I no longer identify as 'pro-Israel,' and neither should you – opinion

By identifying under the label of “pro-Israel,” we have legitimized, albeit subconsciously, the idea that calling for the dismantling of the world’s only Jewish state is perfectly fine. It’s not.

Israeli flag is seen. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Israeli flag is seen.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
I went to a predominantly non-Jewish elementary school. Of the 50 children in my grade, only a handful were Jewish. Antisemitism was non-existent. In fact, neither our Jewish identity nor Israel were discussed outside of our weekly Jewish studies classes, which were conducted separately from other classmates. Bucking the trend at 12 years old, I gave a presentation to my class titled “The Arabs vs Israel.” I still laugh at that title today. Simple, right? These were two of the many blessings of childhood: ignorance and simplistic perspectives on issues.
The message to my classmates – many of whom were probably hearing the words “Israel” and “Arab” for the first time – was clear: you either support the Jewish state’s right to exist or you oppose it. In other words, you either fall into the “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” camp. While this dichotomy seems reasonable, our community’s adoption of a pro-Israel stance and widespread use of this term has had unintended and dangerous consequences.
Just like “pro-life” and “pro-guns,” the term “pro-Israel” suggests that something is up for debate. That “something” is Israel’s very existence. By identifying under the label of “pro-Israel,” we have legitimized, albeit subconsciously, the idea that calling for the dismantling of the world’s only Jewish state is perfectly fine. It’s not, and the language needs to change to reflect that.
As a religious Jew who wears a kippah and tzitzit, I stand out at university. It should come as no surprise, then, that I receive questions about Israel. What never ceases to amaze me, however, is that the question is always a variation of “what do you think of Israel” or “are you pro-Israel.” My question to them is: Why? Why are they not asking for my opinion on Israel’s settlement policies, or the situation in Gaza or the fact that the prime minister is on trial for corruption charges?
One could suggest that there is exceptional ignorance vis-à-vis Israel, and students lack the knowledge or confidence to raise specific issues. Whilst this is certainly true, I believe it has far more to do with our use of the “pro-Israel” label than students’ knowledge – or lack thereof – of the region. Lack of understanding of the political situation in the US does not prevent students from picking on US President Donald Trump for specific issues. Yet when conversation turns to Israel, time and again, it concerns Israel in its entirety. It behooves us to change the direction of that conversation, and we can start by changing our language.
Terms such as “pro-guns” and “pro-life” make perfect sense. They split us into distinct groups – those who oppose gun laws as strict as those in Australia, and those who oppose abortion. Not only is it the very issue itself that is up for debate, but there are legitimate positions on both sides.
So why should I accept the same language for Israel? By carrying the “pro-Israel” label, I bring Israel’s very existence into the same category as abortion and gun control. I’ve never met someone who is pro-America, pro-England or pro-Norway. Why? Because their legitimacy and right to exist are never questioned; that would be ludicrous. Yet since I was 12, I’ve placed that label on Israel.
This is not to say that criticizing Israeli governmental policies is beyond the pale. I am a harsh critic of many of the current government’s decisions, and I have no doubt I will be a critic of the next government too. Healthy criticism is vital in preventing a country from stifling itself in its own smug certainties. But when did criticism of individual policies equate to delegitimizing a country to the point where we question its right to exist?
By identifying as “pro-Israel,” we legitimize the idea that Israel itself is up for debate. For 72 years we have unknowingly been validating the anti-Israel movement. For 72 years our self-identification as “pro-Israel” has sent a subliminal message to those on neutral ground – the overwhelming majority of the public – that being anti-Israel is okay. After all, if there’s a pro-Israel movement, why can’t there be one that’s anti-Israel?
The idea of confessing to my university class that I’m “pro-Israel” fills me with dread, yet this is purely because I know that my identification with those two words creates an impression amongst others that calling to dismantle Israel – the dismantling of my people’s guarantee against another genocide – is a perfectly moral stance.
The next time I’m asked by a university classmate about Israel, I want it to be about a specific policy. But for that to happen, we must signal to the world that to oppose Israel in its entirety is an illegitimate, bigoted, antisemitic stance. Israeli governmental policies should be up for debate, not Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
I’m not naive enough to think that this will scare away the virulently antisemitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, but by reshaping the language of the debate toward Israeli governmental policies – rather than Israel as a whole – we can go a long way to creating a new mentality towards Israel.
Matti Friedman argues that Israel was “ground zero” for the woke culture pervading Western nations. It’s time to create a new ground zero for reshaping the language surrounding Israel.
I’m dropping the words “pro-Israel” from my vocabulary. You should, too.
The writer is an active member of the Melbourne Jewish community, and is involved in informal education.