Rebuking Israel is not a sin

Loyalty to Israel should not mean turning a blind eye to its failings.

When my parents used to catch me bunking class to go down to the snooker hall in Kentish Town, my plaintive cries of "but all of my mates were there too" cut no ice at all. "We're not talking about your friends - it's you we're concerned with" replied the united front that is my mum and dad. And the lesson stuck. Nowadays, when I watch the way that British Jewry refuses to criticise Israel for its oft-suspect policies, I can't help but apply the same logic that my parents used all those years ago. Who cares what the other "kids" are doing - in this case Hamas, Hizbollah, et al - it's our child we should be concerned with. Our 58 year old teenager Israel, who needs a few life-lessons in order to mature into the adult we all hope it will become. Spare the rod, spoil the child. Sitting around my parents' Friday night table on a recent trip home, the subject of criticising Israel was served up along with the hors d'oeuvres, and outlasted each course until it was time for the post-prandial whisky to be downed. Sparking the debate was the news that internecine war had broken out at a nearby synagogue, whose monthly magazine had been scheduled to include a piece critical of Israel, until certain community stalwarts intervened. The ensuing furore culminated in two long-standing bastions of the synagogue resigning their membership in disgust, and the publication of the offending article caused no end of bitter splits in the communal camp. As we went round the table expressing our opinions, it became clear that a generational divide was firmly in place. My grandparents had reservations about "any public criticism" of Israel - espousing rhetoric akin to that which counsels us not to air our dirty linen in public. One guest took this argument a step further, stating that "the only time when it's OK to criticise Israel is when Israel's image is good in the eyes of the world". He illustrated this point by saying that the last time that he had publicly censured Israel had been in 1998, when he was teaching at Berkeley. Israel had enjoyed a brief period of communal approval at this pre-second-intifada time - and apparently this was the only reason he had felt comfortable making disparaging remarks about the state. It was quickly pointed out to him that his reasoning flew in the face of logic - "so you're saying that the worse Israel behaves, the less you're allowed to criticise it" - to which he could only concur. Accepting that his stance was long on emotions and short on rationale, he shrugged as though to say "yeah, but this is Israel we're talking about..." And that's the essence of the problem. The seemingly moral, rational and fair individuals who I've grown up around in the Jewish community suddenly suspend their quest for truth and reason when it comes to the Holy Land. And it'll blow up in our faces if we carry on this way. For a start, we'll lose the trust of the international community if we continue trying to defend the indefensible. Instead of trying to turn the spotlight away from Israel and onto the enemies who surround us, it's time we acknowledged that Israel itself is far from blameless in the current conflict. It doesn't mean that we are being traitors, or playing into the hands of our foes - far from it. Instead, it would show that we are worthy partners for a process of understanding and peace, since we are able to put rational arguments above emotional ones, and place truth on a higher level of importance than "loyalty". I'm not comfortable with the argument that those loyal to Israel shouldn't criticise it, as I have been taught over and over during my formative years (although, fortunately, not at home). Loyalty does not mean turning a blind eye - the "spare the rod..." concept is central to my uneasiness. If we do not take the opportunity to educate Israel whilst it is growing up, we'll be left with a wild, unruly adult version in 50 years' time, totally oblivious to critique or censure - which many would argue Israel already is today. Secondly, British Jews should open their eyes and see that plenty of Israelis have absolutely no problem slagging off their own government and military without a second thought. Homegrown Israelis don't hush up their doubts over policies just because they're scared that the world is watching. Quite the opposite, in fact. They know that a public show of opposition to, say, house demolitions by the army, or the construction of the security fence, are in fact a great opportunity to show the world that not all Israelis think and act the same. Emboldened during the meal-time debate by a mixture of self-righteousness and Laphroaig, I made an impassioned speech to the table. "It is me - and other critics of Israel - who are the true Zionists, the true supporters of Israel. We help Israel to see its failings, rather than just lavishing praise upon it when times are good. We aren't fair-weather fans, who make a great fuss over the good deeds but then go quiet over the bad ones. Thus we are the ones who can hold our head up to the world and say 'deal with us - we're playing with a straight bat'". And it's true - the one surefire way to lose the trust of the international community is to be faced with black and call it white. Lying, or at least burying our heads in the sand, won't win us any respect. It was pointed out that it feels uncomfortable to be seen criticising "our own" - but that's not a good enough reason not to do it. Just as it pained my parents to punish me for skipping school and honing my snooker skills, they did it nonetheless, with an eye on the bigger picture. It was also mentioned by the older diners at our table that I didn't understand, because I didn't live through World War II and the creation of the state - and thus didn't get what Israel means to the Jewish people. "It is our bolthole, our refuge for when anti-semitism rears its ugly head..." I was told. But that's just it. It is our refuge, it is our country - fine. That's a given - and the state's not gonna disappear just because we criticise it when necessary. The opposite, in fact - in order for it to survive, we must give it the tools it needs to get on with its neighbours, to learn to play fair, and to merit respect in the eyes of the world. Later on in the conversation at dinner, my grandfather asked me if he had as much right to comment on Israel as an Israeli does. I replied that yes, he does - every Jew is a citizen of Israel (due to the right of return), though it's each person's choice whether they take it up or not. Israel, for good or bad, was given to each of the world's Jews in 1948 - and thus it is the responsibility of every one of us, wherever we may be, to stand up and tell it where it is going wrong, whenever the need arises.