What are the boundaries of pro-Israel solidarity?

Shira Herzog

It’s often called “loving criticism” of Israel, and the much-debated question is whether such a phenomenon can exist. If criticism requires moral integrity and detachment, how does that square with concepts such as the love of – and solidarity with—the people of Israel?

In a thought-provoking essay published in Ha’aretz last month, Eva Ilouz, the renowned Israeli sociologist, opened the kimono on this question philosophically and politically. In so doing, she drew on philosophers and writers such as Euripides, Gershom Sholem, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Michel Foucault and Michael Walzer. It’s a feast for the mind, but it provokes a series of weighty questions. 

The fundamental theme of the essay is whether the Jewish critic is obligated to consider that extra, indefinable but palpable quality of “ahavat Israel,” love of the Jewish People, which sometimes requires refraining from the truth due to “herzenstakt” – the duty of the heart. Ahavat Israel, which first appears as a biblical injunction to “love thy neighbour” in Leviticus 19, is best associated with Rabbi Akiva, who sought to control erupting infighting among Jewish sects after the Second Temple’s destruction. Ilouz contemporizes the concept by quoting Gershom Sholem’s criticism of Hannah Arendt’s “heartlessness” in reporting on the Eichmann trial, specifically on the grounds that she lacked ahavat Israel. Arendt didn’t deny this, arguing instead, that a true intellectual needed distance and independence to voice her opinions.

For Jewish critics in the second half of the 20th century, ahavat Israel had become a virtual gateway to legitimacy, claims Ilouz. Criticism of Israel is only acceptable if it’s permeated with an embrace of the country and its people’s history. The measure of acceptable solidarity isn’t always clearly defined, resulting in an emotional demand for “hypersolidarity.” Otherwise, the Jewish critic is subject to accusations of being anti-Israel or anti-Zionist and runs the risk of public excoriation for his views. Ilouz invokes a recent example of this dynamic. Journalist Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, is infused with hypersolidarity. This has made his chapter on Jewish violence in Lydda during the 1948 war palatable to the book’s prime audience – North American liberal Jewish readers.

Ilouz attributes this insular perspective to history, but more recently, to the institutionalization of Zionist groups, as well as the memory of the Shoah as a key component of secular Jewish identity and the prevalence of U.S. interest group politics. Each is worthy of independent discussion, but together, they’ve contributed to the difficulty of discussing Jewish Diaspora institutions and Israeli policies.

Precisely because of this, today, it’s important to open our own kimono and discuss changes in North American Jewry. The Open Hillel movement challenging Hillel’s restrictions on speakers’ credentials and the much-criticized Conference of Presidents’ recent vote against admitting J Street are just two examples of the need to have a new debate. I believe this can be done because of allegiance to – and not in spite of – ahavat Israel.

Hypersolidarity can close down a conversation, because it can become a no-win, futile ideological debate. So we need to determine the boundaries of solidarity. What does it mean to be “pro-Israel” today? Is it supporting all members of the coalition? Is it support for laws that will weaken Israel’s democracy by giving even greater preference to its Jewish national component? Is it supporting a prime-minister-sponsored law to weaken the presidency in order to influence the results of the next election? And is supporting groups that want to challenge such moves an “anti-Israel” act? Surely we can go beyond such simplistic definitions. As Ilouz underscores: “If the contemporary Jewish intellectual has a task, it’s to unveil the conditions under which Jewish solidarity should or should not be accepted, debunked or embraced.”