Ideal Speech Situations

Religious Jew and African deportees. Tel Aviv, April 2018.


In the fourth grade, I stopped saying the pledge of the allegiance. While the other children clapped their hands to their hearts, I stood, my arms limp, lips still. It was not an act of rebellion, nor did I intend to disrespect the United States. I’d simply decided—after several classmates had tried to convert me to Christianity—that we were not “one nation, under God, indivisible”. As a Jew, I felt that my place was elsewhere.

One morning, as the chairs around me scraped the floor, I didn’t bother getting up. The collective voice began, “I pledge allegiance…” I stared at my desk, tracing the lines running through the laminated wood.

Someone tapped my shoulder.  I turned around. My teacher loomed above me. “…and to the republic…” she said, along with the children, as she gestured for me to rise.

My stomach lurched. I dreaded being sent to the principal’s office—this was the Deep South and in, those days, they still used the paddle.

As I picked up my backpack, my teacher shook her head. Not sure of what to do, I stood. She nodded and walked away.

Decades later, I stand under a different flag—blue and white, bearing a Star of David. But, as an American-Israeli journalist, I feel increasingly uncomfortable with flags. They reduce nations and people to a symbol, a strip of cloth to be stuffed into critics’ mouths.


It is often forgotten that both traditional and progressive impulses drive Jews to Israel. Not every such person is a future member of Anarchists Against the Wall, either, but someone bearing typically liberal, multicultural worldviews, which instinctually eschew traditional forms of patriotism to little or no controversy. We are Jews, therefore we question. Such inclinations are as at home in Israel as conservative ones. It is a comparable synergy, easily transported across national boundaries.

So I have often found myself admonishing those Jews who criticise work I’ve commissioned, that, like the example Mya provides, presents complex accounts of Israeli politics. I say ‘Israeli’ despite the fact that the example here is American. That is, a US experience which also holds relevance for how Mya views being a patriotic Israeli citizen.

Nonetheless, dispositions like this are subject to the most unhelpful kinds of criticisms, from both the right and the left, because of their perceived foreignness. Since liberalism is alien to Israeli politics, referencing Mya’s American political experiences only serves to underline what’s wrong with her Israeli ones. To rightists, that she is not sufficiently and typically native, to leftists, that she will never find solace in a fundamentally illiberal society.


In March, I published a piece arguing that West Bank settlements have rendered the two-state solution obsolete. To me, the article was innocuous, a statement of the obvious. But to one reader, who I guessed to be an American Jew, it was worthy of a death threat.

“You should be blown up,” the reader wrote, going on to curse my parents for having me.

I wasn’t frightened. But the emails—which have too many expletives to publish here—stung. It was the words “fake Jew” and “anti-Semite” that hurt the most.

And I felt the sting again when two of my stories turned up on the website of the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing. One, published with Al Jazeera English, discussed the growing presence of settlers in Yafo and the trouble posed by gentrification. The other, written for Maan News Agency, detailed the human toll of the blockade on Gaza.

Both articles were filed under the topic “Exposing Zionist Terrorism.” One displayed my name, prominently, in the title. There I was, below a Hamas flag.

My jaw tightened. A stone dropped down my throat, settled in my stomach. Hamas employs anti-Semitic propaganda. Its charter is riddled with conspiracy theories that blame us, the Jews, for conflicts the world over. It is easy to understand why the West has maligned Hamas as a terrorist group that wants to wipe Israel off the map.   

But reality is more complicated. Hamas is a political party, democratically elected, that has considered recognizing Israel within 1967 borders. And my articles, intensely researched, point towards Israeli policies that not only violate the human rights of Palestinians but threaten the state itself. 


In an October 2007 blog entry entitled “Haaretz Uses the A-Word,” Forward opinion page editor Daniel Treiman pointed out that the Israeli paper openly used the term ‘apartheid” in an editorial. Contending that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is a potentially worse form of domination than the original South African practice, Treiman nonetheless goes on to accuse Haaretz of not taking into account the surpluses of the word’s usage, and how non-Israelis would now point to the newspaper’s use of the term as justification to mischaracterise Israel as an “apartheid state”.

Reading Treiman’s post, I found myself growing increasingly irritated. On the one hand, there was nothing to be surprised by. Through calling Israeli government policies towards the Palestinians worse than ‘apartheid,’ (which, I believe to be a correct statement) and then proceeding to scold Haaretz for using such damning language, Treiman was simply reiterating what many American Jewish periodicals often say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: They know that what Israel is doing is wrong, but, for x reason, they’re still going to criticize anyone who actually says so.

The problem, as I explained to a Zeek author who had read Treiman’s blog entry, was that I found the American journalist’s admonition patronising. It was tantamount to pulling rank, giving unsolicited advice to one’s careless Israeli cousins. Again, appreciation of the nuance of what Treiman stated was important here. His admonition was not so much a request to observe Diaspora rituals of self-censorship. It was an expression of fear typical of a publishing environment in which Jewish journalists, like Mya, receive death threats for speaking freely.


Anti-Semite—it’s the first tactic pro-Israel talkbackers use. An easy response to criticism that skirts around the substance of the article, it’s like putting a hand before the reader’s face. “Don’t look here,” it says. The hand closes, the fist turns, the finger points. “Look there.”

Other comments work in a similar way. When I write about Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, I get remarks like: “But look at how badly they’re treated in the Arab world.” When I cover migrant workers, readers respond: “Why don’t you talk about what’s happening to them in Lebanon and Kuwait?”

The answer is simple: I have chosen to live under this flag —and whether I pledge allegiance to it or not I stand before it. As a citizen, my responsibility begins here. And because the world has taken to equating Judaism with Israel, wherever I go, I’m judged by this state.


Diaspora Jewry must cease dictating to Israelis that they should have less freedom to interpret their national experience than foreign Jews do. For as important as the Diaspora clearly remains for Israel’s existence, its responsibility transcends being protective of how Israel is perceived abroad. It must also help maximize the quality of Israeli life so that Israelis have the opportunity to experience the same freedoms as the Diaspora. If anything, it is a matter of fairness.

Witness the deteriorating political environment inside Israel.  Every major hallmark of the country’s democracy finds itself under duress. From state efforts to discipline the press (Anat Kam), criminalise dissent (harassing leftwing activists, investigating NGOs including those funded by the New Israel Fund, making support for boycotts a crime) to flouting Supreme Court rulings and discriminating against non-Jewish Israelis, political pluralism is on the verge of extinction and respect for the law is on the decline. 

How might non-Israeli Jews be persuaded to honour Israel’s right to remain a democracy? One way would be to point out that for as many risks as Israelis might take in speaking candidly, to do otherwise, for whatever ideological reason, is to risk losing sight of the country. Indeed, it is akin to turning Israel into a simulacrum, a spiritual fantasy. The more we fetishize Israel, the more that we marginalize those within it, and diminish its best political qualities, albeit those very facets of political life in the West which makes Jewish equality outside Israel possible.

We would have no need to be so concerned about how Israel were ‘constructed’ if it were not for the fact that the stresses which progressive journalists are often subject to are the kind that inhibit community within global Jewry. This is particularly problematic, as positive perceptions of the Jewish state continue to decline abroad, and distinctions between Israeli and foreign Jewry grow.


Death threats, talkbackers, Hamas—I carried that stone in my stomach for a while, wondering is it me?

And as it happens so rarely in life, I got a sign. Literally.

It was on Allenby Street. The poster, part of the New Israel Fund’s campaign to promote democracy and free speech, was wheat-pasted to a construction barricade. It read, “I won’t be silenced because my country has changed its face.”

I went home, grabbed my camera, and walked back. “Hamas be damned,” I thought, as I took a picture.

A truncated version of this article appeared in Tablet in 2010. Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.