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Using the Language of shame

By Mira Sucharov, February 16, 2011

Many political players and observers have been discussing Israel’s recent social tensions using the language of shame. When 39 Israeli rabbis issued a letter urging their fellow citizens not to rent apartments to Arabs, Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin told a Ha’aretz reporter that the letter “shames the Jewish people.”

When David Rotem, an MK from the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, proposed a bill that would cease to recognize conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis, then-Labor (now Independence) MK Einat Wilif said she was “ashamed of those who in the era after the establishment of the state of Israel accept the authority of Rabbis that belong to a pre-Zionist era.”
When past-President Moshe Katzav was convicted of rape, sexual assault and harassment, Ha’aretz senior legal commentator Ze’ev Segal wrote that that Katzav has “brought a mark of shame to our democracy.”

And when the Knesset decided in early January to strike a parliamentary committee to investigate left-wing NGOs, Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz called it “a shame on the Knesset.”

But as a Diaspora Jew, I am not ashamed of the rabbis’ letter, reminiscent, as it is, of some of European Jewry’s darkest memories. I am not ashamed of the conversion bill which slaps the face of the liberal forms of Judaism in which I invest considerable time and emotional energy. I am not ashamed of President Moshe Katzav’s acts of sexual brutality. And I am not ashamed of the sudden turn to investigate left-wing NGOs in Israel, as if those who seek a more just and humane society are a fifth column.

I am distressed. I am alarmed. I am saddened. But I refuse to feel ashamed by any of these chinks in the armor of Israel’s democracy. Because soon as we own another’s actions -- as if we, ourselves, committed them, we forfeit our ability to be the critic we need to be as self-declared friends of Israel. Shame is certainly an evocative way to express political anguish. But shame also does something very unhelpful: it can lead the ashamed to turn inward, burying the problem rather than fixing it.

With shame comes ostrich-policies, allowing Israel to careen down its dangerous course. What Israel needs more than anything is to turn outward and -- to borrow a phrase from Justice Louis D. Brandeis -- have sunlight disinfect the anti-democratic tendencies gripping the country in a chokehold.

With sunlight and a microscope and a dry leaf, we can perhaps hope to ignite a smoke signal to send to our Israeli kith and kin to let them know that we care. Nurturing a sense of shame isn’t going to help. Opening Israeli policies up to the light just might.

There’s a short line to be drawn between the propensity to feel collective shame -- whether within the chambers of the Knesset, along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor, or across the communities of the Diaspora -- and not wishing to “air one’s dirty laundry,” as the tired phrase goes. And who are at the forefront of this shush-away-the-criticism tendency? The elaborate network of what is known in the Diaspora as “Israel advocacy.”

Israel’s democracy is hurting. Its institutions are vibrant, but its pluralistic, tolerant character is fast eroding. Israel is in danger of becoming an illiberal democracy, that hybrid political veneer that public intellectual Fareed Zakaria warned us about a decade ago, as many democracies the world over -- particularly young ones -- were scoring well on ballot boxes but low on liberties.

Many individuals and groups engaged in mainstream Israel advocacy would no doubt agree that the trends I listed above are problematic, and maybe even tragic.

But Israel advocates are taught to defend Israel from the weapon of public opinion. They think that any trenchant criticism of Israel is like a missile, threatening Israel’s well-being. But the logic is mixed up. Only robust discussion of where Israel’s democracy is headed can have a hope in heck of saving it.

Many Diaspora voices are doing just that, realizing that to support Israel doesn’t mean enabling these illiberal tendencies. Groups like J Street, the New Israel Fund, Peace Now and Ameinu are the kinds of friends that will help Israel regain its democratic composure. Canadian Jews, sadly, have been slower than our American counterparts to join this urgent conversation. (Regrettably for Canadians, J Street -- the biggest “pro-Israel, pro-peace” player on the block these days -- is busy expending its limited resources on Capitol Hill rather than on Parliament Hill.)

Let me hereby ask my fellow Canadians who will join me? The time is now to turn outward, toward the light of honest critique. And that -- rather than turn away in silent shame -- is what friends do for each other.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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