Dirty Laundry

dirty-laundryI’ve been getting a heap of feedback about my recent Chicago Tribune op-ed, ranging from abject excoriation to deep gratitude and pretty much everything in between. It’s obviously impossible to respond to it all, but I would like to address one consistently recurrent criticism: namely, that a statement so critical of Israel should have been kept within the Jewish community – and that it was wrong of me to publish it in a paper as prominent and public as the Tribune.

A few disconnected thoughts re the “dirty laundry” argument:

– I’m not sure I understand what it means to keep a conversation “within the community” any more.  Whether we like it or not, we Jews are now part of an open, pluralistic society.  We’ve long since left the ghetto and most of us consider this to be a good thing.  And part of that deal is that for better or worse, our community conversations have become transparent and our so-called “internal debates” are now part of the public domain. (I’d say this is all the more so in the post-modern information age – in which no community conversation can truly be considered private or internal anymore.)

– I’ve been blogging for several years now and have written my share of sharp posts on Israel.  This one was relatively milder than what I generally post here, yet it really seems to have struck a chord.  I’m intrigued that for all of the talk about the death of print media, its reach is still significant – and the traditional op-ed page still seems to have important symbolic significance for folks.

– In this day and age, which do we really think is better for the Jews: a public communal face that demonstrates a monolithic, knee-jerk defense of Israel’s every action – or a Jewish community that is confident and secure enough in itself to model healthy self-reflection?  In my experience, non-Jews tend to be much more alienated by the former and appreciative of the latter.

– Many in the Jewish community feel that we should not be contributing to the already significant public criticism of Israel. I am not so naive to say that some of this criticism has fairly dark motivations. But I am also not so cynical to say that the “outside world” cannot tell the difference between abject prejudice and legitimate self-criticism.

– If we do believe that speaking out against oppression is one of our most sacrosanct values,  then we are guilty of hypocrisy if we fail to speak out when Israel acts oppressively.  For me at least, the value of pursuing justice ultimately trumps the fears that arise when we publicly call our community to account.

I know it is painful and complicated when we do so.  I know this first hand.  I realize that such a step comes with difficult consequences – but at the very least we should be willing to honestly face the consequences of keeping silent.

I welcome your (respectful) feedback.

8 thoughts on “Dirty Laundry

  1. Shortly after the Gaza siege, I wrote an article in our local paper. The reaction by members of the clergy in my community was very much like you’ve described. One rabbi, who asked me to come visit his office, was friendly but concerned that criticisms of Israel had strayed outside the Jewish community and could give anti-Semites fodder. Indeed, I might even be guilty of anti-Semitism. He even recited some religious parable the dirty laundry of the time. But the sad fact remains that the actions of our cousins in Israel are an American foreign policy and foreign aid problem as well as a Jewish issue. And that puts it squarely in the public sphere.

  2. There are ample examples of our being “in the open”. It is hard even to imagine lines around the Jewish community which would allow our dirty laundry to remain in the basement. Although it hadn’t entered my mind before, it seems absolutely logical that we accept that we are now on an open field, vulnerable to assault but also capable of thinking and speaking.

    Don’t stop. Maybe we need to help do the wash.

  3. “If we do believe that speaking out against oppression is one of our most sacrosanct values, then we are guilty of hypocrisy if we fail to speak out when Israel acts oppressively. For me at least, the value of pursuing justice ultimately trumps the fears that arise when we publicly call our community to account.”

    I think the point though, Brant, is that your criticism of Israel can be measured in loaves and your criticism of Hamas, Hezbollah, the PA, et al and, dare I say it, support for Israel in trying times, can be measured in crumbs.

    • You make a valid point, Lisa. I grant that the majority of the criticism on my blog is focused on Israel. I suppose this reflects my own anguish, as a Jew, that such acts are being perpetrated by the Jewish state – and my own desire for Israel to live up to its own articulated ethical Jewish values – values that I also consider sacred.

      Though you might not see this or accept this, my criticism comes from a deep love for Israel – and from a growing fear that the course Israel is currently on will lead to its extinction and not its survival.

      I personally believe Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians – whether Qassam rockets on Sderot, suicide bombings in pizzerias, etc. – are morally disgusting. I don’t hesitate to say so here and regret if my focus on Israel’s actions creates the impression that I condone them in any way. The attempt to even rationalize this form of violence is reprehensible.

      A final thought: when I wrote that we Jews must be willing to speak out against all oppression – including Israel’s – I was referring to the organized Jewish community’s pointedly knee-jerk defense of any criticism leveled against Israel. I believe there are many in the “outside world” who justifiably see hypocrisy in our willingness to protest any number of persecutions around the world except Israel’s persecution of Palestinians.

      I know that my own activism, taken on its own, might appear unfairly imbalanced – especially to those who don’t know me and my personal feelings for Israel. For my part, I am trying to do my part to redress a larger Jewish communal imbalance on this issue.

      I know that there are many more rabbis who feel as I do but are intimidated into staying silent. I do believe that if more Jewish leaders could find the wherewithal to speak out when they believe Israel is acting wrong, we would have a more vital and balanced Jewish communal voice. And in the end, I think that would be a good thing.

