Now is the time for American Jews to speak up on Israel

As an Israeli in the U.S. I learned that criticizing Israel is not an option for many American Jews. But there is a legitimate way to criticize Israeli policy, and if you care about someone or something you won’t let it go astray.

By Abraham Gutman

Thousands protest the Gaza war in Tel Aviv, July 26, 2014. (photo:
Thousands protest the Gaza war in Tel Aviv, July 26, 2014. (photo:

We were sitting in front of a lagoon at the top of a volcano in Costa Rica. We were happy to get some rest after the three-hour hike, and took a short swim in the freezing water. With us was a group of tourists along with a local guide. There was a Dutch man, some Americans, a group of Canadians and two German women. After the swim we ate our lunch before the hike back down. As we chatted the guide asked me where I was from. “Israel,” I answered, and he immediately responded, “We have a lot of Israelis here, they are the worst clients.”

For the past couple of years I have been living in New York City, where I have learned that mocking Israelis or Israel is just not something that people do. Every conversation about Israel comes with baggage, be it historical, political or religious. Usually when people talk to me about Israel they chose their words very carefully, as every choice of word can change the tone, and changing the tone can transform the conversation. The Costa Rican guide laughed when he told me that Israelis are the worst customers. He was the only one laughing.

The guide and I then proceeded to get into a back-and-forth about Israelis. The truth is that he was dead on. The moment I started laughing at his precise observations, others began laughing as well; they saw my laughter as permission for them to laugh. It was the first time that someone outside of Israel was honest with me about Israelis. There was no underlying tone, no political context, no history – just a tour guide who found it funny that Israelis think nothing is difficult because they served in the army, or how we will always take the advice of another Israeli even over someone who clearly knows better (like a tour guide, for example). There is a way to criticize Israeli people, even jokingly, without a hidden context. How unfortunate that this can only happen on a volcano in Costa Rica.

Protesters gather in Tel Aviv's Rabin Squre to demonstrate against the Gaza war. (photo:
Protesters gather in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to demonstrate against the Gaza war. (photo:

In the U.S. I learned that criticizing Israel is not an option for many American Jews. But just like there is a way to criticize Israeli people, there must be a legitimate way to criticize Israeli policy. Many people say that if I criticize Israel my loyalty to my country or my love for it is questioned. They are wrong. I criticize Israel because I believe that when you care for someone or something you don’t let it go astray. And I am not the only one. During Israel’s offensive on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, a group of Israelis living in New York City published a letter to the American Jewish community, which stated: “The belief that being ‘pro-Israel’ means uncritically supporting the actions of the Israeli government and military does not help the Israeli people.” In the span of just a few days, 230 Israelis had signed the letter, which called on American Jews to be critical when discussing Israel, and empathetic to the lives of the four million Palestinians who are living under military occupation.

Read: Israelis urge American Jewish community to take closer look at Gaza 

Users of social media contribute to the polarization between those who are pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. With so much happening on social networks, it’s hard to make one’s voice heard. But there is another voice: Social media campaigns, such as #JewsAndArabsRefuseToBeEnemies – in which Arabs, Jews and people from all over the world talk about why they believe in peace – are trying to diffuse some of that polarization.

To reach a peaceful solution, we, the people of Israel and Palestine, as well as those who can affect public opinion all over the world, should move toward a more civil and peaceful form of engagement. Perhaps the next time we hear someone criticize Israel, we will imagine that we are on the top of a volcano in Central America, and that the words coming out of that person’s mouth are all he or she means. Maybe then we can talk about what really matters.

Abraham Gutman is originally from Tel Aviv, and is currently enrolled in a dual BA/MA program in economics in New York City. He tweets from @abgutman.

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