What Does It Mean to Support Israel?

In a recent piece about Israel, I chose the deliberately provocative title, "Why I No Longer Support Israel." I did so because of America's unwavering support for Israel. Republicans and Democrats rarely agree on anything, but they all claim to love America and to love Israel. We hear no such whole-hearted love pronouncements or regular vows of support for France, Canada, or any other allies.

That piece started a veritable cyber fire, eliciting over 900 comments and 8,000 "likes," many more than for anything else I've ever written online. However, most comments were negative, and most "likes" were for comments critical of my perspective.

Some misinterpreted what I said, but I also learned from thoughtful comments, and if I had to do it over, I would express a few things differently. We don't often get a second chance. I'm taking one here, and I'll break the comments into 7 general categories and respond to each.

Comment 1: If you don't support Israel, then you oppose Israel's right to exist.

My Response: I no longer support Israel in the same way I no longer support President Obama. I enthusiastically supported and voted for him in 2008, but I was disappointed by much of what he then did and didn't on key issues that mattered to me. Nevertheless, I voted again for Obama in 2012 because I preferred him to alternatives like Romney, Huckabee, Gingrich, Santorum, Trump, and others. While human rights violations in Israel are significant enough for me to withhold support today, I acknowledge that Israel gives more human rights to its citizens than does any other country in the region. I do support Israel's right to exist and I hope all those countries will one day recognize the right of everyone in every country to exist in peace.

Comment 2: Go live in a Muslim country.

My Response: I was told to move to Iran, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, where I would presumably lose my head. I also received a number of positive comments from Muslims because of my criticism of Israel. They are probably unaware of far more critical pieces I've written about Muslims. See, for instance, here and here.

Comment 3: You are a self-hating Jew.

My Response: Very puzzling. Non-Jews who criticize Israeli policies are often unfairly (but sometimes fairly) called anti-Semites. I guess the equivalent for a Jew is "self-hating." Some said I was trying to pass for a Gentile so I could fit into society. Before making that judgment, I recommend they read my book, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.

Comment 4: You can no longer be a Jew because you are an atheist.

My Response: By that criterion, here are some Israeli heroes you would exclude from being Jewish: David Ben-Gurian, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, and Albert Einstein, who was asked to become president of Israel. Many more secular Jews than Orthodox Jews live in Israel. I'm a proud member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, consisting of atheist Jews and atheist rabbis.

Comment 5: You would have told Jews in 1933 to stay in Europe and make their own country better.

My Response: This is more nuanced. When to improve a country and when to leave? Many European Jews, unfortunately, made the wrong decision in the 1930s -- and stayed. I know there is anti-Semitism in parts of Europe today, but there's a difference between anti-Semitism and perilous conditions for Jews. If possible, I'd prefer that Jews bring diversity and promote social justice in other parts of the world rather than isolate themselves in a Jewish ghetto or a Jewish country.

Comment 6: You shouldn't criticize Israel because you don't know the country.

My Response: Perhaps, but sometimes outsiders can bring worthwhile perspectives. I've given mathematics talks in Israel at the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University (an Orthodox institution). I also corresponded with an eminent math professor from the Technion in Israel, Elisha Netanyahu. At the time, I had not heard of his nephew Bibi. I went on a study tour of Israel in 1999 as part of a Jewish Studies program at the College of Charleston, where I was teaching. I had ample opportunity to talk to Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians, and heard a variety of perspectives. The secular in each constituency gave me hope for peace in the region.

Comment 7: Your Gentile wife ruined you.

My Response: I gained insight from pejorative comments about my wife, Sharon, though not what writers intended. I thought about how politicians sometimes become outraged (or feign outrage) when a family member is criticized. This often provides an opportunity for a politician to deflect reasonable criticism about himself and focus on inappropriate attacks on his family. Sharon enjoyed reading the unintentionally humorous remarks about her. I saw in my own family the displeasure of my marrying outside the tribe. When I told an aunt that Sharon and I were both atheists, she asked, "So, why couldn't you marry a Jewish atheist?"

In conclusion, I don't know how best to attain both peace and security in Israel. Religion isn't the only problem, but it's a significant one. Many Orthodox Jews oppose exchanging land for peace because God made a covenant with Abraham's son Isaac to give Israel to the Jews. Many Muslims oppose land for peace because God made a covenant with Abraham's other son Ishmael to give that same land to the Muslims. And many Christians oppose land for peace because God said his son wouldn't return until Jews have all that land, after which most Jews will be left behind when Christians are raptured into Heaven. Who can be optimistic about peace when so many "holy" people are killing others in the name of a god in the real estate business who overpromised the so-called holy land? My solution is a paraphrase of a John Lennon peace song: "All we are saying, is give secular a chance."