Ira Chernus
 
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

I CRITICIZE ISRAEL BECAUSE I AM JEWISH

"Yes, but what about the Palestinians?" That is a question I always hear when I criticize Israelís policies. Why point the finger of blame only at Israel? Why not criticize the Palestinians too? Donít you want to be even-handed? Supporters of Israeli policy often make criticism of Palestinians a litmus test. "I might listen to your critique of Israel," they seem to say, "but only if you first prove your loyalty by criticizing the Palestinians."

This is a serious problem for the many Jews who are disturbed, even appalled, by Israelís actions in the West Bank. They want to voice their concerns. Yet they want to be fair. They fear that if they speak only about Israel, their words will be unbalanced, unjust, and unheard.

The desire to be even-handed is surely understandable. But it has kept too many well-intentioned people from speaking out. "How can I be fair if I donít know all the facts?", they ask. The more they investigate the facts, the more confused they become. What exactly is an even-handed position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How can the blame be assessed fairly on both sides? Such questions can paralyze the mind. As a result, many remain silent, feeling that they have no right to speak up because they have not found precisely the right way to be fair to both sides.

Jews and others in the U.S. who support Israelís policies have no such qualms. They are sure they know where the blame lies, and they shout their views loud enough to be heard all the way to Washington. The Bush administration has no reason to change its pro-Israeli tilt unless it hears a much greater outcry against Israeli excesses. That outcry would have an especially big impact if it came from U.S. Jews. As long as Jews are baffled by the problem of even-handedness and donít speak out, U.S. policy will not change.

Jews have another option. We could stop worrying about "the other side" and look solely at what our side, our own representative, the State of Israel, does. Many of us have not consciously chosen Israel to represent us. Yet Israel has always insisted that it acts on behalf of all Jews everywhere. All Jews bear a shared responsibility for Israelís actions unless we publicly proclaim: "Not in our name."

I criticize Israel, not the Palestinians, because I am Jewish, not Palestinian. I criticize Israel to encourage Jews to take responsibility for our own behavior, rather than casting blame across the border.

If our self-appointed representatives in Israel have done wrong, and if we have not stopped them, it matters not at all whether others have done wrong. It is not our task, nor our place, to tell others how to live their lives. Our task is to take responsibility for setting our own house in order. That is a full-time, lifetime job.

If we do that job well, we will probably find "the other side" taking a more peaceful course, too. There is no guarantee of that. But it does not matter. We have no control over what others do or the choices they make, in any event. We can control and be responsible only for our own choices. All our energies should be devoted to keeping ourselves on the path of truth and right. If we do that to the best of our abilities, we have done all we can do. Others must then make their own choices.

Pointing the finger of blame at "the other side" is an easy way to avoid the most painful task: scrutinizing ourselves, being fully honest about our actions and our motives. Those who cry "What about the Palestinians?" are usually trying to reject or deflect justifiable criticisms of Israeli policy. They look across the border because they are afraid to look in the mirror. The only way to resist this temptation is for Jews to focus full attention on Israel.

The great Hasidic master, Israel Baal Shem Tov, taught us, "If a man has beheld evil, it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent. For what is shown to him is also within him." Regardless of what Palestinians have or have not done, Israelís actions have inflicted a grievous moral wound on Judaism and the Jewish people. That wound will not be healed by finger-pointing accusations of the other. It will be healed only by sincere repentance. The first step in repentance is to acknowledge our own sins. Every moment spent dwelling on the sins of Palestinians is a moment stolen from that most urgent moral and spiritual task.


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