On Criticizing Israel

by Howard Singer

Rabbi Singer is national director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, New York City.

This article appeared in the Christian Century April 11, 1984, p. 363. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Most people have little firsthand knowledge of Mideast history. Their sympathies are largely shaped by the media, a weak reed. Directions are given, in ascending order of difficulty, to help readers separate the rabid from the rational variety: 1. Identify the rabid style, and dismiss it. 2. Distrust the provocative literary image. 3. Maintain a sense of reality. 4. Consider the probable source. 5. Determine the critic’s ideology. 6. Suspect the worst.

On November 4, 1983, a member of a Muslim suicide squad attacked an Israeli compound in southern Lebanon with a truck bomb, killing more than 60 soldiers, The following day Israeli fighter planes bombed the base from which the truck might have come. That night, the television newscaster I was watching remarked that the Israelis believe in an eye for an eye or, better yet, two eyes for an eye.

The following day French fighter planes attacked the same guerrilla base, and many more people were killed than in the Israeli raid. That evening the same TV reporter spoke of the French reprisal raid. That’s all: a reprisal raid. No purple prose, no biblical references.

The Israeli raid could have been ill conceived or too costly in lives, and for that matter many Israelis now think the same might be said of the Lebanon invasion as a whole. But at the time I could think only about the distorting effect of the newscaster’s biblical reference. I could hear in it the echo of youthful Sunday school lessons on the superiority of the New Testament’s law of love over the Old Testament’s rule of vengeance. To me the newscaster’s comment was amateur theological sniping from the pretended objectivity of a news report. And by concentrating on that aspect, I lost sight of the larger problems. The incident provides a perfect paradigm for the present Jewish predicament.

I have lived in Israel, and I love the country with a passion. Still, much that is now going on there disturbs and saddens me. The economy is in serious difficulty, the army is bogged down in southern Lebanon, and some Orthodox elements are increasingly intolerant. Like other thoughtful Jews, I want to address Israel’s problems constructively. But for many years now I have been a victim of self-censorship.

Don’t ascribe my unwillingness to criticize Israel to typical Jewish defensiveness. Instead, imagine yourself a hostage in Iran, forced to listen hour after hour, month after month, to Ayatollah Khomeini’s fulminations against America, the Great Satan. Would you discuss the failures of American democracy within hearing of your captors? The difference between the helpful critic and the turncoat lies in the context.

My friends and I know that rational criticism of specific Israeli policies is absolutely essential, as such criticism is to the functioning of any democracy. But we are exposed to a torrent of monstrous statements about Israel from Libyans, Syrians, the PLO, and communist and Third World nations. We are afraid that our valid, limited, friendly criticism, when voiced, will help prepare people psychologically to accept the conclusions offered at the savage extreme.

Should I have more faith in the capacity of the average American to distinguish between the wild slanders by Israel’s deadly enemies and the helpful criticism from friends? Most people, however, have little firsthand knowledge of Mideast history. Their sympathies are largely shaped by the media, a weak reed. Having worked as a journalist myself, I know the problems that reporters face, and they were never more apparent than during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Media people are forced to simplify complex issues to conform to limited newsprint space, to deadlines, to the requirements of a visual medium. A single bombed-out house will get more media play than a thousand homes that remain intact because some unknown commander refrained from using artillery before moving up.

Most journalists are conscientious, but I’ve known some who were unprepared for foreign assignments, too lazy to dig for information, content to rely on handouts, and cynical about playing up to their editors’ preconceptions. Nor were they above selecting the facts that suited those preconceptions and ignoring the ones that didn’t. I tremble when I reflect that the majority of Americans must depend on the media for all their international news.

Consequently, when I see people reading an article or a news item on Israel, I react like a conscientious parent whose only child has developed an addiction to junk food; I want to sneak a few vitamins into the soft drinks and candy bars. The best I can do is to offer a few rules of thumb. Israel, like every other nation, benefits from perspective. It needs rational, specific, valid, helpful criticism from friends. Instead, it receives an inordinate amount of criticism that is malicious, even rabid. The most disturbing thing is that too many people don’t seem to know the difference. And so I offer some directions to follow, in ascending order of difficulty, to help readers separate the rabid from the rational variety.

1. Identify the rabid style, and dismiss it.

Listen to Jordan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hazem Nuseibeh:

The representative of the Zionist entity is evidently incapable of concealing his deep-seated hatred toward the Arab world for having broken loose from the notorious exploitation of its natural resources, long held in bondage and plundered by his own people’s cabal which controls and manipulates and exploits the rest of humanity by controlling the money and wealth of the world. It is a well-known fact that the Zionists are the richest people in the world and control much of its destiny.

No genuine charges given, no names, dates or specifics. The statement isn’t addressed to Israel but to humanity’s darkest fears. Its aim is to revive forgotten myths about secret Jewish conspiracies.

This sort of “criticism” received an enormous boost from the notorious UN declaration on November 10, 1975, that Zionism is racism. The resolution created a pseudolegal justification for the line that Israel’s very existence is “illicit.” That theme is a hidden, burning fuse in all the rhetoric pumped out of Arab countries (even Egypt), and in much of the propaganda of communist and Third World nations. The implication is that the return of captured territory won’t bring peace; that can be achieved only by ending Israel’s existence.

