When Did The Pro-Israel Community Become So Toxic And Hateful?
A militantly aggressive thought police probably isn’t going to win anybody over to Israel’s side. However in parts of the pro-Israel community, this mindframe seems to dominate.
Today, I was flicking through Twitter.
While I did, I came across this quoted tweet from Lenny Ben-David referencing a piece of journalism which Patrick Kingsley, the New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, recently penned for the newspaper:
Ben-David, according to his Times of Israel biography, served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington before going on to spend 25 years working for AIPAC.
These days, he refers to himself as a public affairs consultant.
His LinkedIn profile, however, describes him as being the Director of Publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) which describes itself, in turn, as Israel’s “leading independent research institute specializing in public diplomacy and foreign policy.” The Center has previously received financial backing from Sheldon Adelson. I think it’s safe to assume that dovish voices are thin on the ground in its corridors.
Ben-David’s tweet took me aback.
Not because it contained the absurd claim that the New York Times pays its bureau chief for the express purpose of “trashing” Israel.
But rather because it referenced a piece of journalism that I would have thought even the pro-Israel lobby would find palatable. However, judging by the online reaction on Twitter, that was most certainly not the case.
When Travel Journalism Is Deemed Unacceptable, What Can Be Written About?
Kingsley’s piece is hot off the press and is currently doing the rounds on the Jewish and pro-Israel Twittersphere where — among those sympathetic to the Israeli cause — it is being roundly, to use Ben-David’s epithet, trashed.
It was published only yesterday. It can be found here, although it’s paywalled.
Whose Promised Land? A Journey Into a Divided Israel
Two Times journalists drive the length of Israel to discover what it means to be Israeli today. They meet a…
I’m wont to quote too heavily from it for that reason (ie, it hasn’t been shared for open access). However a few choice extracts to give a flavor as to its contents.
During the course of its narrative:
- We meet Shai Melamud who says that his late father would assert that what Israel has become today is not what he prayed for as a child. In particular, he says that his late father would have seen the religious tension that manifested itself in rioting last summer as entirely foreseeable. He expresses concern about the growing numbers and influence of the ultra-Orthodox sector in Israeli society. Kingsley editorializes that they “drain the state’s resources by studying religious law and claiming state benefits while avoiding army service and the labor market” (I take issue with Kingsley’s claim only because it’s a generalism; there is of course workforce participation among the haredim even though it’s less than that among the secular population).
- We meet Yehoshua Blumenthal, a Tiberias resident who describes the city as “tired,” “shabby,” and notable for its growing religious character (of note: I visited Tiberias last year and formed much the same impression as the author; although I was disappointed to see that and believe the city has much unrealized potential.) We hear from religious residents who are described as feeling “ambivalent” about the fundamentally secular nature of the state, which provides an interesting opening into how Haredim conceive of the country in which they live.
- In Haifa, we hear from Asmaa Azaizeh, an Israeli Arab who runs a shared bookstore for both Jews and Arabs. Azaizeh warns her interviewed not to be deceived by the coexistence space she has created, emphasizing that it is one of the only such spaces in the city (and this, by the way, is true). She provides an interesting perspective into the Arab-Israeli mentality. For one, she is described — I’d imagine as she prefers — as a ‘Palestinian bearing an Israeli passport.’ She also says that she will not engage in dialogue with Jewish Israelis unless they acknowledge that Haifa is “occupied.”
- In Givat Amal Bet (Tel Aviv) we hear from Levana Ratzabi who provides insight into the discrimination that Jews of Arab origin (Mizrahim) often sadly faced when they tried to integrate into the new Jewish state.
- We also hear from Xenia Sova, a Russian immigrant with a far less dominant connection to Judaism, who recounts how she didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘Jewish’ until she had her first encounter with antisemitism.
- We also hear about the shikunim — planned housing projects built around the time of the State’s formation often populated by economically deprived populations. And about the checkpoints which Palestinian laborers must cross in order to work in Israel.
- Finally we hear about what it’s like for Bedouins living in Israel’s Negev desert before moving down to Israel’s southernmost city of Eilat. There, we hear from Shmulik Taggar about how rapidly the city has advanced fro its humble origins. Now a somewhat tacky resort town most known for its hotels, Taggar reminisces about how small it was when it consisted of only a few hundred residents. “We didn’t need hotels here in those days,” he says.
Kingsley’s piece isn’t a tourism brochure for Israel, nor does it resemble your typical Nefesh b’Nefesh brochure— which it seems these days is the bar that the pro-Israel community expects from anybody writing about Israel (anything less than that and the author must be ‘anti’). I would agree that Kingsley’s piece often doesn’t paint an upbeat picture of life in Israel.
It shies away, for instance, from talking about everyday aliyah success stories: Jews who have moved to Israel and are living their best lives here and feeling motivated and inspired by the process of building up the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, I would contend that that’s unsurprising given that it’s a serious piece of journalism being published in the New York Times. Those anecdotes have received plenty of attention. The piece provides a thought-provoking exploration into some lesser known issues that are probably more interesting for an international readership.
