Criticizing Israel - The 5:1 Rule

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Dr. John Gottman has spent his career studying healthy marriages and has scientifically identified the behaviors that contribute to dysfunctional ones. He can spend a short time with a couple and predict with over 90% accuracy if they will still be married in five years from that point.


Gottman found that the single biggest determinant to a happy and healthy marriage is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another. A different study examined factors that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful business leadership teams. The optimal ratio was amazingly similar in both studies—five positive comments for every negative one. For those who ended up divorced (or for unsuccessful business teams), the ratio was 0.77 to 1—or something like three positive comments for every four negative ones.


If we want relationships to not only survive but to thrive, we must make a concerted effort to express compliments in a 5 to 1 ratio over criticisms.  This magic formula is critical not only for marriage or business but for any relationship we are invested in and we want to feel connected to. Parents must be mindful of the ratio in interacting with children and educators should be thoughtful of this proportion when communicating with students.


Recently, I have been thinking of one other relationship in which this ratio is critical: our relationship with the State of Israel.


The new Israeli government, one that has frequently been described as the most right-wing in Israel’s short history, has attracted significant attention and garnered strong criticism.  Some have expressed outrage at the election and appointment of several ministers. Others express concerns about proposed legislation regarding judicial reforms, arguing they risk compromising and undermining the foundation of Israel’s very democracy. Still others have strong feelings over the ministerial appointment of Aryeh Deri and the subsequent Supreme Court decision to invalidate it.


Sadly, and unfortunately, both opponents and defenders of the current coalition and its proposed legislation have too often oversimplified the issues, eliminated nuance, subtlety, and legal analysis and have resorted to sound bites that serve a political agenda.  These issues and topics are complicated, and deserve analysis and study before arriving at or expressing an opinion; yet, as is often the case, predictably, most will choose to take an uninformed position that conforms to political affiliation and loyalty regardless of the actual complexities of the issues. 


Several American Jewish organizations have weighed in and publicly offered their criticism, expressed their outrage, or prophesized their doom and gloom for Israel’s future.  Locally, a prominent Jewish organization was weighing adding its voice to the chorus of those publicly proffering criticism and concern with a statement and communication to its constituents.  I think that is a tragic and potentially destructive mistake.


Certainly, Israel is not beyond reproach or criticism from either direction.  Some thought the last coalition that included Mansour Abbas of Ra'am, an Islamic Party, was the time to express public concern while others feel the current coalition that includes far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir is worthy of protest and opposition.  Some felt the Gaza withdrawal was worthy of public statements in resistance, while others expressed concern about expansion in Judea and Samaria.


Our words matter and we must be extremely judicious in deciding how to use them.  Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, zt”l, writes in his book Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, “Upon delivery from the Egyptian bondage, the Israelites regained their self-expression. As long as they were subjected to Egyptian bondage, their self-expression was stifled and suppressed. But at the moment of Exodus, the Israelites regained their speech. Slaves cannot express or assert themselves properly. They cannot realize their potential. Only the free man is capable of doing so.”


The Arizal saw the connection between speech and freedom in the very name of the holiday.  Pesach, he explained, comes from "Peh - sach" - "a mouth converses."  Part of affirming our freedom is affirming the awesome responsibility that comes with freedom of speech.


Criticism is, of course, at times warranted, but I wonder about the wisdom of Jewish organizations in the Diaspora expressing it on either side through public statements and proclamations. Will statements influence policy and politics in Israel in a meaningful way or do they just contribute to sowing division and discord while satisfying a certain segment of a base of constituents?  Is the goal to simply level a protest for posterity?  What is the risk or unintended consequence of criticizing Israel publicly in America, no matter how warranted or deserved it may be? 


A 2021 Pew Study found that only 60% of U.S. Jews say they are either very emotionally attached or somewhat emotionally attached to the modern state of Israel.  Will non-nuanced and oversimplified public criticisms from both sides bring diaspora Jews closer or further to Israel?  Will it garner more or less support for Israel from the general American public and from American elected officials? 


To be clear, what is at stake is not Israel’s connection to diaspora Jews, but diaspora Jews’ connection to Israel. If that is severed, Israel will survive, but Jews with tenuous identity may not. The leaders of diaspora organizations should think carefully about what best serves the interests of their constituency and what promotes a healthy long-term relationship in which criticism will be relevant and important but cannot be the central or most common expression.


One can violate the 5:1 ratio, criticize more freely and frequently, but they will be an outside critic, not someone nurturing a relationship. If we want to promote and strengthen our and others’ relationship with Israel, it behooves us to hold ourselves to Gottman’s standard and work hard to release at least five statements of support and compliments for every time we feel it is necessary to criticize.