Almost since the day the State of Israel was established, there have been American Jews of prominence who have criticized it. That’s a 69-year-old fact of life to which Israelis long ago became accustomed. But if an Israeli official dares to say something critical of American Jews, watch out: Hell hath no fury like an American Jewish leader scorned.
In countless op-eds, sermons, conferences, and petitions over the years, American Jewish critics have charged Israel with obstructing peace, mistreating various aggrieved parties, or embarrassing U.S. Jews. How many times have we heard the accusation that Israel’s policies are causing it to “lose its soul”?
But what’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander, as Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely recently discovered. She noted in an interview how difficult it is for some American Jews to appreciate the dangers Israelis face, since their own lives are much more secure. American Jewish leaders responded by demanding that MK Hotovely publicly apologize, or even that she be fired.
Hotovely is not the first Israeli leader to find herself in such a situation. In 1949, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion remarked that Israel was hoping for large-scale immigration by young American Jews. U.S. Jewish leaders were livid. American Jewish Committee president Joseph Proskauer threatened to withhold financial contributions from the new state. AJC chairman Jacob Blaustein flew to Israel and, according to the AJC’s authorized history, spent eight hours “alternately cajoling and threatening” Ben-Gurion until the prime minister agreed to publicly back down.
A decade later, Ben-Gurion ruffled American Jewish feathers by citing the Talmudic statement that a Jew who lives outside of the Land of Israel is “considered as one who does not have a God.” (Ketubot 110-b) American Jewish leaders exploded in fury. The Zionist Organization of America accused Ben-Gurion of “impugning the religious faith” of all diaspora Jews. B’nai B’rith charged the prime minister was trying “to negate 2,000 years of diaspora Jewish existence.”
Israel could not even catch a Nazi war criminal without catching flak from some American Jewish leaders. The president of the World Jewish Congress publicly criticized the Israeli government for putting Adolf Eichmann on trial; the Central Conference of American (Reform) Rabbis denounced Israel for sentencing Eichmann to death.
Criticism of Israeli policies became a regular feature of U.S. Jewish communal life beginning in the 1970s. Officials of various Jewish organizations criticized Israel over (among other things) Jewish housing construction in the territories, the negotiations with Egypt, the Lebanon War, possible changes to the “Who is a Jew” law, and the Jonathan Pollard affair.
When an Israeli cabinet minister suggested, in 1980, that American Jews should actively oppose U.S. pressure on Israel, Jewish leaders accused him of being “strident” and “interfering in American Jewish affairs.” The American Jewish Congress criticized Israel’s conduct in the inquiry into the death of a captured Arab terrorist (1986). The Union of American Hebrew (Reform) Congregations declared that Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s tactics in combating Arab rioters “betray[ed] the Zionist dream” (1987). B’nai B’rith lambasted Israel for insisting that intifada violence halt before Palestinian Arab elections could be held (1989). The Anti-Defamation League chastised Israel for not implementing electoral reform (1990).
Over the past four decades, numerous American Jewish organizations have been created to advocate positions that often are at odds with those of the Israeli government. A partial list of such groups includes Breira, the Shalom Network, Americans for Peace Now, New Jewish Agenda, the Committee of Concerned American Jews, the Jewish Peace Lobby, Project Nishma, American Jews for Responsible Advocacy, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and J Street.
Recent weeks have seen particularly vehement criticism of the Israeli government by American Jews. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, criticized the government’s position on prayer arrangements at the Western Wall as “a betrayal”; yet Rabbi Jacobs now is demanding that the deputy foreign minister be fired for criticizing some American Jews. Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, has forthrightly expressed his view of the Israeli government’s stance on the Western Wall; yet now he is denouncing MK Hotovely for expressing her view of American Jews.
For nearly seven decades, prominent American Jews have publicly criticized the Israeli government when they felt strongly about a particular issue. And every once in a while, an Israeli official has said something critical about American Jews. The willingness to criticize, and be criticized, is an integral component of a mature, healthy Israel-diaspora relationship. The “off with their heads” approach of demanding public apologies or even firings represents an extreme overreaction to what is nothing more than the free exchange of opinions.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author or editor of 18 books about Jewish history and Zionism, including The Historical Dictionary of Zionism, coauthored with Chaim I. Waxman.