Beware of BDS derangement syndrome

"We cannot ignore how our words and actions sound. Israel’s leaders must take responsibility for how democratic Israel looks when it behaves thuggishly."

Anti-BDS poster (photo credit: JWG LTD)
Anti-BDS poster
(photo credit: JWG LTD)
Acting like the Minister of Strategic Blunders, not Strategic Affairs, Gilad Erdan is foolishly trying to bar a 22-year-old American, Lara Alqasem, from studying in Israel. Watching innocents get bullied and marginal journalists become free-speech martyrs, all you can do is sigh. Healthy democracies don’t fear critics. If liberals are suffering from TDS (Trump derangement syndrome) and BDS (Bibi derangement syndrome), too many right-wing Zionists are suffering from BDS-DS – BDS derangement syndrome.
“I have no trouble with my enemies,” US president Warren G. Harding complained, as corruption scandals engulfed his administration. “I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my god-damned friends... they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights!”
Fanatics feed off one another, losing their effectiveness along with their tempers. Israel should help students fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, but harassing tourists will backfire. Why fight boycotts by boycotting marginal boycotters?
Similarly, we need patriotic liberal Zionists joining pro-democracy, pro-decency coalitions countering the anti-Arab, undemocratic and un-Zionist demagoguery in some municipal campaigns. But if those liberals indulged in sloppy, sweeping Bibi-bashing, or couldn’t thank Donald Trump for moving the US Embassy to Israel’s chosen capital, they’re toxic allies who sap constructive critics’ credibility, not valuable friends.
We cannot ignore how our words and actions sound. Israel’s leaders must take responsibility for how democratic Israel looks when it behaves thuggishly. Liberal Jews must take responsibility for bashing Israel, excessively, obsessively.
Last month, a Washington, DC, rabbi gave a heartfelt Kol Nidre sermon about Israel. He hailed Israel as “an inspiration for unlocking our own creative Jewish impulses,” insisting: “We cannot stray from our Zionist path without abandoning all that is good.” Alas, the rabbi upstaged his poetry – and propelled his congregants further from the Zionist path – by demonizing Israel’s government and its “vehement, ultra and ugly nationalism.” With no subtlety, he branded “the current government... profoundly anti-Zionist” and Trumpified Israel.
He reaped predictable rewards.
The sermon inspired a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank. Overlooking his rabbi’s salutes to Israel, Milbank blasted “Netanyahu’s moves toward authoritarianism and away from negotiated peace.” The result, the headline over Milbank’s hit piece: “American Jews are Watching Israel in Horror.” Clearly, for his lovely liberal congregants, the categorical hatred of Israel’s government upstaged the rabbi’s love of the state.
Ultimately, this isn’t a story for the media bashers, the “woe is me, the world hates us” complainers about media bias – much as that’s a problem. And we don’t want sha-shtillers, worrywarts who fear criticizing anything Jewish or Israeli. Instead, I’m challenging thoughtful, passionate Zionists, left and right. When you detain a harmless student, don’t act surprised by the blowback. And when you address liberal American Jews, don’t act surprised when they overlook complexity, then walk away feeling only “horror.”
I leave it to theologians – or psychologists – to explain why so many rabbis wasted their biggest audience of the year by thumping Israel or Donald Trump. It’s a gimme, a moral abdication. Why finger-point on breast-beating day? Isn’t Yom Kippur for self-criticism, not self-righteousness?
Speakers must take responsibility for what they say and how it’s heard. Once, when Mario Cuomo was governor of New York, he delivered a typical podium-pounding, spellbinding, roof-raising speech denouncing the death penalty. Afterward, someone patted him on the back and yelled: “Attaboy guv – fry the bastards.”
The guy liked Cuomo. He figured anyone that appealing had to be on his side. Of course, Cuomo’s was a misunderstanding you cannot control. But when speaking to American Jewish liberals these days, you know most are so outraged by Donald Trump, so frustrated with Bibi, and so many are so distant from their Jewish roots that they’re primed to hear the negative and ignore any complexity. Why make it easier for them to walk away?
You don’t shout “Fire” in a crowded theater, and Jewish patriots shouldn’t blindly bash Bibi-Trump to liberals, unless they wish to further rabble-rouse against Israel. Just as right-wing demagogues must take responsibility when they demonize minorities and then hooligans lash out, liberals must take responsibility when they exaggerate Israel’s faults and then progressives jump ship.
The rush one gets from feeling so virtuous by cursing such demons better be worth it, because it comes at a great cost. Fanatics from both camps are ruining one of the greatest Jewish identity building blocks of the modern era – a nonpartisan, non-oppressive, non-demonized Israel. Why poison that well?
I’m not saying don’t criticize Israel’s government – just do it intelligently, with a stiletto, not with the “Mother of all Bombs.” I’m not saying don’t defend Israel’s borders from possible traitors, just do it intelligently, as a sniper, not a flamethrower.
Our punchline- and headline-oriented Twitterverse abhors subtlety, complexity, but democratic politics needs them. I hate boycotters. But, even more, I hate our obsession with BDS and how it makes some of us behave crudely. And I love my liberal American Jewish partners and want to learn from them and with them, but as loving critics, not as hateful, burn-the-house-down radicals.
One of my new brothers in Zionism, Rabbi Sharon Shalom, speaking at our Zionist Salon in the Tel Aviv Sukkah, noted that “in our history, whenever we have let despair upstage hope, we have suffered.” But, this man who came to Israel from Ethiopia alone as a nine-year-old said, “whenever we have let hope upstage despair, we have thrived.” Extremists peddle despair; Zionism has always peddled hope, “Hatikvah.”
Neither the government nor its critics should give up on that strategy – or on us.