Sunday, April 11, 2010

On criticism of Israel

Watching Boston Legal the other day I observed a scene in which "Denny," the character of William Shatner (himself Jewish of course), accuses Israel of "overreacting" against Lebanon. In response, his Jewish girlfriend snaps "Are you saying Israel doesn't have the right to defend itself?" Denny answers: "Of course they do, but you don't blow up a country because you're mad." He is then "dumped" by his girlfriend over his unpalatably nuanced views on the Middle East.

Modern Israel, of course, was reconstituted in the aftermath of the worst genocidal episode in modern history. After centuries of wandering and harsh treatment, the attempted extermination of the Jews was obviously the last straw in demonstrating the need for a homeland of their own. Unfortunately, Israel has at times tended to use its inauspicious beginnings as licence to do whatever it wants, regardless of what international law might have to say about it, and those who criticize such excesses are told, à la Bush, that "we're at war" and "you're either with us or against us."

I have a hard time accepting that dichotomy. I'm clearly not "against" Israel, much less the Jews as a people. (Heck, I like to spend Friday nights in shul!) Indeed, I've often expressed my admiration for their perseverance in the face of pretty much unanimous adversity. The Jews are the great underdogs of European history and one cannot but respect that. But like a new superhero that is still learning its own strength, Israel needs to learn that it is no longer the underdog: it has considerable economic and military strength, unlike the Palestinians living under its rule, who are now the ones in really dire straits. So when I stick up for the Palestinians, it's for precisely the same reasons I've always stuck up for the Jews. So trying to tell me I'm an anti-Zionist for extending the same courtesy to Palestinians that I have in the past extended to Jews is rather like trying to eat one's cake and have it too. (We like it when you speak up for the underdog, as long as the underdog is us).

Take Israeli Apartheid Week. Apartheid isn't just a dramatic-sounding allegation. It has a meaning under international law, and arguments can be made that certain Israeli laws meet that definition. For those who disagree, the appropriate response is to form a counter-argument, not "zomg how can you harrass Jewish students you Shoah-denying anti-semitic assholes?" The even better response would be to acknowledge that notwithstanding our affection for Israel, all governments err, and Israel continues to occupy Palestinian areas and deny its inhabitants labour and mobility rights. Instead some seem to think that the only two possible positions on Israel are "impostor state that needs to be wiped off the map" and "perfect people doing God's work and above the law." Everyone in the international community hates on the US when they take that tone, so when I have the exact same reaction to Israel doing so, it's weird to assume that it must have something to do with Judaism.

Like Denny's girlfriend, some people seem to continue to believe that the world is made up of uncomplicated "good guys" and "bad guys." Most of us, however, learn as adults that people cannot be divided so straightforwardly, and that has nothing to do with being anti-semitic. I have criticisms of Israel, sure - and of Canada, and the Vatican, and Palestine. I don't hate it though, any more than I hate any of those other countries - indeed I probably have fewer reservations about Israel's behaviour than about Palestine's. But a tu quoque doesn't resolve the problems facing the Middle East. If we keep using being shot at as a pretext to shoot back, the shooting will never end.

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