2. Distrust the provocative literary image.

Here is the way Nicholas Von Hoffman, a respected journalist, described the fighting in Lebanon: “Incident by incident, atrocity by atrocity, Americans are coming to see the Israeli government as pounding the Star of David into a swastika.”

The theme that Israel was behaving like Nazi Germany was popular with a great many journalists during the first days of the Lebanon invasion. There was talk of Israel’s “genocide” of the Palestinians and of a new “holocaust”; there were comparisons of Begin to Hitler. However, the Israelis attacked and pursued heavily armed enemies who made no secret of their own murderous intentions. In the 1930s, was European Jewry armed and threatening to attack Nazi Germany and destroy it? Has Israel set up gas chambers to murder all the Palestinians? Why were such comparisons repeated until they became cliches?

The only reason I can think of, aside from disguised hatred of Jews, is terminal shallowness. When there is nothing fresh to say, journalists fall back on striking associations. If the Israelis suffer casualties and then stage an air raid, bring in the old eye-for-an-eye bit. If the Israelis advance rapidly, dress it up by calling it a blitzkrieg. That note has resonance, for Jews and Germans are locked together to all eternity by their horrifying history, and it provides a shocking, colorful twist. The Jews will howl because it deprives them of their moral superiority as victims, but people were getting tired of that emphasis anyway. The shocking account sells papers, and its lofty, judgmental tone lends a note of dignity to an otherwise pedestrian report.

3. Maintain a sense of reality.

Recently an article in a church publication castigated Israel for deliberately humiliating Arabs and treating them as second-class citizens. The evidence: Arabs, but not Jews, are searched when entering certain public places. However, Arabs, not Jews, had planted bombs in public places. A month before this writing, an unusually powerful bomb exploded in a Jerusalem bus, killing several children and adults, and maiming scores of passengers and bystanders. An Arab terrorist group promptly, and proudly, claimed responsibility.

Moreover, searches are not designed to humiliate. Americans are searched electronically before boarding commercial airliners. We accept that measure to guard against hijackings. Every Israeli citizen looks forward to the day when the bomb searches will cease. Why would anyone assume malice when necessity is so clear? But perhaps the malice is in the critic, not the Israelis.

On a new and grievous note: In recent weeks a Jewish group calling itself TNT (in Hebrew, Terror Against Terror), has been retaliating by planting bombs where Arabs congregate. After 36 years of Arab terror, Jewish self-control has apparently broken down within one small group. But consider the difference. The Israeli government promptly condemned TNT in the strongest possible terms. No pride in terrorism here. And no doubt Jews as well as Arabs entering a public building will have to be searched. I don’t think that development should be regarded as something to celebrate.

4. Consider the probable source.

A journalist depends on other people for information, especially in a fast-breaking story in a foreign country. The language barrier alone can make such dependence necessary. That’s why a clever propagandist can feed a journalist the sort of nonsense that sticks and often makes an indelible impression on the public. The truth rarely catches up with the original lie. People quickly lose interest in a story, cease to follow it, and retain their first impression.

In the first days of the Lebanon invasion, correspondents talked about an “estimated” 10,000 killed and 700,000 homeless. The enormous numbers gave the impression of terrible Israeli ruthlessness. At first the journalists attributed the statistics to the International Red Cross, which issued a prompt denial. Much later the source was discovered to be the Palestinian Red Crescent, whose president is the brother of Yasir Arafat. Sophisticated correspondents should have known better than to accept the information without question.

The media generally attributed to Israel the damage that the Syrians, the PLO, the Druse and the Christians inflicted upon one another. In one photo, a grieving Arab mother shown at the grave of her son was presented to the public as a victim of Israeli ruthlessness. The American photographer could not read the Arabic on the gravestone. Those who could revealed that the son had been killed during the PLO-Syrian fighting two years before the Israelis moved in.

And rarely did any news medium admit its errors. One honorable exception was the Christian Science Monitor. On June 25. 1981, the Monitor ran an advertisement for the Palestine Information Service claiming that more than 500 people had been killed in Palestinian refugee camps by Israeli air raids. Twelve days later the paper stated that the correct figure was 100, not 500, and that “of these about 90 had been killed by Syrian shelling, about 10 from Israeli attacks.”

5. Determine the critic’s ideology.

Peace activist David Dellinger visited Israel in 1981. During an interview in which he was asked to give his impressions, he drew parallels between German Nazism and the Israeli government. His evidence: the license plates on the cars of Arabs living in the West Bank reminded him, he said, of the yellow cards Jews had to carry during the Nazi era. Had he bothered to ask, Dellinger would have learned that the distinctive license plates were Jordanian. For a leftist ideologue out to beat Israel, any handy obscenity will do.

6. Suspect the worst.

Take the case of Alexander Cockburn, one of Israel’s severest journalistic critics, who hammered away unceasingly with the “Israelis are Nazis” line. Later it was discovered that he had accepted a $10,000 fee from an Arab organization for a book that he never wrote. In Europe it has long been taken for granted that journalists are for sale; the practice is still something of a novelty here, but it appears to be growing.

On the whole, Jews are not really as defensive as they may appear. But they know that true critics, like true prophets, are those who criticize with love. They also know that the true prophets can be heard only after the false prophets cease their din.