I am completely disgusted with Israel’s politicians behaving so self-interestedly. But I am afraid to say anything about it in conversations with non-Jews for fear of further tarring Israel with a bad image. How open can I be in political conversations about Israel, and does it matter who I am speaking to?
Our tradition have a strong preponderance to “Sh'mirat ha-ashon”-guarding one's tongue. in the book of Leviticus 19:16 we read, “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people.” This principle forbids saying something negative about someone even if it is true. With this in mind let’s examine the issue of political conversations regarding Israel with non-Jews.
I think it behooves all to consider the consequences of their words before speaking, regardless of the audience or the topic. I do not mean to suggest that dissent is forbidden, nor is silence always an ideal. When Jews commit atrocities it is our responsibility to speak out against them. When Baruch Goldstein committed the atrocity in Hebron in 1994, the Jewish world rightly condemned him and his actions.
Presently, Israel finds itself under attack by people and forces that are seeking to isolate and de-legitimize it. In this milieu, supporters of Israel should be concerned that those who seek to attack Israel not use their legitimate criticism and concerns. There is reason to be cautious and circumspect with regard to questions and criticism about Israel.
As for concern about non-Jews, there are many non-Jews that are among the greatest supporters and defenders of Israel and many Jews that are among Israel’s detractors. We should never make assumptions based on stereotypes, race or religion.
It is important that you are alert to the difference between sharing your feelings fully within the "family," as it were, and with others. This is an important Jewish idea, the feeling of solidarity with our fellow Jews, the recognition that we share more with them than with ordinary people we meet. As such, censoring yourself in conversation with non-Jews is certainly one important aspect of how you might want to conduct yourself when it comes to speaking about Israel's leaders. Let me review some of the reasons, and then, at the end, suggest a way to have such conversations that can be both productve and permissible from a Jewish standpoint.
But I think we can go a step or two further. Even within the "family," that is, among Jews, there are important questions of lashon hara to be weighed against the public good. On the one hand, we are not allowed to slander or speak ill of other Jews, even if it is completely true. On the other hand, we are not only allowed to, we must share information we have if it will save another person from hurt or loss. In this category, if I know something damaging about another person's prospective spouse or business partner, I am obligated to tell that person (if I think he or she will listen), to try to protect him/her from loss.
So it gets complicated, especially if we are not absolutely certain of the truth of the information we think we possess. In the case of Israel's leaders, then, the following questions should-- from a Jewish perspective-- affect how I speak about them: 1) To whom am I speaking, both in the sense of, am I slandering a Jew to a non-Jew as well as in the ordinary sense of, what reason does this person have for needing this negative information (if there's no need, I shouldn't be spreading it). 2) How sure am I that I have the full truth and context of whatever I've learned-- often, our information comes from media sources that can be biased or have made errors in their reporting; before we can or should speak out about others, we need to be fairly certain we have the correct information, or at least qualify our statements by noting our lack of certainty.
And then, another problem: if you live outside of Israel, I think there's a healthy dose of, who are we to judge? While I might see some politicians' behavior as reprehensible, one significant advantage they have is that they are living in the Land of Israel, and trying to make it work, a task that is, apparently, too hard for all the Diaspora Jews who cling to the pleasures of the Exile. A certain dose of humility about those leaders should, I think, color everything we say-- they are, at the very least, devoting their lives to a deeply Jewish task which I have not found the internal strength to do.
What all of these conditions make clear, I hope, is that, from a Jewish perspective, we need to have a reason before we speak, and we need to be sure we are not unfairly maligning someone else. Often, however, we want to talk about politics because it is fun to hash out the kinds of issues that come up, test our intellectual mettle for how well we might imagine handling those same challenges. It seems to me that if we phrase it that way, it becomes much more doable. So, instead of venting my anger at Netanyahu or whoever (especially since I don't know if he did it, and I also don't know the pressures of life in Israel to judge him even if he did it), I might say, "You know, the reports in the press are that such-and-such happened. It's hard to judge that living far away, but it seems to me that if that's what really happened..." and then pontificate away. Everyone around will understand that this is a conversation about moral principle and theory, not about specific people, and that the facts, such as they are, are more in the nature of the hypothetical that launched an interesting and enlightening conversation. And that is a fine, traditional Jewish activity.
I am completely disgusted with Israel’s politicians behaving so self-interestedly (as in the recent Barak / Netanyahu / Labor scandal)…like all politicians, I suppose…But I am afraid to say anything about it in conversations with non-Jews for fear of further tarring Israel with a bad image. How open can I be in political conversations about Israel, and does it matter who I am speaking to?
Your question addresses an issue that has perplexed and beset the American Jewish community since before the State of Israel was proclaimed – how far can American Jews go in publically criticizing policies and actions of the Israeli government, without endangering American support for the State of Israel? There is no easy answer, and as the end of your question implies, who you are speaking to at any given moment will color how you speak about Israel. We often find ourselves taking a more extreme, or at least less nuanced, position than we really believe when we are confronted with extreme positions on the other side. That is to say, if someone attacks Israel and is not open to rational discussion, we may find ourselves defending an action with which we really disagree, because we do not want to give any ammunition to support the other person’s attacks. However, if we are speaking with someone who is open to discussion, I believe it is not only possible, but important, to try to educate and inform as much as possible about where you agree, and where you disagree, with the Israeli government. The important thing to emphasize is that the government is not the whole State of Israel, just as the Obama Administration is not the whole of America. We can disagree with things our government does without being disloyal or unpatriotic Americans. So, too, can we disagree with the policies and actions of the Israeli government, and still support the right of Israel to exist as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people. Indeed, many Israelis disagree with their government on many issues, but they are still loyal and patriotic Israelis. We should be able to be open and honest about our feelings and opinions, good and bad, toward Israel, without fear of being seen as anti-Israel. I think the best answer is to be as informed as possible, so you can provide an educated perspective on both where you agree and where you disagree with Israel’s politics. You can find helpful and balanced information in a recent Central Conference of American Rabbis resolution on the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/resodisp.pl?file=israel&year=2008); at the Association of Reform Zionists of America (www.arza.org); at JStreet (www.jstreet.org ) ; at Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (http://www.rhr-na.org/); at the Israel Religious Action Center (www.irac.org); and at Americans for Peace Now (www.apn.org ).
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