Sunday, August 08, 2010

Two Types of Criticism

Thomas Friedman's op-ed today is about Shlomi Eldar's documentary "Precious Life", a film I haven't seen yet, but would like to. It follows the story of a baby from Gaza who gets treatment for a rare illness at Tel HaShomer Hospital in Israel. 

Friedman's description of the film is a segueway into a discussion of two ways of criticizing Israel - constructive and destructive:

"Constructive criticism starts by making clear: “I know what world you are living in.” I know the Middle East is a place where Sunnis massacre Shiites in Iraq, Iran kills its own voters, Syria allegedly kills the prime minister next door, Turkey hammers the Kurds, and Hamas engages in indiscriminate shelling and refuses to recognize Israel. I know all of that. But Israel’s behavior, at times, only makes matters worse — for Palestinians and Israelis. If you convey to Israelis that you understand the world they’re living in, and then criticize, they’ll listen.

Destructive criticism closes Israeli ears. It says to Israelis: There is no context that could explain your behavior, and your wrongs are so uniquely wrong that they overshadow all others. Destructive critics dismiss Gaza as an Israeli prison, without ever mentioning that had Hamas decided — after Israel unilaterally left Gaza — to turn it into Dubai rather than Tehran, Israel would have behaved differently, too. Destructive criticism only empowers the most destructive elements in Israel to argue that nothing Israel does matters, so why change?

How about everybody take a deep breath, pop a copy of “Precious Life” into your DVD players, watch this documentary about the real Middle East, and if you still want to be a critic (as I do), be a constructive one. A lot more Israelis and Palestinians will listen to you."
I agree that there is constructive and destructive criticism, though my approach isn't exactly the same as Friedman's. First of all, to be constructive you don't have to start every criticism of Israel with "I know the Arabs are bad too, but..." - that would just be a waste of time. That just sounds too apologetic, as if you have to be much more careful when criticizing Israel than when you're criticizing any other country.

Second of all, you can usually (but not always) understand from the criticism itself, without any "contextualizing introductions", if the critic sees a complex picture or sees everything as Israel's fault.

Thirdly, I'd also use the same standards regarding critcism of Arabs. Just like there are some who see everything as Israel's fault, there are those who see everything as Israel's enemies' fault. That is no more helpful or less destructive than blind criticism of Israel. When you call out either side, be constructive.

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