Any Love Unaccompanied by Criticism is Not Love at All: America, the UN, and the Future of Israel

As the Obamas exit and the Trumps enter, America’s and American Jews’ relationship to Israel are frazzling.

Several AC members expressed dismay about America’s abstention from a UN resolution critical of Israel and Sec. Kerry’s extremely blunt speech about whether the two-state solution has any future. Others are panicked that David Friedman will be America’s ambassador to Israel, given that his political and religious views align him roughly with the far-right Tekumah faction – a few steps to the right of Bibi Netanyahu.

As rabbi, I avoid trying to be a political pundit. I read Israel news intensely, but so do many of you. I claim no expertise about diplomacy or security policy. Still, I think it is appropriate to share some reflections on Jewish communal discourse and recent news.

First, about John Kerry and his speech, and the resolution. Israel has claimed that the US sabotaged them and prodded the UN condemnation, while the Americans deny this, and say they successfully moderated the text by adding demands on the Palestinians. I cannot say what is true on this point.

But in general, the Israeli government and some of its supporters have an unduly thin skin: every international critique is biased and implicitly anti-Semitic. That’s not so. Israel’s stated policy is to favor a two-state solution, yet it manifestly obstructs that path, and several government ministers and its UN ambassador explicitly disavow any Palestinian state. In such a context, is it so unreasonable for the US to very occasionally apply a little directed pressure? And while, yes, I view “East Jerusalem” differently than Hebron and Nablus, no UN resolution can force any Israeli negotiator to give up the Western Wall.

Regarding the speech: I know numerous American Jews were hurt by his bluntness. Many felt Kerry was unfair toward “the only democracy in the Middle East” while the region is in crisis. Netanyahu basically said: “worry about ISIS and Aleppo, not Amona and Susia,” settler outposts notable for stealing Palestinian land.

Personally, I agreed with every single word in Kerry’s speech. Every single word. The parts where he urged Fatah to condemn terrorism instead of valorizing it. The parts where he urged Hamas to build Gaza instead of building terror tunnels. The parts where he said that settlements are only a feature of the long-term conflict, not its source. (All there.)

And the parts where he reminded Israel that there simply is no way to square the circle of occupation, settlement, and military dictatorship with human rights and democracy. Israel needs to hear it. And from true and loyal friends. The only thing I would have added to Kerry’s speech is the Midrashic teaching [Bereshit Rabbah 54.3]: 

 עמה תוכחה, אינה אהבהכל אהבה שאין

“Any love unaccompanied by criticism is not love at all.”

Without ignoring any of Israel’s very real security concerns or the Palestinians cynical, craven failures to compromise, I can only endorse Kerry’s outline to end the conflict: two states for two peoples, with real borders, real security, equitable sharing of the holy city Jerusalem and accommodations for Palestinian refugees that do not change the Jewish character of Israel. Looks a lot like the “People’s Voice” plan that Admiral Ami Ayalon and Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh propounded some 15 years ago, winning 250,000 Israeli and 160,000 Palestinian signatures.

Is there another realistic solution for a stable Zionist future? I cannot see one, and I don’t think anyone else has seen one either, at least not since the first Intifada erupted in December, 1987.

We American Jews need to get over our reflexive reaction that no one nowhere, no how, can criticize our beloved Jewish state. And, yes, it is absolutely my beloved Jewish state.

Criticize Kerry on the merits of his arguments, if you believe you have better ones. But I found it maddening to hear Israeli and American commentators declaim about his and Obama’s “anti-Semitism.” That’s absurd. If they are anti-Semites, then I am.

Too much of Israeli and American Jewish society exhibits a classic adolescent pattern: an inability to tolerate criticism. You say I’m not perfect? You hate me.

It is time to grow up and face grown-up truths about the Palestinian conflict: There is more than enough blame to go around, and a proportional share falls on our Israeli brothers and sisters and upon us, who support them in some self-destructive policies. As the Midrash quoted above says: if you love me, don’t ignore my failings, challenge me to be better. That is the only path toward a mature Zionist future, which we desperately need.

On a related but different matter: let me join with some – though not all – of you, to express my personal horror at the nomination of David Friedman as American ambassador. As our friend JJ Goldberg wrote in the Forward and Bernard Avishai wrote similarly in the Times, Friedman represents a sector of American Judaism, aligned with a sector of Israeli Judaism, that espouses a dangerous ideology, that does not take seriously the diversity of Jewish public opinion on this very difficult problem, let alone the claims of Arabs living under Israeli military dictatorship.

For them, only a maximalist vision of Jewish possession of its ancestral homeland is acceptable, and everything else is treason. Friedman considers me and people who share my views “worse than kapos,” Nazi henchmen. We only think we’re center-left Zionists; actually we are nothing but “smug advocates of Israel’s destruction.”

Remarkably, the class of traitors includes the majority of Israelis who continue to favor two states, with peace and justice for Jews and Arabs alike. And more than 240 generals – including several former IDF Chiefs of Staff, heads of the Shin Bet and Mossad – who this past summer publicly argued that territorial compromise will enhance, not diminish Israeli security. But as we know, the new administration knows a lot more about security than the generals.

Disagree with me on the merits? Please persuade me. Present some alternative, reasonable, non-messianic scenario for Israelis to live in peace and for Palestinians to live with basic dignity. But I don’t believe Friedman and his friends have one. Or even want one.