In Thursday’s op-ed (“A Critique of the Anti-Israel Establishment,” Oct. 28), Rabbi Shmully Hecht criticized J Street and Peter Beinart ’93 for encouraging anti-Israel advocacy in the American public sphere. Rabbi Hecht, who was not present at the event, mischaracterized this diverse gathering of pro-Israel students, which was sponsored by both the Yale Friends of Israel and J Street U. Beinart did not encourage hatred of Israel or make students “feel guilty for admiring a Jewish democracy,” but spoke about the importance of defending liberal values as an expression of pro-Israel activism.
Beinart’s love for the Jewish State comes from his deep connection to Judaism and its history; his critiques of the state come from the same place. To say that J Street and Beinart are trying to drive a wedge between American Jews and Israel is to fundamentally misrepresent their motives. Beinart decried the dwindling support of American liberal Jews for Israel, and J Street’s main goal is to re-engage Jews who feel alienated both by Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians and by the American Jewish discourse on Israel. Beinart, like YFI, fundamentally supports Israel.
The irony of Rabbi Hecht’s comments is that they represent exactly the problematic discourse that Beinart identifies. The refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of any criticism of Israel weakens American Zionism by alienating young American Jews who want to simultaneously express their support for Israel and their deep concern about some of its policies.
Criticism of Israel is not tantamount to dismissing its right to exist, as Rabbi Hecht implies; nor does it ignore or negate deserved criticism of other actors in the Middle East. Criticism is a pillar of democracy. As such, our goal should be to promote diverse, challenging discourse on Israel within the American Jewish community — a type of discourse that is entirely normal in Israel itself. Attendance last night represented this diversity — “friends of Israel” from all over the political spectrum convened to discuss the challenge of loving Israel while disagreeing with some of its policies and empathizing with the plight of the Palestinians.
Beinart spoke of his four-year-old son — a “budding Zionist” who has an Israeli flag hanging in his room — of Israel’s necessary and laudable role as a refuge for the Jewish people, and of the need to confront anti-Semitism wherever it might be, especially when cloaked in criticism of Israel. He called Israel our “birthright” — not just its Jewish character but also its liberal democratic character, which is being threatened both externally by Hamas and Hezbollah and internally by right-wing radicals. Those in attendance were not there to look for another way to smear Israel; they wanted to engage in a nuanced discussion of American support of Israel. Those in our organizations who oppose certain Israeli policies do so out of true love and concern for Israel, in part because they are worried that those policies are working against Israel’s security, Jewish character and fight for peace.
While Yale Friends of Israel and J Street may not share common stances on everything, we welcome opinions like Beinart’s into the discourse. The viewpoints expressed in Rabbi Hecht’s article are in the extreme minority among Yale’s pro-Israel community. Most of that community accepts productive, fair critics of Israel who are not apologists for the behavior of Israel’s enemies. Beinart surely falls into this category.
Shai Kamin is a junior in Pierson College and the co-president of Yale Friends of Israel. Ellen Degnan is a junior in Silliman College and is on the board of J Street U at Yale.