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After the Flotilla: Crisis and Opportunity

We do ourselves a disservice when we avoid introspection for lack of cause, and equally avoid it when criticism is manifest in fear that we will be seen as susceptible to pressure.
Photo: Yehuda/AdobeStock
Photo: Yehuda/AdobeStock
Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal Adviser

“Go back to Auschwitz.” Those were the chilling words reportedly transmitted by one of the “peace activists” on the Turkish flotilla last week. “We are helping the Arabs go against America” said another, “don’t forget 9/11.

As more and more facts emerge about what took place aboard the “Marmara,” the identity of some of its members, and their violent agenda, many Israelis and their supporters feel at once more vindicated and more outraged at the ferocity of the international criticism that was unleashed.

Last week, many Israelis felt – more palpably than in decades – that it was not only Gaza that was under a kind of siege, but Israel itself. Many were astonished not just by the hypocrisy and fury of Israel’s critics, but by the estrangement from some of its erstwhile friends. Israel, it seemed, belonged to a special category of “guilty before proven guilty,” with few friends coming to its defense.

It would be a mistake to focus on the incident last week off the coast of Gaza in isolation. The arguments about the methods used, the intelligence available and the tactical decisions made in interdicting the “Marmara” are legitimate, but they obscure more than they reveal about the greater significance of the incident.

It is the growing view of Israel as a “State beyond the pale” that is of greatest concern: an increasingly vocal number of former supporters and sympathizers, Jews and non-Jews alike, in whose eyes the Zionist project has become ever more embarrassing to associate with, ever more irreconcilable with liberal and humanist principles, and ever more costly to defend.

How did Israel get to this point? Why is it that Israel – alone among almost all nations – is called upon regularly to defend not just the wisdom of its actions but the reason for its existence? And why – even among Jews of the Diaspora – do many Israelis feel less understood and more isolated?

There is no single answer to these questions. Yes, part of it has to do with policy (which I promised myself not to write about), but only part. Another part has to do with forces and interests beyond the control of Israel and its supporters. But it is also true that many who care about Israel have tended to avoid confronting the claims raised by Israel’s harshest critics – those that challenge the very idea of Jewish statehood or use words like “apartheid” to describe it.

These arguments were not necessarily avoided out of neglect. Many feel to engage these arguments is to legitimize them, to facilitate the introduction of marginal, extremist positions into the mainstream. I used to feel this way myself.

Increasingly, however, the result of this inattention has been to embolden Israel’s most extreme detractors and to leave Israel’s supporters without adequate language or persuasive moral arguments to stand by their convictions, let alone defend them. Legitimacy begins at home, and if we want others to believe in the justice of our cause it is worth articulating why we believe in it ourselves.

In Israel, we are running a State and not a shtetl. Crying over the bitterness of our fate and how the world is against us will do little to change things. To be sure, there is no magic response to the threat of delegitimization. There will be no “Kodak victory moment” either. Israel has always had, and will always have, its detractors and its enemies. But the question is whether we have the imagination and the passion to develop a range of responses that prevent the advocates of delegitimization from dictating the agenda.

And, I would like to think, that there is a bigger question here, too. Can we, as a people, turn this threat into an opportunity? For years, many have spoken of the need to develop a richer, more unifying and more meaningful Jewish and Zionist identity that responds to the challenges of the 21st century. Jewish identity grounded on the Holocaust and persecution may have unified us in the past and generated widespread sympathy and support, but it is negative at its core and no longer resonates among newer generations.

Perhaps we will have the wisdom to see that Israel’s adversaries are turning the revival of Jewish and Zionist identity from an aspiration into an imperative. Perhaps their assault on Israel’s legitimacy can help renew our own dedication to Israel’s calling as a vibrant Jewish and democratic State, secure and at peace with its neighbors – a State that is a source of pride and meaning for Jews everywhere and a source of inspiration, leadership, and moral example for the world as a whole.

If we are to embrace this challenge as an opportunity, one of our objectives is to develop a language and a mind-set that matches the nature of the challenge itself. Three things in particular come to mind: we need to confront ideas with ideas, not with facts; we need to demonstrate to ourselves and to others that we are reasonable more than that we are right; and we need to remember that choosing self-analysis and self-improvement over self-righteousness is not about appeasing critics but about advancing our own Jewish interests and values.

Confronting Ideas with Ideas, Not with Facts

Too often, when we try to explain Israel or its actions we throw facts at ideas. Behind the arguments over any incident are a set of assumptions and beliefs in the furtherance of which facts are employed (or neglected). It is easy to focus on the facts in dispute without addressing the ideas and values that form the stage upon which the dispute is acted out.

This applies at the level of individual incidents like the Gaza flotilla, and at the level of larger fundamental debates, for instance over Israel’s establishment. We can argue about whether Israeli troops should or should not have boarded the “Marmara,” but unless we are confident in the conceptual rationale for the blockade, for Israel’s policy toward Hamas and for the cost that the civilian population of Gaza pays in this context, we are only dealing with the easy stuff.

Similarly, we can rightly blame Arab states for rejecting the 1947 Partition Resolution, but we must also be persuaded (and persuade others) of the universal moral legitimacy of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their ancient homeland for the fact of that rejection to have moral significance.

