and the palpable sense of their stake and role in Israel’s future.

But our definitions of who is family and who are guests have changed. Many Jews are hearing a very flat conversation on Israel, one that neither responds to the increasing criticisms in intellectual circles or in the media, nor reflects the emotional ups and downs that hit veteran Israel supporters.

There are significant groups of Americans — many young, highly educated Jews among them — who are at best turned off and at worst frustrated to the point of rebellion at what seems to be this stale, out-of-touch discourse.

At this time of great risk and uncertainty it is especially crucial to open up to a more nuanced and complex discussion of the issues facing Israel, and to include multi-generational participants and activists across the political spectrum.

The dirty laundry theory of Israel activism is the notion that for some demographics, namely “elite” or highly educated Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, the “dirty laundry” discussion is humanizing and sometimes even downright attractive. Yes, Israel may not do everything right. How could it with its unique array of diverse domestic constituencies and its singularly difficult security situation? And, yes, individuals in these groups may even disagree at times with specific Israeli policy.

But the ability to be part of the complex conversation on Israel policy is actually a turn-on, not the opposite; a motivation to get or stay involved, a reason to care. The more they can find this sort of difficult discourse promoted and embraced by American Jewish institutions and Israeli leaders, the more likely they are to embrace the Jewish State and their connection to it.

For this demographic, a simplistic narrative that highlights only the positive, or that harps unyieldingly on Israel’s existential threat, and that ignores the difficult issues with which this group is familiar from general media, is to discredit the pro-Israel viewpoint. The result is that by only promoting the pro-Israel perspective, and not the critical one, we look naïve at best and purposefully evasive or uncaring at worst.

Unfortunately, the barriers to this sort of discourse are real. There is a frightening reality that Israel is under attack, threatened by Hamas, Hezbollah and by the very real prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Israel is no longer able to rely on the stability of its peace with Egypt. Israel’s harshest critics ignore this geopolitical context and some of them take positions supposedly in solidarity with Palestinians that echo the most extremist voices, undermining Israel’s right to exist and never ever giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Confronting this challenge, and convinced that there are enough critical voices out there already, many traditional Jewish activists focus on articulating a very strong case for Israel rather than a more holistic approach. In this black-and-white context, nuance on the pro-Israel side is viewed as apology and avoided.

Why can’t this simple pro-Israel message coexist with the more complex one — each geared toward different audiences? For some, the case for Israel is virtually unknown and needs to be explained to the “guests” to the conversation, those who are on the receiving end of relentless anti-Israel messaging.

But for others, for “our family,” those inside the conversation, that same tone — appropriate elsewhere — is wholly inadequate. It is turning some of the people we need away from the conversation entirely.

Furthermore, the pro-Israel community leaves information about the difficult issues entirely to the “anti-Israel” side, instead of offering our own more complex and thoughtful explanation.

The issue, of course, is that in the Internet age of transparent walls, Wikileaks, and more — targeted messaging is not so simple, and community institutions need to decide what tone they are taking — the familial or the stranger.

Can we simply forfeit the support of the whole family — including young, highly educated, engaged Jews — in favor of audiences that may be less politically engaged, but are more naturally inclined toward Israel and thus resonate to the straightforward pro-Israel message? That is the bottom line.

We do so at great risk. The Jewish and non-Jewish political elites are our greatest assets in policy and intellectual circles, the circles that count as “thought leaders.”

Israeli author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi offered the alternative at a recent speech in Westchester. He said that we need to embrace our own complex understanding of the situation. That could produce a nuanced, layered discussion of emotion and policy, threat and opportunity, ideals and reality — a “dirty laundry” conversation that shows our humanity and can bring back friends from the cold.

Rebecca Neuwirth is director of ACCESS, the American Jewish Committee’s new generation program.