Last week we heard that Roger Waters, the legendary bassist of Pink Floyd, wrote an open letter to musicians calling for a cultural boycott of Israel. The letter led to the expected reactions on all sides. BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) supporters consider Waters a hero, while supporters of Israel have responded defensively. And of course, there has been no shortage of name-calling on both sides. Is Roger Waters simply an anti-Semite whose criticism is easily dismissed? Is there any truth to his criticisms?
The shouting match is so intense that decent people reasonably wonder what to do. The leaders of the BDS movement have noted that they are calling for non-violent protest. Why do Israelis and Jews generally react so defensively against BDS? Here’s why: calls for boycott will not solve the problems between Jews and Palestinians. Simply calling for boycotts and making blanket accusations not only will fail to solve the deep issues separating the groups, but will also hinder the dialogue and understanding needed to address them.
Despite accusations to the contrary, Israel is not an apartheid state. Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises that the State "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective or religion, race or sex." Israel’s Supreme Court, particularly, has protected the rights of the country’s minorities for decades.
However, despite even the Court’s efforts, the reality is that many Muslim and Christian Palestinians do not experience equality in Israel. There are historical and practical explanations for the differences in treatment, and there are many Arab-Israeli Palestinians who have benefited from Israeli citizenship. Still, Israelis know that there is a long road ahead before achieving both justice and peace.
So what is wrong with calls for boycott? The problem is that many of those calling for boycott appear to be more interested in condemning the entire State of Israel rather than addressing specific cases or policies. They are not friends of Israel. Jews and Israelis understandably hear these calls as having an agenda that extends beyond honest criticism.
For many outside Israel, there is generally a sense that one must choose sides in arguments about the conflict: I must unconditionally support my friend, and corresponding to this, I am expected to condemn the other side. This model is severely flawed. It only increases the number of enemies in the world; it does nothing to further peace and understanding.
Jewish tradition has a model of friendship that goes deeper than a simple, “you’re with me or against me” approach. The Mishnah teaches that one should "Make for yourself a teacher; acquire/buy for yourself a friend." (Mishnah Avot 1:7) Maimonides, like many readers of the Mishnah, wondered why the imperative to find a friend is so much stronger than the need to find a teacher. Even in the 12th century, Maimonides knew that true friends could not be bought. Why then does the Mishnah use the term kene (acquire/buy)? According to Maimonides, we have many kinds of friends. Some provide a service we need. Some make us feel good about ourselves. We trust these friends with all of our secrets, knowing that they will never betray us. A third category of friend is so important that s/he should be acquired by all means. This is the friend with whom we share the idea of "the good," who can criticize us and make us better versions of ourselves. We trust that this friend cares first and foremost about our well-being. For this reason we are willing to risk some vulnerability, believing that we will become better and stronger in the process.
If a person who is critical truly wants to help me change, s/he must care about my well-being. If I trust that is so, then I will be able hear and accept the criticism. Self-examination by the critic is important here. What is motivating the criticism? In the case of Israel, is the criticism about a particular policy or about something broader? Is the goal of the criticism (for example, making life better for Palestinians) best accomplished through such statements? Is the policy in question unique to Israel? Do I challenge problems such as racism elsewhere? Do I speak out against attacks on Christians in Syria and Egypt, for example?
The rabbis in the Talmud recognized that criticism is a tricky business. Rabbi Tarfon wondered if there was anyone in his generation who knew how to accept criticism, and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah retorted that he wondered if there was anyone who knew how to (properly) criticize (BT Arakhin 16b). Almost two millennia later, we are all still challenged to accept criticism, but also to give criticism in a way that can actually effect change.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with their season of repentance are part of our yearly cycle. We repent every year, because we are all flawed. While attacks by Roger Waters and others are not innocent or righteous, let us move beyond the automatic reaction of defensiveness. Let us resolve to recognize the inequities in Israeli society and policy and to make life in this land a fulfillment of the promises in our Declaration of Independence.