4/23/18 Israel at 70 When Can You Criticize and Who


Israel turned 70 last week. Wednesday night, on the eve marking the start of Israel’s seven decades of independence, revelers from across the country filled the streets of Tel Aviv. For much of that night, it seemed like all of Israel was in Tel Aviv celebrating. 

Israel has much to celebrate. In 1948, Israel’s population was under one million; today the population of Israel has reached nearly 9 million. In its first years as a country, Israel worried on a weekly basis whether it would have enough money to pay for essential products; today Israel possesses foreign currency reserves of over $100 billion and has been running a current account surplus for much of the last decade; no one questions the strength of Israel’s military, or the vitality of its many, many technological innovations.  

Despite all of these accomplishments, Israel remains a country with what can best be described as “terminally insecure”. President Donald J. Trump is popular in Israel, not for the practical things he has done, but by virtue of the “love” he as shown the country, manifested by his order to move the Embassy to Jerusalem — an act whose value is merely symbolic, while at the same time, planning actions in Syria (e.g. pulling US troops out), the effects of which will truly harm Israel. Yet, what was the topic of discussion in Israel in the weekend after Independence Day? The streets were abuzz with talk of the decision made by Israeli born actress Natalie Portman to decline to come to Israel to receive “The Genesis Prize,” an award created in 2012, with a $52 million endowment by the three Russian oligarchs that control the Alfa Group. The announcement of the establishment of the prize coincided with the visit of Russian President Vladamir Putin to Israel.  

In her initial announcement, Portman stated she did not want to come because of unstated recent Israeli actions. In a later, more detailed statement, Portman clarified: “I chose not to attend [sic. the ceremony] because I did not want to appear to be endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was giving a speech at the ceremony”. Portman went on to affirm she is not a supporter of the BDS movement, which she opposes. 

Portman’s actions created a firestorm of criticism from members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Minister of Energy MK Yuval Steinitz called Portman’s actions “borderline anti-semitic,” while other members of the Likud party demanded Portman’s Israeli citizenship be revoked.  

On the far left of the political landscape, Ha’aretz correspondent Gideon Levy criticized Portman for not going far enough and explicitly condemning recent Israeli action on the Gaza border. The middle of the Israeli political spectrum has remained largely silent. There have been no comments so far from the Yesh Atid Party or the Labor party, and neither was willing to comment for this article. This was not the first time that a recipient refused to come to Israel to attend the Genesis Prize award ceremony. Last year, Anish Kapoor (Indian-born British sculptor) asserted it was inappropriate to receive the award at a celebratory event, while so many were dying in Syria.

In Israel, Portman’s actions bring a very sensitive question to the forefront — i.e. who may and may not criticize Israel and under what circumstances is such critique accepted. Within Israel, opponents of the government have been repeatedly described as “radical left-wingers” — not merely left-wing or liberal, but “radical” left-wing. However, in the increasingly charged political landscape, where police have already recommended Netanyahu be indicted for accepting bribes, to some, criticism of Netanyahu is seen as traitorous. 

Speaker of the Knesset, a lifetime Likud member MK Yuli-Yoel Edelstein met that fate when he tried to stop Netanyahu from speaking at the official Mt. Herzl Independence Day ceremony (in keeping with the longstanding tradition that the PM does not speak at that event). Edelstein was forced to agree to the Prime Minister offering very brief words of greeting; only to watch helplessly as Netanyahu ignored his promise and spoke for 14 minutes (by far the longest speech of the night). Afterward, when the Knesset Speaker had the temerity to publicly criticize Netanyahu for his actions at the ceremony, Edelstein was greeted with a picture of himself, with a Hitler-style mustache posted on the Likud party Facebook page.  

When a neighbor, who is a retired Army officer posted some criticism of Netanyahu, he was met with a hailstorm of accusations claiming he had become a traitor. When I write an article that criticizes one or another aspect of Israeli policy, I am often attacked by those who lament: “don’t we have enough enemies? Why do you have to give them support”.

For American Jews, the lines have become even more difficult over the course of the past few years. How do you continue to show support for a country you care about deeply, but which often takes actions with which you might disagree? One friend has threatened to stop giving any money to Israel, if it goes through with its currently frozen plan to deport African migrants. Others, especially members of the Conservative and Reform communities (which make up the overwhelming majority of US Jewry) are still angered by the fact Prime Minister Netanyahu for walking away from his own tirelessly negotiated agreement regarding more equal access to the Western Wall, in order to meet the political demands of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. Nevertheless, their disappointment and anger have not stopped liberal American Jews from participating in events where Netanyahu speaks, or from participating in meetings with the Prime Minister in attendance.  

Supporters of Netanyahu like to claim that any opposition to Netanyahu constitutes interference with the Israeli democracy — after all, they contend that Netanyahu was the choice of the majority of the Israeli people. Thus, one of the criticisms leveled against Portman was that she made commercial (one which was never used) for V15 (an organization that promoted getting out the vote, but which was widely seen as anti-Netanyahu), in response to a pro-Netanyahu commercial which starred Chuck Norris. Of course, those critics conveniently ignore the fact that the overwhelming support which Netanyahu receives (both directly, and through the Adelson-owned daily newspaper, Yisrael Hayom) come from overseas.  

As Israel begins its 71st year, it is strong, wealthy and technologically advanced, but still lacks confidence. Some of that deficit in confidence comes from very real facts — for example, the existence of an enemy on the North (Hezbollah) who has over 100,000 missiles pointed at it; a neighbor to the East (Iran) that routinely threatens to wipe it off the map; control over another people (the Palestinians) that seems harder and harder to end. On the other hand, the strong 70-year-old country and its supporters, both inside and outside, need to learn that a healthy, powerful country could accept constructive criticism and that every action of a government (even if democratically elected) may not be correct. While much of the criticism against Israel is unfair, and those who question Israel’s right to exist are nothing but modern day antisemites, some criticism can come from love —and sometimes, it pays not to shoot the messenger, but rather, to consider the message.