After seeing that Shimon Peres was nominated for the first Self Hating Jew award Ami Isseroff contacted me to say that Jews in the diaspora have no right to criticize the government if Israel, especially in public (Sammy Gets Nominated for the Self Hating Jew Award) Rabbi Hershel Billet, a past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere disagrees with Ami. In last week’s Jewish Week he said that not only is it OK for American Jews to criticize Israel…it is an obligation:
On the eve of the Annapolis summit, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert let slip a testy remark about the relationship between diaspora Jews and Israel. “Does any Jewish organization have a right to confer upon Israel what it negotiates or not?” he asked. “This question was decided a long time ago; the government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel.” What was this all about? Hardly anyone disputes the Israeli government’s sole “right” to negotiate on Israel’s behalf. But Olmert apparently was objecting to the powerful expressions of opposition put forth by many American Jews to his positions at Annapolis. In other words, he objected to the “right” of American Jewry to have a say in Israeli policy. On this point, I respectfully disagree with the prime minister. His outburst may have been transient, but the sentiment expressed has been in the air for some time and warrants some consideration. This view seems to rest on several components: The Israeli government is the democratically elected representative of the citizens of Israel. It is the Israelis, not diaspora Jews, who experience first hand the security threats facing the Jewish state, who serve in the IDF, and who alone must live with the consequences of the government’s decisions. Moreover, the government has access to information and intelligence that diaspora Jews lack, and is in the best position to assess the challenges facing Israel and the best approach to them. Diaspora Jews should not meddle in these issues. There is much to be said for each of these arguments. Diaspora Jews’ public support for the state of Israel and its sovereign government should never waver, even if we are unhappy with the policies adopted by any given administration. I have always maintained that diaspora Jews, from whatever side of the political spectrum, should never take out ads against the Israeli government in the mainstream American and European media. I say this as a Jew who has had grave doubts about the Oslo Accords, the Wye agreements, and the disengagement from Gaza. We cannot be fair-weather friends, and must support Israeli democracy even when we feel it has gone down the wrong path. But this does not mean that it is forbidden to argue against policies — before they are adopted — that we believe are flawed, and which may have a negative impact on Israeli and diaspora Jews. Further, the intimate ways Israeli Jewry is connected with diaspora Jewry cannot be overlooked. The religious, liturgical and emotional links between diaspora Jews and cities like Jerusalem and Hebron are essential pieces of this puzzle, but I focus here on other, more tangible links. When tourists abandoned Israel during the second intifada, there were diaspora Jews who continued to come to Israel. Some were killed or injured in terror attacks. There were diaspora Jews who put themselves in danger by volunteering in the north during the second Lebanon war. Many visited Sderot regularly to express full solidarity with the residents of that beleaguered city. They tell Israel’s remarkable story to their non-Jewish fellow citizens and lobby on Israel’s behalf in the halls of government. Jewish students on college campuses defend Israel against the onslaught of a well-funded and powerful Arab campus lobby. They are the future leaders of diaspora Jewry. As a result, many American Jews were stunned to read that Olmert had invoked the word “apartheid” to characterize Israel, should it fail to make further withdrawals from Judea and Samaria. This is the kind of smear one expects to hear from enemies of the Jewish state. That the prime minister of Israel could allow himself to echo it suggests that even at this late date Israelis can allow their thinking to be warped by unremitting criticism, however specious, from so many corners of the world. The democratic confidence that American Jews can urge upon their Israeli brethren is a powerful and much-needed antidote to such defeatism. Who can honestly say that the government of Israel always knows what is best for Israel? Since the Oslo process was initiated, Israeli governments have made significant territorial concessions, provided the Palestinians with weapons, and withdrawn its army from their enclaves, all in the name of peace. Have we received anything resembling peace in return? To the contrary: we have seen an unprecedented rise in terrorism. And yet at Annapolis we apparently continue along the same path of land concessions and arms supplies to our weak, unreliable Palestinian “partner.” Ariel Sharon explained disengagement, a policy that contradicted his long-held personal views and platforms, with the caveat, “the view from the top is different from the view from the opposition.” Olmert has echoed that sentiment. But have we not learned the hard way that some precedents should not be followed? We live in the age of globalization. While we do not physically live in Israel, we virtually do. All of the news and sophisticated think-tank analyses are but a click away anywhere in the world. Diaspora Jews are a lot more savvy and familiar with Israeli realities than they once were. We need Israel in the same way we always did. But perhaps Israel needs us somewhat differently than in the past. Perhaps the rules of the game must change. And perhaps the time has come for Israeli prime ministers to realize that the view “from the top” is not immune to distortion. Rabbi Hershel Billet, a past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, is rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere.