The fundamental principle of Zionism – the belief in the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their native homeland – is growing increasingly provocative. I cannot think of another state and army more heavily scrutinized and its right to exist questioned so consistently by the international community than the State of Israel. The struggle in protecting the Jewish state’s right to exist is unprecedented, spurring Zionists to constantly protect their identity. Anti-Zionism is gaining a louder voice, becoming more acceptable to those in the middle of the political spectrum and not just among the far left and the far right.

The escalating demonization is impacting our ability to engage in constructive conversation where criticism of Israeli policies should take place. The continued attacks on Zionism have made our responses instinctively defensive, and differentiating anti-Zionism from legitimate criticism is becoming increasingly challenging. This threatens our opportunity to create positive and constructive change. With emotions running high it is easy to see any criticism as an attack on Israel’s entire foundation, limiting everyone’s capacity to critique policy.

But what does legitimate criticism of Israel look like? More importantly, how do we respond to it in a healthy manner? How can we actively support Israel’s right to exist while also contributing to a sound debate without getting caught in the hostile crossfire between those demonizing and those defending?

First, we must understand how to properly recognize anti-Zionism in order to differentiate it from critique. If the premise of an argument being made or its conclusion rejects the right of the Jewish people to self-determinization in their ancestral home, then it is anti-Israel and it comes in different forms.

We’ll often hear Zionism being equated with racism which ignores important nuances, painting the conflict in black and white. This argument distorts the pluralism that thrives there, the democracy and active civil society that are essential to elements just as much as its Jewish nature. This narrow-minded approach villainizes and demonizes Israel.

Those who offer solutions to the conflict by calling for a bi-national or entirely Palestinian state is assuming the destruction of the Jewish nature of the state, making it anti-Zionist. Abba Eban spoke at the UN saying “to question the Jewish people’s right to national existence and freedom is not only to deny to the Jewish people the right accorded to every other people in this globe, but it is also to deny the central precepts of the United Nations.” However, it is important to note that being pro-Palestinian or advocating for a Palestinian state neighboring Israel is not inherently anti-Zionist. A Palestinian state will not take away Israel’s Jewish character.

Does calling out Israel’s faults constitute a form of demonization? No, it is impossible to assume every action the state takes will be just, ethical, or fully thought through. Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians has been filled with violence and adversity and there will always be ways to improve, which is exactly why criticism is so important. Our right to defend ourselves does not take away our responsibility to develop in the best possible manner.

Israel’s imperfections, however, do not remove its right to exist. The double standard is a magnifying glass that seems to willfully ignore the terrible tragedies in surrounding countries but judges Israel with extreme prejudice. But is it possible that some of these judgments hold merit?

Trying to understand who is demonizing and who is criticizing can often get emotional and divisive. My personal answer is simple and straightforward (and probably something you’ve heard before): engage criticism and opposing ideas by asking questions. A seemingly obvious and easy solution on the surface, but actually an incredibly demanding challenge. Instinctively, our first reaction is to explain the “truth” as we see it and expect the other side to readily “see the light” and come to their senses.

Trying to get to the heart of someone’s opinions does not diminish your own.

By engaging in the Socratic method, we uncover hidden truths and create better solutions. From the wise words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, “It is the people not like us that make us grow…if we surround ourselves with people like us, we get more extreme.” I feel it is important to note that this has nothing to do with neutrality. Trying to get to the heart of someone’s opinions does not diminish your own.

We must put in the hard work to understand who is criticizing for the betterment of Israel and who is demonizing the Jewish state. Engaging with criticism by asking questions forces both parties to reflect on fundamental issues and each other’s beliefs. Most often criticism comes from a place of love and as a Zionist I hold the right and responsibility to pursue what I believe is better for the future of the state. We must reinvigorate our passion for dialogue because without it we decay. There is a quote by James Baldwin every democratic citizen should live by: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Let's listen to the people we don’t always agree with. Criticizing Israeli policy is not the same as refusing the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. We have the chance to educate others and be educated in return. Understanding the difference between critique and demonization can give us the space we need to move forward constructively so that we can bridge the gaps growing between us. At the end of the day, we are stronger together.

Photo Credit: Jason Rosewell, Unsplash.com