Who Gets To Talk About Israel?
Emily Hauser on why you don't have to live in Israel to have an opinion about it.
In yesterday’s Haaretz, Israeli journalist Vered Kellner took on a topic that comes up regularly among People Who Discuss Israel, whether it’s people who do so professionally (like folks writing in spaces like this one), or in their spare time (like seemingly everyone at a synagogue).
The argument boils down to: You can’t talk about a place where you don’t live. Which in turn boils down to: You don’t understand.
This discussion often becomes just as heated as any other concerning Israel, but Kellner’s approach was gentle and affectionate—more along the lines of a friendly suggestion, which means a conversation can actually be held. This is a real boon, and I’m grateful to her. But I still disagree.
“In this global environment,” Kellner writes,
we all live under the delusion that borders are an archaic relic of an age when you needed a walking stick, a backpack and a small inherited fortune to get to know different worlds. Today, with one friend telling me about his daily routine in Berlin and another sending updates from Florida every ten minutes, it’s easy to feel as though the world were in the palm of our hands. That we have enough information to put together a well-informed opinion in every controversy. Even if it’s on another continent.
Kellner recently moved to New York from Tel Aviv, and anchors her argument in her own experiences with the American scene.
To keep from falling into the trap of rudely translating my opinions from the old country, I tried to do my homework…. But even after all that, I realized that as an outsider, I was better off listening than talking…. I learn pretty quickly that intuition is a matter of geography.
Admittedly, I’m an Israeli citizen who took herself across the ocean but continues to mouth off about the Jewish State, so I’m hardly objective—I clearly do what I do because I think I have a right to do it.
Yet I think that other people have that right, too. People have a right to think about and try to influence the good and bad in this world no matter where they find themselves.
But the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora goes well beyond that. The modern-day State of Israel has always been defined as the Jewish State. Jews all over the world are educated from the crib to think of Israel as their spiritual home, and encouraged to do all they can to strengthen their cultural, emotional, and financial ties to that home. In the U.S. in particular, Jews are called upon—and not just by their rabbis, but by politicians like Prime Minister Netanyahu and representatives like Ambassador Oren—to a) give money, b) pester their elected representatives to support Israeli governmental policies, and c) pester their elected representatives to give money.
And either American Jews are part of the family, or not. Either we have power that Israel wants to borrow in the name of mishpucha and solidarity, or we don’t. Israel really can’t have it both ways—the Jewish State really can’t tell us that it’s our near-religious duty to love it, and then tell us that we don’t get to have any say in how its future plays out.
Moreover, one need look no further than the 2012 elections to see that the American-Israeli relationship is also unique. Israel and its government’s demands on this country’s politicians have an enormous and entirely outsized effect on U.S. politics, and ultimately on American security. Americans have a right to an opinion on all that—even if that opinion is, as Kellner mentions with regard to J Street, at odds with the Israeli zeitgeist. I know that Israelis have by and large given up on peace (I wrote about that just this week, in fact), but America’s failure to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement has a powerful and direct impact on American lives, too.
And having said all that, there is something to what Kellner says—at a certain point, I don’t understand. I’ve lived through war in Tel Aviv, but I didn’t live through the last one in Sderot. I’ve fought for justice for Palestinians, but I haven’t fought while also rebuilding my home in Gaza. This is why so much of my writing depends on the work of people actually living there—because they actually live there. We need to listen to their voices (even the ones with which we don’t agree) if the opinions we form are going to be helpful.
I do understand what Kellner was driving at, and I hope that that my response has been in the same open spirit with which her piece was written. But I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.