Should American Jews in positions to be heard – communal leaders, writers, editors – refrain from criticizing Israel’s policies in public, or from publishing negative stories (i.e., the ‘racist rabbis letter’), for fear that others will take this critique and use it for anti-Semitic ends?
There are two halakhic rubrics under which this question can be addressed. The first is “pikuach nefesh”, the obligation to save lives, and conversely, to avoid endangering them. The second is the prohibition against “lashon hora” (evil speech), which includes a category of true defamation, and which I suggest is relevant to groups and nations as well as individuals.
With regard to true lashon hora, Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic has argued compellingly that the right to privacy in part stems from a right to be judged in proper context, and I think his thesis explains this element of lashon hora well. Negative stories about someone, even when true, will constitute the whole of that person’s image for the general public. They are therefore inherently distorting.
I think it is eminently reasonable to apply this argument, and extend it, with regard to the State of Israel. Many newspapers and websites, some maliciously and some unconsciously, are interested only in negative stories about Israel, and in some cases the entire goal is to foster a disproportionately negative view of Israel. An obvious analogy was the widespread publicity this year given to the threat of a crackpot Florida minister with a minimal following to burn the Qur’an, which created the impression that Qur’an burning was a common and broadly supported US practice.
With regard to pikuach nefesh, it should be obvious that one may not engage in speech that causes loss of innocent life; one may not, for example, shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, even if there is a fire, until the ushers are ready to initiate an orderly evacuation. And it is not unreasonable to argue that publishing some negative stories about Israel leads to the death of Israelis, whether by inspiring individuals to engage in acts of terror, or by making state acts of violence politically attractive, or by diminishing US support for Israel and thereby emboldening her adversaries.
On the other hand, lashon hora is permitted when it is “letoelet”, that is when it is essential for the accomplishment of a necessary end, and some Israeli policies can be plausibly (although not necessarily correctly) seen as posing threats to life. The wholesale application of these halakhic categories would ban not only American Jewish criticism, but also internal Israeli criticism of government policies and social mores. This is clearly impossible in a democracy, and would lead inevitably to massive corruption and abuse of power in any community.
I therefore think that it is best to argue that Jewish law generally sees political accountability as a sufficient “toelet”, and that when there is a political dispute as to which policy is best suited to create security and/or save lives, nothing is gained and much lost if the two sides employ halakhic rhetoric and accuse each other of ignoring “pikuach nefesh”. The irresponsible use of such rhetoric was a contributing factor to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.
What remains, then, is the question of whether the good of accountability extends beyond Israel to the American Jewish community. Here I understand well, and find powerful, the argument that Israelis are, in a real sense, voluntarily bearing a security burden that of right should be shared by Jews worldwide, and that as a result we need to be hypervigilant to ensure that we at the least do not add to that burden, and ideally lighten it somewhat.
At the same time, there is a sense in which the burden is shared, in that violent responses to real or imagined Israeli policies often take place in the Diaspora, whether Morocco, Argentina, Europe, or the US. In that regard American Jews are legitimate stakeholders in Israeli policy decisions, beyond their general interest as citizens of Israel’s closest and most important friend. Furthermore, American Jews donate large sums of money to and form alliances with Israeli institutions, and they are entitled to do so on the basis of accurate information.
Now if these were the only considerations, I think a fairly solid consensus could be developed that allowed the publication of criticism and negative stories, but imposed duties to convey maximum context, to limit exposure outside of the world of legitimate stakeholders, to publish only if other channels were unlikely to be effective, and to measure ends and means carefully. People would disagree about how to apply those criteria, but there would be general agreement in principle.
The real controversy, I think, is about the publicizing of negative stories or criticism with the deliberate intention of thereby affecting United States policy, specifically by directly or indirectly diminishing support among United States officials for a current policy of the Israeli government. In such cases, the information can reasonably be thought to be aimed directly at those most susceptible to believing a distorted image of Israel, and at a population with a less immediate stake in the fate of Israel. United States citizens and officials have a right to an accurate portrait of Israel, but sometimes an overemphasized accurate detail adds up to nothing but caricature.
Furthermore, there is a fair sense that a segment of the American foreign policy community is not interested in an accurate portrait at all, but rather simply looking for opportunities to diminish US support for Israel, whether for reasons of soft anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, or simply out of a belief that US support for Israel at the current level is strategically unwise.. At the same time, there is no reason to presume that Israel’s policy choices are wise, and it can reasonably be argued that in some cases generating US pressure to change policies is in the best interests of Israel.
The situation becomes even more complex when parts of the Jewish community mistrust each other’s motives and integrity. Thus I think that criticism of JStreet is often not really based on its public criticism of Israeli policy, but rather on the suspicion that this criticism is not rooted in genuine friendship and concern for Israel, but rather in a discomfort with being identified as Jews with unpopular Israeli policies. Here again context and proportion are crucial, and I suspect that J Street would be perceived more positively within the pro-Israel Jewish community if it were regularly seen investing significant resources in support of Israeli positions that enjoy consensus American Jewish support, and not only in opposition to positions currently unpopular in some quarters. The donation for rebuilding after the Carmel fire was a welcome nod in that direction.
Applying these guidelines and articulated questions with specific reference to the rabbis’ letter, I think that conveying the information was legitimate – the signatories were not isolated crackpots, but rather people with responsible positions, and we need to know which institutions produce and employ such irresponsible moral myopics. But at the same time, it was very important to note that they were generally limited to a narrow religious/political group, and that they drew rapid and withering opposition from more senior scholars across the religious spectrum. Furthermore, I think that legitimate suspicion would attain to someone who specifically sent a copy of this story to members of Congress with a history of hypersensitivity to charges of racism, especially if they did so in the effort to influence an issue related to Israel’s security position.
In summary, American Jews have greater privileges and greater responsibilities with regard to Israel than they do with regard to other countries. The privileges stem from, in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s terms, both fate and destiny – from the fact that we are inevitably affected by Israeli decisions, and from our decision to actively invest ourselves in Israel. The responsibilities stem from these and in addition from the reality that the lives of Israelis are unusually dependant in the perceptions of outsiders.