Framing the Israel Debate: Beyond the Rhetoric of Hate Speech


A thoughtful and essential conversation on Israel is needed, so that both the supporters and opponents of the contemporary political condition can be invited to participate.

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Words can be employed as destructive weapons or they can be seen as supportive tools. The conversation around Israel often revolves around defining words or phrases, such as being identified as “pro Israel” or “anti Israel.” In December (2014) I presented on these pages a description of what I defined as “An Unsettling Jewish Environment” offering a commentary on the state of discourse around Israel. This piece seeks to expand upon that presentation in light of Israel’s recent election cycle.

Realizing how essential political discourse can be in promoting one’s argument, any effort to label some one or an organization by framing their positions with a general characterization can often be problematic. Indeed, there are enemies of the Jewish state who call for the dismantling the state, rejecting Zionism, seeking to impose sanctions or introducing boycotts. These positions must be categorized as outside of the boundaries of embracing the Jewish State.

But often one finds that the language surrounding the internal Israel debate takes on an added edge, and this was certainly the case involving the just completed Israeli elections. Over the past weeks, individuals or groups were often tarred with negative labels. “Obama is anti-Semitic” or Democratic Senators, who had elected not to attend the Prime Minister’s address before both Houses of the Congress, were described as not supportive of the pro-Israel agenda. At times sinister motives were applied to why this or that individual/institution has made a particular statement. No doubt there are specific code words that frame what appears to be a loyalty test on behalf of Israel. Jews who disagree with specific Israel positions have been called out as “Kapos”(Jews who served the interests of the Nazis) and certain institutions within the Jewish community were attacked for their policy positions as undermining the Jewish State. Even on occasions such persons or organizations have been targeted for retribution.

At times, criticism of Israeli government actions or statements has been seen as beyond the pale. Words or terms that often trigger negative reaction include “settlements, two-state solution, etc.” Often the ground rules that frame the debate are constructed around the argument that only Israelis can critique their society, and even here we find some who would bring into question the “patriotism” of such Israeli partisans. The question seems to remain, so are there issues where the friends of Israel who live outside, or even inside, of the State can engage?

A circle of defensiveness may best describe those who are not prepared to embrace an open and candid conversation. Demonizing the “other” is seen by psychologists as a defensive device, designed to affirm one’s confidence in their position by marginalizing an opponent.

Liberals or progressives who hold policy positions that may question Israeli policies are at times referred to as “anti-Israel.” Jews who have raised questions about Israeli actions are on some occasions charged with being “self-hating” or “disloyal.” If these assaults on specific political positions are driven by the political right, then in turn one can identify a similar set of wide-sweeping comments generated by the Jewish left. Phrases such as “Zionist crazies” or “the Jewish religious right” seek to encapsulate all Jews of a particular ideological stripe or religious bent with a shared political philosophy; this is simply not the case.

Nuance is an art, but it is also an essential political tool if we are to seriously encounter one another around complex and difficult issues. We require a “reality check” when introducing labels into the political conversation as they often don’t apply, or even misrepresent an opponent’s position.

Polling data today suggests that some Jews are so discouraged over an environment of political abuse that they have opted to walk away from conversations on Israel. Individuals report that it has become so painful at times to hold a discussion that the subject of Israel is removed from their social gatherings as a way not to antagonize or alienate friends. Indeed, life long friendships have been ended as a result of this Israel communications crisis.

As I had suggested:

A divided constituency and a dysfunctional polity can paralyze its (Israel) effectiveness on the political stage. The luxury of a “divided house” does not represent a prescription for Jewish security. Yet, a thoughtful and essential conversation on Israel is needed, so that both the supporters and opponents of the contemporary political condition can be invited to participate.

Political speak is an essential element in acquiring and employing one’s clout; the goal at all times is to win friends and to engage and educate opponents. Clearly, that cannot be accomplished if name-calling replaces a serious commitment to explore the issues. The “case” is the thing! Misplaced labels undermine core arguments and in the process destroy the credibility of those who deliver such charges.

In my previous article I noted:

Engaging in a dialogue constructed around competing ideas symbolizes the political maturity of a community. Those who have studied the elements of argumentation have suggested that before demeaning one’s opponents, it is essential to “enter into their place” in order to understand their motivations, arguments, history and fears. Passion is commendable but when one demonizes his/her opponent, there is often no room for constructive discourse or compromise. “Triumphalism” in Jewish history, where one group adopts a position of supremacy over an opponent’s argument, has been particularly problematic and often destructive.

As Israel moves beyond party politics in the aftermath of its national election, the sweeping diplomatic, military and economic challenges that face the Jewish State and the Middle East warrant a serious discourse on the part of Israel’s allies. In turn, Jewish political interests deserve our collective engagement.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His writings are posted on www.thewindreport.