About two weeks ago, during a game of Scrabble with a friend who is a devout Likud voter, I told her that I had been invited by a British radio station (Monocle 24) that I had never heard of before, to participate in a program about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was to be one of four programs about controversial leaders, dealing with extremely knotty issues in their respective states (the other three being Miguel Diaz-Canelof Cuba, Theresa May of the UK and Narendra Modi of India).
My friend’s reaction dumbfounded me. Knowing my left-wing views and criticism of Netanyahu, she said, “I hope you will not speak out against Israel!”
“I beg your pardon,” I replied. “I see that Netanyahu has been successful in convincing the public – including intelligent and educated persons like yourself – that by definition anyone who is not a right-wing Bibi supporter is to be suspected of being a self-hating traitor. Do you think I am less patriotic or less concerned about the future of Israel than you are?”
“Oh, it isn’t personal,” she replied.
“Isn’t personal?” I shot back at her. “You said that you hoped that I personally wouldn’t speak out against Israel and if you want to know, I conditioned my participation in the program on its also hosting someone who is pro-Bibi, and was assured that that was the intention.”
In fact, my part in the program focused on the question of who opposes Netanyahu in Israel and why, but in my answers I also spoke of issues and policy goals on which there is a broad consensus in Israel, though not necessarily on the measures taken to attain them.
That ended the conversation, and the Scrabble game continued. However, I kept thinking about what my friend had said, and reached the conclusion that what she had meant when she said that her question was “not personal” was that she would have said exactly the same thing to any left-winger who would have told her what I had told her.
However, I took it personally, because it indicated that at least some of my right-wing friends accept Netanyahu’s constant derogatory reference to the Smolanim (Leftists) as having forgotten what it is to be Jewish, of being anti-Zionist (even though they established and led the State through its most difficult years), of caring more about the Arabs than their fellow Jews, of busing Arabs to the polling stations, of being opposed to the concept of “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People” just because they oppose the wording of the current Basic Law on the subject (especially its lacunae), or of being generally concerned about human rights issues.
I started thinking more seriously about the question of where the borderline runs between criticizing Netanyahu and speaking against Israel when I read an interview with Dame Vivien Duffield, daughter of the late Jewish millionaire philanthropist Charles Clore, and a philanthropist by her own right, that appeared in the Haaretz weekend supplement Galeria, in which she said, “I am vehemently opposed to the Israeli policy, and express this to Israelis, but I wouldn’t dream of expressing it to Englishmen. I shall never criticize Israel. Netanyahu – a political figure – personally yes. But never Israel. In any case, there are two Israels and that which I am likely to criticize is the one of the extreme Right.”
I disagree. There is only one formal Israel, in which there are many views, feelings and perceptions of what the State of Israel and its policies should be. The policies of the State of Israel are the policies laid down by its government, and today, more than at any time in the past, the policies of the State of Israel in many spheres are those of its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who frequently assumes the pose of Louis XIV of France: l’état c’est moi.
If one accepts this pose, then any criticism of Netanyahu is a criticism of the State of Israel, and there is no distinction between Netanyahu’s personal hedonism, which might or might not have spilled over into criminal offenses, and Israel’s foreign policy and other policies, which Netanyahu has crafted personally, frequently without consulting anyone (certainly not the Knesset). But Netanyahu is not the state, and the state is not Netanyahu. He is its elected prime minister and in a democracy the prime minister is not and cannot be above criticism.
Netanyahu’s foreign policy, though very effective in certain spheres, is also highly problematic in others, such as the courting of extreme right-wing European regimes with a clear anti-Semitic flavor, turning his back to liberal states who are truly concerned about human and civil rights abuses around the world – including in Israel and the territories – and treating US President Donald Trump as something of a messiah, despite his extremely problematic personal and public conduct.
So if one criticizes the problematic parts of Israel’s current foreign policy and some of its domestic policies, which were crafted by Netanyahu personally, does this constitute criticism of Netanyahu or an attack on Israel? And if Netanyahu and his government promote anti-democratic legislation and openly try to weaken the power of the Supreme Court to fulfill its constitutional task of being a watchdog over the activities of the legislative and executive authorities (just as the Polish government is trying to do in Poland), does speaking against this constitute “speaking against the state” or is it part of a deep, sincere and legitimate attempt by those who love Israel, no less than does Netanyahu himself, to try and sound a warning bell that the beloved state is being led in certain spheres to bad and harmful places?
As a post script, and only indirectly connected to what I dealt with above, I should like to mention the following episode that occurred at the Taba border crossing a week ago Sunday. On that evening, it was reported by the media, two young Jewish American women who work for organizations that operate in Israel to assist Palestinians and have valid Israeli work permits to do so, were detained for three hours on the Israeli side of the border crossing on their way back from the Sinai into Israel, for a “friendly” chat, without being formally accused of anything. One of the questions they were asked by the border personnel (who were not members of the Shabak) was what they think about Netanyahu. Though the Shabak reportedly denied that they had instructed the border personnel to ask this question, the fact that someone official considered this to be a legitimate question under the circumstances, is certainly cause for concern.
“The policing of thoughts” is what comes to mind.
I wonder what I would have done if this had happened to me. Fortunately, the person who asked me about Netanyahu a week and a half ago was a British radio reporter and I had given my prior consent to be interviewed on the subject.