On Israel: Name Calling Disguised as Analysis

01/16/2012 01:45 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2012

It's very difficult to have a conversation about Israel these days, particularly if you're an analyst of the country or if you are involved in some way in the diasporic Jewish community. Individuals and institutions are tagged as being either of the left or of the right; and once that tag sticks, dialogue becomes possible only within each side, but not between them. Because every person or group is labeled as part of one "side" or the other, anything that individual writes or argues, or any idea an institution promotes, is presumed tainted and therefore illogical and ideological only.

This undermines necessary policy discussions. At a time when the Middle East is undergoing critical shifts, when Israeli politics and society is changing , and when American politics is buffeted by competing currents of thought, we need serious analysis, not name-calling; a serious exchange of ideas, not willful ignorance and intolerance.

The problem is most dramatically manifested in the penchant for assigning labels. One is either an anti-Semite because one criticizes Israel too much, or one is an Israel Firster because one doesn't criticize Israel enough. Of course, these descriptions are caricatures; but that's because the very division into groups like this is a caricature of serious discussion itself.

It comes down to how critical one should be of Israel. This is made more problematic because Israel itself is an in-between place. It has a democratic system that provides for a wildly free press, and voting and representation rights for all segments in society; yet there is widespread and in some cases institutionalized discrimination against Arabs, Ethiopians, Mizrachi, and others. It protects considerable personal freedoms for its citizens yet occupies and oppresses an entire other people. It is a more or less stable ally of the West, with shared political and economic systems, in a region dominated by authoritarian systems that have long promoted anti-Western sentiments through official vehicles, and some of which have now collapsed leaving uncertainty in their wake. And Israel is engaged in geostrategic competition with regional states, some of whom are close allies of the West and the U.S.

Moreover, Israel itself is not an issue just for Israelis. It's an issue for the worldwide Jewish community, for Palestinians, and for Muslims. It's become a necessary element in political and ideological discourse in the United States as well, including in the non-Jewish communities.

It is hardly recognized anymore, but Zionism is a big tent. It always was, and includes a wide spectrum of interpretations. Even those who did not believe in a Jewish political entity saw Zionism as a vehicle for a Jewish cultural entity. The closing off of dialogue between various sides today would be unrecognizable to the Zionists of old. In Jewish communities around the world, in the World Zionist Organization, and in the political institutions of the Yishuv and then Israel, a multitude of Zionist parties and ideas interacted with each other on a regular basis.

Of course these discussions were not always easy, and sometimes were charged with virulence. There were powerful personal hostilities animating many of them: For a time David Ben-Gurion refused to speak the name of his political rival, Menachem Begin. He also opposed bringing the remains of Begin's predecessor as leader of the right, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, to Israel for burial as Jabotinsky had requested.

But even these personal views and widely-divergent priorities for Zionism never prevented cooperation if it was deemed necessary.

A real sorting out of contemporary issues is lost in these kinds of distractions today. Take, for example, discussion over Israel's opposition to an Iranian nuclear program. On the assumption that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons, Israel is anxious that a nuclear-armed Iran would tip the regional balance of power against it, and severely constrain Israel's ability to respond to smaller in-theater threats along the borders with Lebanon and Gaza.

The left seems to assume that Israel is on the verge of a conventional military attack on Iran, while the right seems to be encouraging just such an effort. And yet, the issue isn't -- and never has been -- so clear cut among Israeli decision-makers themselves (and here). These differing assessments are not themselves the problem, but the rhetorical arena in which it is taking place is. The tendency has become that those on one side accuse those on the other of promoting personal, political, or ideological agendas instead of genuine policy alternatives.

Take another example from another arena: the seeming surge of haredi efforts to force Israel into a Jewish theocracy. Instances of haredi bigotry and violence toward others have proliferated, at least publicly, in recent months. And yet, counter-vailing forces in Israel have prevented them from achieving any clear political, legal, or social victories. Yet again, the complexities get lost in what can only be described as increasingly shrill shouting matches between those who comment on such matters.

There are good, serious analyses of the issues, but they are often drowned in the sea of louder and more boisterous polemics. Analysis is subsumed within tweets, blog posts, and longer articles that are in effect a litany of accusations of the other side's mental deficiencies and preconceived preferences.

There are acute issues that need analysis, discussion, and resolution regarding Israel and its security and safety; about the welfare of its people; about its Jewishness; as well as about the safety, security, and welfare of Palestinians and others in the Middle East.

There is of course nothing wrong with holding different interpretations of events, and making arguments on that basis. There might even be an objective truth to one argument or the other. But this is precisely how a conversation should begin and end.