Why Americans shy from criticizing Israel

The trauma of the holocaust and America's own far from unblemished history of anti-Semitic practices have understandably and correctly made many Americans circumspect in both their criticism of Israeli policies as well as of the lobbying efforts of Israel's domestic supporters. Yet in the quest to guard against a resurfacing of anti-Semitism, many non-Jews feel that a good deal of legitimate and decent discussion of America's proper role in the Arab-Israeli dispute has been silenced.

Often the litmus test for proving one's absence of anti-Jewish prejudice has seemed to be synonymous with an unfettered support of Israeli policies. Such a test is unfortunate, for it has led to disastrous consequences for America's Mideast policies; Israel's search for peace and security; and threatens the continued well-being of America's own Jewish community.

The uniquely personal and emotional bond between the American Jewish community and the State of Israel understandably infuses any criticism of Israel or its domestic supporters with considerable wariness. This writer, being black and deeply concerned with US policy toward Africa, can appreciate the anxiety caused by such cultural dualism. Perhaps for this reason one similarly situated feels capable of addressing the delicate question of the perils of excessive ethnic chauvinism in the pursuit of single-issue political objectives.

The expansive role of ethnic politics in the formulation of foreign policy is peculiar to America's democratic process. In an open and ethnically diverse society it is exceedingly difficult to establish norms delineating the proper extent of such participation; moreover, to do so prescriptively would so damage our greater constitutional values that the suggestion is scarcely worthy of further discussion. This is not to say, however, that ethnic groups are or should be free to pursue single-issue foreign policies which plainly frustrate the larger national interests.

The existence of a free and open debate of those foreign policy issues that clearly affect the welfare of the society as a whole, not merely its constituent parts, is central to defining the national interest. Until very recently, America's role in the Arab-Israeli dispute has been conspicuously exempt from the sort of free and open debate which has routinely accompanied foreign policy issues as diverse as the Vietnam War; the Panama Canal Treaty; nuclear disarmament; or US involvement in El Salvador, to name but a few.

The Arab-Israeli dispute has not escaped public discussion, but it has escaped the sort of wide-ranging debate that other issues of vital national importance customarily have received.

The fear of arousing the considerable opprobrium of Israel's domestic supporters has for years reduced even the most outspoken officials to silence where Israeli transgressions are concerned, but worse than the self-imposed silence of some legislators is the transparent opportunism of others. The Democrats' pallid statement at their recent mid-term convention on the Lebanese crisis was a stunning example of principle abandoned in pursuit of partisan political points. Yet few can equal Sen. Alan Cranston's penchant for elevating personal ambition over either principle or national interest, for if his highly publicized Mideast pronouncements are to be believed, one can only conclude that his views vary imperceptibly from those of the Israeli Knesset.

The dangers to American interests by an uncritical deference to Israeli words and deeds are by now obvious. Increasingly the counterproductive nature of Israeli actions toward its Arab neighbors generally, and the Palestinians in particular, gain resonance in Israel, as recent antiwar protests there vividly illustrate. However, the dangers to the interests of American Jewry seem not to have yet taken root by those most directly affected.

The parallels between the present condition of American Jews and that of blacks in the late '60s and early '70s bear close scrutiny. The penchant of militant blacks to peremptorily silence all criticism by non-blacks as ''racism'' is not unlike some Jews who dismiss non-Jewish Israeli criticism with the talismanic incantation of ''anti-Semitism.''

Blacks learned the hard way that the price for an excess of cultural nationalism has been the wholesale abandonment of the nation's commitment to civil rights generally, and affirmative action in particular. It is unlikely that the Jewish community will be spared a similar retrenchment unless it sheds itself of a similar ethnic chauvinism in its defense of Israel.

The paradox of course is that the laudable desire to proscribe the open expression of anti-Semitic sentiments by discouraging non-Jewish critiques of Israeli policies may in the longer term have quite the opposite result. Just as blacks unwittingly may have played a part in fostering a climate of relatively overt anti-black sentiment, the American Jewish community may find itself blindly treading down the same path.

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