How To Speak Truth To Israel


I have been a fan of Daniel Sokatch since his days at the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles, even before he became the C.E.O. of the New Israel Fund.

My wife and I have been supporters of the New Israel Fund (NIF) because we believe that in the push and pull of politics, security, and Israel–Arab relations, its programs and grants strengthen Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.

We also have spoken out against efforts by right-wing members of Knesset, NGOs and American Jewish organizations to delegitimize NIF or exclude it from Israel Day parades.

Nevertheless, I believe that Sokatch’s critique in The Jewish Week of various right-wing Israeli leaders (“Condemnation is No Longer Enough,” Opinion online) is a classic example of how not to speak about –or to — Israel. The language turns so extreme and one-sided that it becomes unfair and untrue. This undermines the possibility of honest criticism, which brings about self-correction and learning from each other. It is the very type of discourse that NIF rightly has protested when directed against it. So I write in the hope that my words will help Sokatch and NIF modulate their future language and play the constructive role they envision for themselves.

Sokatch starts with a legitimate critique. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett rightly condemned both the firebombing that killed a Palestinian father and his 18-month-old baby and the stabbing attack that killed a teenager at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem. But Netanyahu and Bennett have used discriminatory or violent language at other times, which is wrong. Sokatch cites Netanyahu’s panicky pre-election appeal to supporters because “Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes.” He cites Bennett’s comment that Arab terrorists should be killed in the course of being captured (so as to prevent trading imprisoned terrorists for kidnapped Israeli soldiers). Sokatch presents this as Bennett proposing “that suspected Palestinian terrorists be killed after capture…” That’s an unfair distortion of Bennett’s reprehensible idea, which needed strong, honest critique.

Sokatch also contrasted Bennett’s morally right calls — “to accept the other who is different” and to never tolerate a discourse “that leaves the impression that violence or murder is permissible” — with the presence on his Bayit Yehudi party list of a Member of Knesset who boasted that “he is a proud homophobe.” This is a proper, needed criticism. Had he stopped there, I would have written him a note of thanks for letting certain Israeli leaders know how upsetting their words are to decent, liberal American Jews.

But then, after citing violent language uttered by former foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Sokatch offers a grossly exaggerated distortion, condemning such discriminatory language as “the dominant political narrative in Israel today. It is divisive. It is violent. It is hate-filled. It is xenophobic.”

While it is legitimate to call out the use of such language by individual politicians, it is unfair to tar the whole Israeli political system and all the right-wing leadership with it. Especially since Israeli society has such a vigorous counter voice, including the free press and media, the opposition, and liberal/left-wing politicians.

Further, the article seems to ignore the fact that there is a systematic and mendacious campaign to delegitimize the state of Israel, one that would gladly co-opt his words to demonize the Jewish state.

The denunciation is all the more unjustified as it turns out that the West Bank firebombing appears to have been done by a member of a lunatic fringe which seeks to overthrow the state of Israel and set up a religious theocracy – a criminal act that is not simply an exacerbated response to politically inflammatory, extreme right-wing rhetoric.

I have noticed such a tendency to exaggerate in past NIF fundraising letters. Example: proposals to check the Israeli Supreme Court’s activism — which I also opposed and which were defeated – were presented as just about a “fait accompli” that would spell the end of Israel’s democracy.

I realize that such rhetoric energizes the constituent base and might well evoke more contributions. But given our common goal of strengthening Israel’s moderate leaders and the center voters – and given Israel’s exposure to relentless defamation — NIF and Sokatch, and all of us, must learn to speak with restraint and proportion to the issues and to the reality. Such precision of language is essential to generate a discourse about Israel, including healthy debate and critique among American Jews.

The left often complains that the right-wing and establishment try to suppress honest conversation about Israel. But demonizing language has the same effect against the right. I dream that NIF can not only learn and to correct its rhetoric but that it will come to use its unique credibility and power among the democratic left to persuade other groups to stop using distorted language.

Speaking respectfully and responsibly will raise the chances of being heard. It can enable Americans to help Israel handle a state of constant siege and unmerited international isolation. Such loving, accurate discourse – however vigorous — can strengthen Israel’s morale and democratic spirit.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a scholar and educator, is the founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.