Ironically, I was inspired to write this essay while gazing at Israel across the Dead Sea, knowing that by writing this essay, I might, like Moses, never reach Israel at all.
In parallel processes a world apart, not only is Congress debating the merits of a bill that would criminalize criticism of Israel, but Israel has now acted on recent law to bar entry to foreign activists - even a rabbi - who have voiced support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
To many, BDS seems at best unfair, and at worst anti-semitic. On the one hand, many ask why target Israel, when there are many states with similarly egregious human rights records (and especially more overt discrimination against women and LGBT citizens). In turn, many defenders of Israel invoke the rhetorical boogeyman of censorship, Nazism, or the hobbyhorse of “liberal hypocrisy.” If these tactics fail, many further muddy the waters with the assertion that Jewish critics of Israel are self-hating, that Gentiles simply can’t understand, or per hysterical neocons, that the fate of the free world hinges on Israel’s impunity.
It is worth considering the many syllogisms embedded within these defenses, but they rapidly descend into the twinned evils of ethnic essentialism and exceptionalism - not to mention crying wolf, when there are actual Nazis in our midst. However, there is much to learn in considering why Israel is singled out today and particularly why Americans of all stripes are so invested in Israel. By the same token, we should ask why BDS is the subject of such outsize scrutiny, including criminalization, financial consequences, or even the outright elimination of free speech.
Beyond long-standing investment in the “Holy Land,” the ideological entwining of Israel and America shouldn’t be surprising, since American economic, political and military largesse are largely responsible for Israel’s creation and endurance. Given the current devaluation of expertise, it is worth noting that Truman’s decision to recognize Israel came as a surprise to the State Department, since its officers had otherwise offered impassioned recommendations not to unilaterally recognize Israel. Presciently, the State Department’s experts understood that to create Israel as ardent Zionists proposed would instigate a refugee crisis (of Palestinians) out of another refugee crisis (of European Jews), destabilize the Middle East for the foreseeable future, and jeopardize America’s security and reputation.
Since then, America has largely remained Israel’s champion, yet we do well to take stock of the particular chumminess of Trump and Bibi, since these leaders rely on fear, democracy for only a Chosen few, disdain for the rule of law, and myopic narcissism that puts the self first – at all costs.
In fairness, Israel often is a straw person, distraction, and foreign punching bag that distracts from criticism that might equally be leveled against the United States. To take stock of this connivance, Americans must reckon with our history and ourselves - hence, why some seek to make such reckoning verboten. In particular, this critique enables, not necessarily anti-semitism, but rather clarity: that the United States, like Israel, is fundamentally built on the violence of indigenous dispossession. The US similarly supports a bloated military and militarized police forces, which in both states result in disproportionate death among those deemed undesirables - whether Palestinians, non-Ashkenazi Jews, the poor, or People of Color.
Israel matters so much because it reflects America at its best and worst. It is in Israel that we are reminded of ourselves, particularly those shameful aspects of American history we’d prefer to ignore: the intransigent anti-semitism on display in Charlottesville, the endurance of racism that means all men are not created equal, the settler colonialism and imperialism we thought otherwise relegated to the past, as well as “freedom” and “democracy” predicated on exclusion.
For those of us privileged by these systems, it is of course much more pleasant to bury our heads in the sand. I would be remiss if I sidestepped the degree to which my person and critique are, in fact, enabled and emboldened by these systems. However, to suggest that Israel - or the United States - is unable to withstand critique is to completely misunderstand these states’ relationships to power.
That said, even as more of the country recognizes the need to challenge white supremacy, we must still acknowledge the existence of anti-semitism past and present, as in the heartbreaking voyage of the St. Louis or chronic popularity of the bogus Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Nonetheless, we must demand closer scrutiny than the sloppy assumption that critique of Israel is categorically anti-semitic, or more importantly that anti-semitism is a singular practice through time.
I criticize Israel and the United States, because I believe in the emancipatory power of the democratic ideals that subtend both states, but recognize that these ideals are not reality. I cannot in good conscience silence critique of Israel, because today in particular, we cannot afford to stifle critical thought and introspection, as well as the prerogative of speaking truth to power. Honest accounting, however painful, will help both the US and Israel understand the facility with which even the oppressed can become the oppressor, and the degree to which the stories we tell often willfully blind us to our own implication in practices we theoretically condemn. Moreover, critique allows us to parse different kinds of power, different kinds of danger, and to see the world as it really is – in which, for instance, BDS is by and large less radical than the Israeli Left.
The issue here is not, in fact, critique but whether we create space for confronting the truth even when that means sobering self-reflection. By training our incisive lenses to embrace complexity and tension, we realize that the goal of this critique is fundamentally normative - not to discredit democracy, but to serve it. Moreover, through facing rather than shunning the truth, we see that our most cherished principles are a foundation and destination, requiring constant vigilance, commitment, effort and expansion.
BDS is simply one means (even if not an ideal one) to pressure us to abide by the rule of law – and acknowledge that we are no better and no worse than any state yet to fully enact those principles at the symbolic core of its being. What remains to be seen - and what matters - is if we have the fortitude to confront ourselves, warts and all, in order to form a more perfect union. Rather than place the burden of proof on victims, however, we must insist on nuanced reasoning that challenges ourselves as much as others. God-willing, these revelations will enable us to better see ourselves (and in turn, see more “others” as ourselves), in the service of forging a more courageous and just world.