It is, in my opinion, as a good piece of journalism. For those unfamiliar with some of the internal debates shaping Israeli society, I think it’s a worthwhile contribution.
But a hate-mongering anti-Semitic screed? That it is most certainly not. And yet:
Israelis And The Pro-Israel Community React To Kingsley’s Travel Journalism With Allegations Of Anti-Semitism And Pre-Meditated Hate
Here’s a partial selection of what I could gather from Twitter at the time I put together this piece.
It’s representative of a wall of anger replete with allegations of anti-Semitism, editorial bias, and allegations that the article was, in fact, a premediated “hatched job” aimed at defaming Israel’s good character. I strongly believe that none of these claims are true.
Weird supermacism much?
I also had this pleasant exchange yesterday which actually illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about here:
Perhaps I’m alone in thinking this, but I find it remarkable, and disappointing, that a piece of travel journalism which does a good job at showcasing some of the different ethnicities within Israel and their often complex relationship to the State of Israel (but little more than that) would receive such an opprobrious and hateful reaction from so many.
And as usual, the ones doing the most mud-slinging are those who seem to identify most strongly as friends of Israel and online warriors defending it.
It is also beyond disappointing to see that a number of voices arose to level baseless allegations of anti-Semitism against Kingsley for his reportage.
Flinging the serious charge of anti-Semitism at a reporter because he didn’t paint an endlessly flattering portrait of Israel is a bit like saying that somebody who leaves a restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria a bad review must hate blacks and Africans. It simply doesn’t make sense. More perniciously, it makes pointing out real anti-Semitism vastly harder. And — as a Jew — I believe it is a hillul Hashem to boot.
However, this kind of pushback has become par for the course for the community that considers themselves to be “pro-Israel” (the quotation marks are because I continue to raise the question of whether this kind of online “defense” of the country is constructive at all).
These days, being pro-Israel — or pro-Palestinian for that matter — seems to require signing up to a totalitarian creed.
No degrees of dissent are permissible from the hymn sheet that demands total agreement with the State and all its policies, including internal ones.
For far too many — in Israel, in the Jewish Diaspora, and among non-Jews who feel an affinity with the cause of Zionism — Israel has become a black-or-white issue.
Just as has happened on the Palestinian side of the debate, a toxic and ugly echo chamber has been the result. And one which takes the traditional Jewish celebration of debate and throws it squarely out the window.
In this fundamentalist worldview, no criticism of Israel or dissent is tolerated — irrespective of whether that’s about the state of Israel’s housing market or a comment upon the attractiveness, or lack thereof, of the city of Tiberias. The only allowable narrative is that Israel is perfect and that all its ways are wholesome and pure. Toxic positivity at maximum enforcement.
Any deviation from that is significant (or sufficient) grounds to assert that the one making the allegation must be either an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. This has a chilling effect on anybody not brave enough to stand up to the sometimes organized campaigns of vitriol.
For those of us who take think that life in Israel is a bundle of gray — there are some good things about it and some bad ones, much like any country — this creates an odd feeling of dissonance between the experience we live every day and that which those supposedly “defending” the country we live in dogmatically claims exist.
Things weren’t always so bad for those who, these days, might find no better descriptor for themselves other than friends-of-Israel-with-reservations. We weren’t always expected to be all-or-nothing supporters.
The kind of obsessive witch-hunting that parts of the pro-Israel community seem to relish in engaging in today is, according to some recounts, a recent innovation. (One can speculate, perhaps wildly, that it owes its origin to the point in time at which Israel warmly embraced Trumpism whose worldview accords pretty closely with this kind of thinking).
Once upon a time, one could feel an affinity with Zionism, or the State of Israel, without feeling the need to be compelled to defend every one of its actions.
Once upon a time Zionist fora embraced the tradition of debate and dissent that has permeated Jewish thinking up to now. Of introspection and internal criticism.
These days, it often seems as if that value system has been inverted.
Now the main values that “friends” of Israel seem expected to espouse are seeking out criticism of Israel wherever it can be found — but most prominently online — and shouting it down as loudly as possible. Silencing defiant voices wherever they emerge in an unending game of online whac-a-mole.
Defending the State of Israel from every charge — and elevating it to a place of untouchability — has become a life calling that, for many, seems to have supplanted their commitment to Judaism itself, or any other ideal which they hold dear. For some in the Diaspora, this doctrine has become the central activity which defines their Jewish identity.
Personally, I would love for the Jewish world to come to a collective realization. Or to at least agree about a point which I strongly believe in.
That the connection between the Jewish people and their homeland is immutable.
That Zionism is a central ideology which ensures the return of the Jewish People to their ancestral homeland.
But that neither of those things means that we need to place the State of Israel and its actions — after all, the State is only an expression of the ideology upon which it was founded — upon some sort of ideological alter.
Because when we do, that tends to turn very quickly into something that looks and feels a lot like intellectual idolatry. A strange sort of worship venerating the actions of a state governed by human and often flawed actors.
Jews have a painful history of what doing that kind of things forebears.
And besides: the results of the religious services are pretty damn ugly to spectate.