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What Does it Mean to be Pro-Israel?

Moment magazine’s latest issue has an interesting symposium on what it means to be pro-Israel today. Though some of the choices are bizarre (the contributors include two Palestinians, one of whom formerly advised the Palestinian Authority, and John Mearsheimer, author of the notorious “Jews-control-Washington” screed The Israel Lobby), other pieces are illuminating.

I found Hillel Halkin’s definition particularly helpful. But I’d like to add one thing to his list. Clearly, it’s okay to criticize any particular Israeli policy; Israelis do it all the time. But those with influence in the Jewish community, like rabbis or officials of Jewish organizations, also have an obligation to try to understand – and explain to his community – why Israelis might view the issue differently.

For instance, it’s perfectly acceptable to argue that Israel should withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines, or unilaterally evacuate West Bank settlements; I disagree with both positions, but they don’t make you anti-Israel. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Israel’s government also disagrees, as do most Israelis. So a pro-Israel leader can’t just say “this is what Israel must to do to bring peace” and stop there, leaving his audience to conclude that since Israel’s government thinks otherwise, it must be anti-peace. He must also explain to a community that quite genuinely might not know why Israelis are reluctant to take such steps –like the fact that every previous withdrawal has produced a surge in anti-Israel terror, or the fact that Palestinians’ insistence on a “right of return” and refusal to recognize a Jewish state leads Israelis to fear they still haven’t given up their dream of destroying Israel. He thereby shows that while Israelis, in his view, are misguided, they are not anti-peace. And that is critical – because an Israel that’s “anti-peace” is evil; an Israel that’s merely misguided is not.

This rule is even more vital in light of the current assault on Israeli policies that critics portray as “anti-democratic,” because to most American Jews, Israel’s democratic character is even more important than its positions on the peace process. Again, there’s nothing wrong with opposing any or all of the recent controversial legislation. But a pro-Israel leader cannot just assert that, say, proposed changes to the judicial appointments system are “undemocratic”;  she must also explain why many Israelis consider such changes essential: the fact that Israel is virtually the only democracy in the world where Supreme Court justices are chosen by unelected legal officials rather than the public’s elected representatives, or where sitting Supreme Court justices not only help choose their own successors, but actually have veto power over them; the fact that Israel therefore has one of the most monolithic courts in the democratic world; and the fact that it also has one of the world’s most activist courts, making the justices’ worldviews of paramount importance. She thereby tells her audience that even if a particular bill is flawed, Israelis aren’t “anti-democratic”; they are grappling with a genuine democratic concern.

The necessary information generally isn’t difficult to obtain; Israel now has several English-language news sites, including The Jerusalem Post, Israel Hayom and Ynet, that can usually be counted on to run multiple articles arguing both sides of any controversial issue (the main exception is Haaretz, where opposing views are few and far between). So all that’s needed is a bit of time and effort.

If a Jewish leader isn’t willing to invest that time and effort – if he would rather just slam Israeli policies as “anti-peace” or “anti-democratic” – then far from being pro-Israel, he is one of its worst enemies. For he is exploiting his own credentials as a Jew and self-proclaimed “lover of Zion” to convince others to hate the Jewish state.


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