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Havruta 8: “Engaging Israel: The Limits of Criticism”

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The issue explores the urgent subject of criticism and its boundaries

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"Engaging Israel: The Limits of Criticism"
 

By STUART SCHOFFMAN

 
Jews are hard-wired to be critical. Abraham frowned on God’s leveling of Sodom, calling it an unjust act. Miriam and Aaron disapproved of their brother Moses’ non-Hebrew wife, challenging his leadership. And of course there is Mr. Rabinowitz, older than Methuselah, who demands to be transferred from St. Luke’s Hospital to Mount Sinai. He arrives at Mount Sinai, the doctor takes his history, wants to know why he demanded to be transferred from St. Luke’s. The doctors there were no good? "They were good." The food? "It was OK, I can’t complain." The nurses? "They were nice, can’t complain." Then why on earth did you demand to be moved to Mount Sinai? "Because here," says Mr. Rabinowitz, "I can complain."
 
Here, in the sovereign Jewish State, kvetching about Israel, criticizing its leaders and policies, its culture or lack of it, its rabbis and rabble-rousers, is a way of life, an art form, a national sport. Yes, there are those in this country who wish to curb criticism and dissent by legislative means, but they too are regularly skewered by a free and often feisty press. Here, in short, we can complain.
 
Elsewhere in the Jewish world, things today are not so simple. In North America, where freedom of speech is a cardinal tenet of the common creed, Jewish critics of Israeli policy are often reluctant to speak out, lest they be branded within the community as disloyal or naïve. And yet, it may fairly be asked, are there no limits to criticizing Israel? Where are the red lines? Can a civil conversation be carried out within wide parameters of acceptable opinion?
 
Readers of Havruta may recall an article (from Issue 4) about Solomon Ibn Verga, author of the historical text Shevet Yehuda, and Theodor Herzl, author of the State of Israel. Ibn Verga, writing in Hebrew in the early 16th century, argued that ostentatious Jews had provoked anti-Semitism in pre-Expulsion Spain, masking his criticism as a fictional dialogue (wrapped in a thick chronicle of Jewish suffering) between a Catholic king and his confessor. For his part, Herzl scathed opponents of Zionism as dishonorable and repugnant. (“We shall breathe a sigh of relief when we are completely rid of these people,” he wrote.) They scathed him back as a hustler who wanted to turn back the clock on Jewish emancipation in London or Vienna. Did Ibn Verga go too far? Did Herzl?
 
This new issue of Havruta, a product of the Engaging Israel Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute, is dedicated to an exploration of the urgent subject of criticism and its boundaries. In the interest of preserving the strength of Jewish collective life, Donniel Hartman seeks to remedy what he terms the “toxic discourse” around Israel by utilizing sociological categories to define which arguments are tolerable and which are beyond the pale. Noam Zion finds ample support for Jewish self-criticism, and even defiance of authority, within the biblical and rabbinic traditions. Rachel Sabath-Beit Halachmi examines the precise nature of tochecha – the religious obligation to reprove an errant fellow Jew – to determine when and how it ought to be exercised. Gil Troy suggests guidelines for responsible criticism on the part of Jews in the face of a global campaign to delegitimize Israel. Tal Becker explores the crucial topic of how seriously Jews should take criticism of Israel voiced by non-Jews. In an open letter to his friends on the Jewish right, Yossi Klein Halevi maintains that “a healthy people should appreciate its rival camps, each of which is attuned to different elements of the Jewish experience.”
 
All six of these writers are Jerusalem-based members of our Engaging Israel Team. The conversation is expanded in our Symposium, on the part of Israelis and American Jews – Deborah Lipstadt, J.J. Goldberg, Chaim Gans, Steven Bayme, Sharon Cohen Anisfeld and Larry Derfner – writers, teachers and scholars who have devoted much thought to this controversial subject. Finally, in our Afikoman section, Orr Scharf takes a close look at the influential Zionist thinker and activist Berl Katznelson, as he strove in the late 1930s to handle controversy within the Jewish community about the partition of Palestine, a subject that remains very much alive today.
 
In short, there’s much to ponder in this new issue. Let me leave you as well with a larger, enduring question: In the end, even in a conformist culture, can criticism ever be truly suppressed? In a seminal essay of 1941 called “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” the great German-Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) wrote as follows about purveyors of “heterodox views”: “[A] man of independent thought can utter his views in public and remain unharmed, provided he moves with circumspection. He can even utter them in print without incurring any danger, provided he is capable of writing between the lines.” If this be the case, there’s hope for us all, left and right alike, in Israel and the Jewish world.
 
Stuart Schoffman, a Fellow of the Engaging Israel Project, is Editor of Havruta

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