    • Actually, Lisa, I would say that the American Jewish community’s unwillingness to own the fact that there are serious wrongs being committed in Israel, which is disproportionately the more powerful entity in the conflict, is what can be measured in loaves. I strongly believe the efforts by Brant, J Street, Brit Tzedek and others to open the dialogue to greater balance is a long overdue adjustment to the distortions in this conversation. It may not suit your personal views but it is deeply welcomed by many of us who have felt shut out by the American Jewish community’s reflexive defense of Israeli policy. I am very grateful that I attend the type of synagogue that is willing to put these complicated moral questions squarely in front of us and will not let us walk away from them. I certainly prefer that to attending one that would put an IDF bullet proof vest in its lobby, as one well-known shul in Chicago apparently did. That sort of Judaism makes me sick to my stomach.

  4. I think it is incorrect to categorize the Gaza War/Goldstone controversy as “dirty laundry”. A good example of a “dirty laundry”-type of thing would be to go to a non-Jewish newspaper and write something like “we Jews should be collective shamed that Bernie Madoff is one of us”.
    The Gaza War is a totally different matter. Israelis, by and large, supported the war, think it was justified and oppose Goldstone. It is not “dirty laundry” in that it is something to be ashamed of.
    What those who go to non-Jewish media and excoriate Israel are doing is admitting that they have lost the political battle in Israel. That, of course, is where the battle has to be fought, and the “progressives” lost it. This also applies to the so-called “peace process” in general, which most Israelis have long ago lost faith in. Those who oppose these consensus positions of the Israeli public now feel their only alternative is to go to some outside power to convince them to impose their views on Israel AGAINST ISRAEL’S WILL, AGAINST ISRAEL’S INTERESTS AND AGAINST ISRAEL’S SECURITY. The question that these who are doing these things must ask themselves is “by what right are they by-passing the Israeli public in trying to get outside forces to use punitive measures to get the Israeli public to capitulate to policies they have rejected”?.

    Now, I know the answer will come back that “the US grants aid to Israel and I, as an American taxpayer, have a right to weigh in on where my tax dollars are going”. But this is no longer a “Jewish matter” and so those who do so MUST NOT SPEAK IN THE NAME OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY or even a part (e.g. the “progressive” part). This is the fatal mistake J-Street is making…they want to break with policies of the elected Israeli government, they want the US to impose the policies they want and yet they are speaking as Jews against what the Jewish community of Israel and much of what the American Jewish community support. This is why they will fail. They can’t have it both ways.

  5. A just person is a good person. Justice, real justice, not legal justice, is based on moral and ethics. Killing a person is immoral, and can only be defended in the specific case of defending yourself. By the way: this expression makes it already clear that no killing can be taken lightly, as the person who killed another one in self-defense has also to defend himself afterward.
    The State of Israel is not accused for defending Israel, or for doing this by killing persons who attacked innocent Israelis. The State of Israel is accused that, in its name, more innocent people have died than were necessary to defend Israel; that these victims have died under circumstances which are in principle forbidden by International Law and Conventions to which Israel – as a civilized country – adheres; and that Israel does not investigate by its own these cases in which possibly murder occurred. This last point is the most important: if Israel takes serious legal action to prosecute those persons who committed these odious crimes, no international action will take place. If Israel flatly and willingly ignores that these crimes have been committed – and here we are at the “Dirty Laundry” -, the Goldstone Report calls for deferral to the ICJ. By the way, The Goldstone Report asks the same from Hamas.

    “Dirty Laundry” is to me nothing else than “double standard”. It is like saying: “there was a crime, but since it has been perpetrated by persons of my people, i close my eyes, and it is no longer a crime”. This is the definition of hubris. It is interesting to note what Wikipedia says about hubris: “In ancient Greece, hubris referred to actions which, intentionally or not, shamed and humiliated the victim… Hubris, though not specifically defined, was a legal term and was considered a crime in classical Athens.” It was considered a crime, for it undermined the order of the world, in this case the social tissue.

    2000 years later we live in a world of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first words of it read: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Bluntly said: all humans are equal, and no one is more worth than any other.

    Invoking “Dirty Laundry” to avoid the discussion of committed crimes is a direct action against this Declaration of Human Rights, and makes those who want to escape the discussion co-responsible for these crimes.

    Your blog, Rabbi, is so important to me, since you call “oppression” what it is, namely “oppression”, and you say it publicly. Yours is one of the voices who keep my faith up in mankind: “I believe that people are really good at heart”. Your honesty makes me believe that Israel will survive, and one day will live in Peace with its neighbours.

  6. In response to YBD

    In my opinion, you tend to speak for large populations rather than for yourself personally. “Israelis, by and large, supported the war,” “consensus positions of the Israeli public now feel their only alternative…””forces are by-passing the Israeli public in trying to get outside forces to use punitive measures,” “they want to break with the elected Israeli government, to impose policies,” “they speak as Jews against what the Jewish community of Israel and much of what the American Jewish community support.”

    As an Israeli/American Jew, I know many, many people who do not fit into your mass assumptions of what either Israelis or American Jews want. Those I speak of want the freedom to speak out strongly against our governments’ policies when we believe they are wrong. For me that was Iraq in America, where one couldn’t even disagree without being considered traitorous, and now, in Israel, where the use of overly massive force has caused poverty, destruction, unemployment, and hatred toward the Israelis we all love. And where those of us who love the country are called anti semitic and anti Israel. What we want, and I hasten to add I speak for myself and for those I know, is for a peace process to proceed, and quickly, one that will require both sides to make compromises and sacrifices, to overcome centuries of hatred and distrust, to come to the understanding the we must learn to live as brothers or we are all lost. My many years of living in Israel taught me how much the Arabs and Israelis have in common. This is not a struggle for “capitulation” or “winning,” it is a struggle for the survival of both peoples.

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