Since lurking behind much of the debate over Israel’s actions is a debate about Israel itself, we owe it to ourselves and our allies to be able to explain not only the continuing validity of the Zionist enterprise but also why the cost of defending it is worth paying, and the costs of abandoning it are not just much higher, but morally inexcusable and strategically catastrophic.

In other words, Israel’s policies require not only a political context but an ethical foundation. This is not because Israel’s critics will necessarily be persuaded by the force of our argument. It is because policies are generally politically sustainable when they are morally defensible. It is because Israel’s citizens, and its Jewish and non-Jewish supporters, will be most willing to support and defend policies that reflect more than just realpolitik or narrow self-interest. They need to know by what moral compass – by what set of compelling values – Israel’s policy is determined. And Israel’s leaders should aspire to articulate a vision and an agenda that commands respect before it demands loyalty.

It is More Important to Be Reasonable than to be Right

Sometimes, Israel’s supporters adopt a self-righteous, even indignant tone. They broadcast supreme conviction in the moral superiority of Israel’s actions, and disdain at the motives of its critics. We often hear that the IDF is the most moral army in the world or that no country faced with Israel’s challenges would respond with such restraint.

Whether or not these assertions are valid, this triumphant tone tends to alienate more than it persuades. The language of competition is misplaced here. The dilemmas that Israel faces are excruciating and more often than not there is no “right answer.” Israeli decision-makers are generally choosing between bad options, with limited information and subject to multiple domestic and international constraints. Governing happens not in a laboratory but in the space between what is possible and what is necessary – in the real, messy world of competing interests and clashing values.

What we need to know – and to demonstrate – is that the values and principles that we weigh in addressing these dilemmas are morally appropriate. We need not always be right, but we must always be reasonable.

Israel’s supporters – including Jews in the Diaspora – do not need to be convinced that Israel acted without error. More than having an airtight case, Israel needs to focus on inspiring confidence in the sincerity of its intentions, the morality of its motives, and the integrity of its actions.

There is nothing shameful in demonstrating a degree of humility about the magnitude of the challenges we face or acknowledging our limited capacity to dictate outcomes. It is a sign of courage, not of weakness, to concede that mistakes will be made.

Israel does not need advocates armed with talking points as much as it needs “character witnesses.” Even when the details of an incident are not known, even when in the first hours the pictures tell a disturbing story, Israel needs a reputation that gives it the benefit of the doubt. It needs for serious people to be able to testify to the country’s wisdom, reason, and moral integrity and to affirm with certainty that these qualities will be brought to bear in grappling with the painful dilemmas that Israel faces.

What Kind of Jewish State Do We Want?

It is so easy – too easy in fact – to write off much of the criticism that is directed Israel’s way. After the Goldstone Report and the flotilla incident – to mention only two recent examples – many Israelis’ natural reaction is to defend Israeli troops operating in impossible circumstances and to feel fury at the hypocrisy and selectivity of Israel’s critics.

We all know the drill. Our loudest opponents are often guilty of offenses far worse than those which Israel is accused of perpetrating. Some of those quick to call for investigations might be worth a little investigating themselves. So many of Israel’s critics fail to appreciate context, rely on questionable sources and superficial legal analysis and rush to judgment.

I will never quite understand the rage that Israel’s actions seem to inspire, when great atrocities in other parts of the globe – from Sudan to Sri Lanka – so rarely seem to attract attention or stir international emotions in nearly the same way. Somehow, it often seems that Israel’s democracy (admittedly flawed, much like all other democracies) is the cause célèbre of human rights activists the world over, while the region’s dictatorships get a free pass.

But this is not about the critics, it is about us. This is, first and foremost, a Jewish conversation. It is about what kind of Jewish State we want to have, the kind of partnership we want to create between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, the kind of relationship we seek with Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, with the Palestinian people, and with neighboring states, and the kind of collective contribution we wish to offer the world.

The fact that so much of the criticism against Israel is self-serving and hypocritical does not absolve us of the need to engage in this conversation. It does not free us of the obligation to pursue policies that protect our legitimate interests but also respect the legitimate interests of others. This is a duty we have to our better selves – as Jews, as Israelis, and as human beings – not to anyone else.

We do ourselves a disservice when we avoid introspection in the absence of criticism for lack of cause, and equally avoid it when criticism is manifest for fear that we will be seen as susceptible to pressure. We must avoid the trap that nations, like individuals, can fall into when they refuse to change, both when they are too strong because there is no need, and when they are too weak because it is too difficult.

For now, we can concede that attempts to articulate a rich, unifying, and relevant Jewish and Zionist identity for the 21st century have been feeble and half-hearted. But we should also remember that as a people we have the texts, the culture, the ingenuity, the tradition, and the opportunity to pursue this task with full vigor and intensity. In our history, there are few challenges we have not, in the end, found the inner resources and courage to overcome.

Could it be, as has often been in the past, that it will be our adversaries and our critics who will provide the catalyst for real change? Could it be that in a few years from now we will be able to thank those that challenged Israel’s very legitimacy for encouraging us to develop a sense of identity and collective mission that gave new meaning and new energy to an ancient people? Maybe it’s time we found out.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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