At the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, a panel called Thin Ice â€“ Criticism vs. Loyalty in Israel-Diaspora Relations included reporter Shmuel Rosner as moderator. Participants were Jeremy Ben-Ami, Executive Director and founder of JStreet; Danny Dayan, Chairman of the Yesha (Judea and Samaria) Council; Dr. Fania Oz-Salzberger, professor of history in Monash University, Melbourne and in the Faculty of Law at Haifa University; Dr. Diana Pinto, a French historian; and, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism.
The discussion focused for natural reasons on J Street and its activities. Jeremy Ben Ami, as expected, labeled his group “pro-Israel” and indicated that there is nothing wrong with, and in fact it is an important and friendly act, to warn Israel about the iceberg it may be about to hit. Later in the conversation he indicated that part of what was driving his group was their desire as Americans to ensure that America benefits from wise policy regarding the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Sitting next to Ben Ami was his ideological opposite. Danny Dayan. While J Street has been vociferous in its attacks on settlements – and they include eastern Jerusalem in this equation – Dayan chairs the Yesha Council and tries endlessly to show anybody who will listen that “settlers” are normal people living normal lives. Dayan spent his opening remarks claiming that certain rules exist for those wishing to call themselves “pro-Israel.” He then proceeded to list a set of rules which would remove an organization from the “pro-Israel” side of the aisle. Every “rule” consisted of something JStreet has done.
Dr. Fania Oz-Salzberger charmed everyone with a Jewish Martian joke and proceeded to make the most judicious claim of the event. She commented that it is her right to criticize Israel. However, outside of Israel, those who criticize Israel in public forums, she added, should use judiciousness and be wise about how they express themselves lest they inadvertently end up providing support and fodder to those who truly seek harm Israel.
Dr. Diana Pinto pointed out that she was the only panel member who lives in Europe and defended her right to be cirtical of Israel. She said it was her right and duty to criticize and her benchmark is Ha’aretz. If something is published in Ha’aretz, she added, then it’s not anti-Semitic and certainly she can say it. She added that it was critical that Jews recognized that when they criticize Europeans aggressively, they often make friends into enemies. The nature of the attacks, she said, should be reconsidered because very often remarks that were made in friendship or even remarks that are being said regularly by the Israeli Left, receive scrutiny and criticism when a European non-Jew says them that will often severely harm relations with the person or group. She later said that similarly, Israelis and their supporters need to recognize that it is foolish to attack concepts related “human rights” because there is a sense that Israel is often unfairly maligned by people using the idea of human rights to protest Israeli actions. She reminded that for better or for worse, even if some ideas are used cynically against Israel, the framework of human rights is a valuable one and it is critical that Jews and Israelis support them with an eye to the future when they may be depended upon them again, but also because they are a moral framework.
The final speaker was Rabbi Yoffie who spoke about the great variety of Jewish groups in the Diasporah and how we tend to play a game that is somewhat untruthful. When an Israeli right wing government is in power, Right wing American Jews show it great loyalty while the opposite is true when the Left is in power. He added that even though a plurality of voices is important, there are red lines when it comes to criticizing Israel. For example, making excuses for Israle’s enemies is crossing a red line. So is denying or undermining Israel as Jewish.
An interesting session, it was at times a dialogue between JStreet and Yesha Council, and perhaps as a result didn’t quite address broader questions of what is pro-Israel and what isn’t. What was clear, however, is that the Jewish groups and critics that criticize Israel feel extremely comfortable doing so and have no plans to change tack.