Children hold an Israeli flag in the Jewish settlement of Itamar on the West Bank; Photo by Rina Castelnuovo, The New York Times

By Alan Wolfe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 25

In the past few years, a trickle of dissent with respect to Israel has turned into a running stream. Books, articles, and Web sites critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, its acquiescence in the messianic designs of its settlers, its foreign-policy decisions on Gaza, Iran, and much more, and the increasing influence of the ultra-Orthodox over the character of its domestic life have begun to appear in significant numbers in America. Some, but not all, of these efforts, moreover, come from writers unused to being in the critical camp. The question is rapidly becoming not whether one should find fault with Israel, but how.

Two quite contrasting points of view have emerged among the critics. One can be called liberal and the other leftist. Liberals accept Israel’s legitimacy, search for ways that it can respect the rights of its non-Jewish citizens, and believe that the only viable future for the country is a two-state solution, one primarily Jewish, the other primarily Palestinian. Leftists view Israel’s creation in 1948 as an outgrowth of European colonialism, insist that as a Jewish state its character is inevitably racist, and lean toward the eventual creation of one state containing both Jews and Arabs. Should Israel’s actions continue to provoke opposition around the world, the question of which of these approaches will attract the most followers will become increasingly important.

I have a personal interest in this topic because I now count myself among the critics. For decades, I managed to write about some of the more controversial issues dominating the world without writing about the Middle East. The reason was simple: I was too intellectually paralyzed to do so. As a child, I had displayed an Israeli flag and carried blue-and-white coin boxes whose proceeds would plant trees in the new state. That, however, was about it: Serious Hebrew lessons, Zionist summer camps, and trips to the Middle East were of little interest to either my secular parents or me. Yet for all my family’s tendencies toward assimilation, Israel’s legitimacy was never questioned. Jews had been the victims of the greatest monster in history. Supporting the new state was the least the world could do to make up for it. We were, as I recall, vaguely aware that Arabs already lived on the land Israel claimed, but their complaints, to the degree that we heard them at all, seemed trivial by comparison to what had happened to our people.

Attribute it, if you must, to the failure of my parents to raise me as a good Jewish boy, but even my youthful lukewarm support for Israel eventually turned cool. Israel’s stunning victories in the 1967 war sent a thrill through the American Jewish community; I felt my share of that, but I was too much involved in the protests against Vietnam to become an enthusiast for war of any kind. Campaigns on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s left me with an uncomfortable feeling of selective indignation: Of course the Jews in Russia and the Ukraine ought to be able to leave, but among the world’s atrocities at the time, including the brutality of Idi Amin and the genocide led by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the plight of Soviet Jewry did not rise to the top. By 1982, when Israeli forces enabled the massacres of Palestinians by Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, I knew that a personal line had been crossed. The more innocent Israel of my youthful imagination no longer existed.

Nonetheless, I kept my concerns to myself. No matter how cruel Israel’s actions appeared, I believed that Jews were still entitled to the moral benefit of the doubt. Israel remained a democratic state, a rare achievement in the Middle East. It had been created, in part, as a refuge for the unwanted, and while it might not be an appropriate home for me, there were Jews from Eastern Europe and North Africa who had found a safe haven there. As much as I might take offense at Israel’s policies, they were formulated by a generation with a more direct connection to the Holocaust than I could ever have, protected by the decision of my grandparents to move to America in the early 20th century. I would not be a Zionist cheerleader. But neither would I follow the path of Israel’s most stringent critics, who viewed it as an outpost of Western imperialism supported by an American lobby wielding, or so it was said, almost supernatural power in Israel’s defense.

The ambivalence that once prevented me from speaking out on the Middle East is gone. Israel is now firmly on the right, while I remain on the left. The truly odious Arafat is no longer with us, and new Palestinian intellectuals and leaders are making an impressive case for statehood. The cruelty of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, as well as the clearly peace-destroying intentions of Jewish settlers in Palestinian territory, are impossible to ignore. Chilling leaks suggest the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. All that has ended my silence. I wrote about some of these issues in my book Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It, and what I had to say about Israel was not kind.

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