TORONTO — North American Jews who want to maintain an adult relationship with Israel should be prepared to publicly criticize its imperfections, the University of Haifa’s dean of students says.
“To maintain a serious relationship with an object of our love over time, we need to develop a more mature approach to Israeli society, which by no means is perfect,” said Hanan Alexander, a professor of the philosophy of education who is scheduled to speak at Beth Tzedec Congregation on Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Alexander, who also heads the university’s International School and its Center for Jewish Education, said Israel’s supporters have a responsibility to speak out when abuses of power in Israel are exposed.
In an interview, he suggested Jews should be more critical of Israel.
“When we overly romanticize a subject of our affection, we have a tendency to relate to that subject uncritically. We don’t want to hear about problems and faults.”
But this is an unhealthy attitude, he warned. It creates “a very fragile relationship,” resulting in “disappointment, hurt and abandonment.”
Israel is neither better nor worse than any other place, noted Alexander, the author and editor of seven books on education. “Israel, like most democratic societies, strives to improve and make things better for its citizens.”
At the same time, Jews must voice criticism openly as they debate Israel’s imperfections, said Alexander, a graduate of Stanford University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
“Only when we abandon our romantic fantasies about Israel and confront it as it really is can we encourage improvement. We can also then recognize Israel’s many accomplishments, while seeking to address its faults.”
Claiming that Jews and non-Jews abroad relate to Israel naively, he said they should not fear that criticism might embolden or strengthen Israel’s enemies.
“Israel is a strong, highly self-critical society and can withstand criticism. Israel will even benefit from criticism.”
One reason why North American Jews tend to look at Israel naively is because their institutions and schools relate to the Jewish state uncritically, not paying sufficient attention to “hard questions” about “sensitive topics” that some may find difficult to discuss, he said.
Those who claim that Jews should not air their “dirty laundry” in public are wrong, he said. “In the digital age, everyone’s dirty laundry is all over the Internet. To refrain from discussing sensitive or problematic issues comes across more as denial than concern, and in the end does more harm than good.”
He added, “Free expression is a key principle of an open, liberal, pluralistic democracy. As an open society, Israel benefits from those who express their concerns in public. And if someone delivers an unfair critique based on a false premise, which is all too often when it comes to Israel, the best way to address this issue is in the public square. The best response to bad speech is more speech, not suppression of speech.”
The majority of North American Jews have not grown disillusioned with Israel, he argued.
“Most Jews in the mainstream middle appreciate the complex situations in which Israel often finds itself,” he said. “But the best way to keep people engaged is to solicit and take an interest in their views. All Jews have a stake in Israel, so it is important to listen respectively to a variety of opinions from abroad as well as at home.”
Alexander contends that the delegitimization of Israel in intellectual and academic circles is a serious problem, but the arguments levelled against Israel in these forums are often grounded in highly questionable assumptions.
“Israel is held up to standards not expected of others,” he said. “Those who deny Jews their inalienable right to political self-determination and cultural self-expression in the name of human rights are denying a fundamental right to Jews. If Jews have no right to national self-determination, neither does anyone else.”
Alexander claimed that anti-Israel critics who base their arguments on neo-Marxism, post-modernism and post-colonialism greatly simplify Israel, hewing to the notion that Israel has no right to exist if it does not conform to “some fanciful ideal.”
Jews need to recognize the rights of the Palestinians, both in Israel and the West Bank, he said.
“To claim our rights reasonably, we need to acknowledge the rights of others. Reasonable people may differ concerning the effectiveness of this or that [Israeli] policy, but all are obliged to agree that, if the Palestinians have national rights, so do Jews.”
Alexander said Jews must acquire “a more mature understanding” of Israel as a liberal democracy, which is as imperfect as any other in the world.
“As Winston Churchill once said, the imperfections of democratic societies probably make democracy the worst form of government – except for all the others.”