David Harris-Gershon signs copies of his book / Austin Hill
When it comes to the communal tent of dialogue around Israel, the last few years have seen a concerted attempt by Jewish leaders and institutions to delineate who should be considered “in” and who should be kept “out.” On the heels of the controversy surrounding Hillel’s guidelines, the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center has now entered the fray in an embarrassing way.
Writing in Haaretz, David Harris-Gershon revealed this week that the DCJCC uninvited him from a previously scheduled book event. Harris-Gershon was to speak on his memoir “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” The reason for the cancellation? A July 2012 blog post Harris-Gershon wrote in Tikkun called “Today I’m Coming Out in Favor of BDS.” This is the second time in a few weeks that Harris-Gershon has been disinvited; as the Forward reported, last month, Hillel in Santa Barbara canceled an event at which he was slated to speak.
Last November, I wrote about the decision by Le Mood Montreal to bar two panelists due to their controversial views on Israel. But what we’re seeing now is a self-declared Zionist being barred from Jewish institutions for not being loyal enough — a new low in attempting to discipline discourse and silence meaningful dialogue.
When the Church of Scotland decided to revise its controversial and borderline anti-Semitic report on Israel and the Palestinians, it only really had to do three things.
First, the Kirk, as the church is widely know, had to make clear it understood what Zionism actually is. Not, as they originally stated, a solely religious ideology. But rather, a diverse movement encompassing a multitude of dreams including many secular ones.
Second, it had to repeal all claims that smacked of Christian supremacism.
Third, it needed to delete or at the very least rewrite the passages on the Holocaust, ones which previously asserted that Jews must “stop thinking of themselves as victims and special” and ‘repent’ for the displacement of Palestinians during the Wars of Independence.
The revised version of “The Inheritance of Abraham” has just been made public, and it comes up short on all three tests. Despite the stubborn shortcomings though, at the very least, the report’s new preface indicates that the Church of Scotland knows it did something very wrong the first time around.
“The country of Israel is a recognised State and has the right to exist in peace and security,” it now states as a matter of fact. “We reject racism and religious hatred. We condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We will always condemn acts of terrorism, violence and intimidation.”
It’s not much, but it needed to be said.
The Second Aliyah, though necessitated by the resumption of hostilities by the Slavic populace against Russian Jewry, was carried on a wave of ideological fervor. In addition to establishing Tel Aviv and aiding the revival of the Hebrew language, those imbibed with the new European collectivist ideologies sought to establish a more equitable form of living in the Yishuv.
This was to be accomplished via the foundation of a series of communal farming villages, the kibbutzim, where labor and its fruits were apportioned evenhandedly. It is on one of these settlements — Ein Ha’Shofet, in the north of Israel, about 18 miles southeast of Haifa on the Plain of Manasseh — that I now find myself. (I was reminded of this nugget of history, incidentally, because of my current reading material: Leon Uris’ Exodus. After all, what better to read on a kibbutz than the quintessential American Zionist novel?)
When I enlisted in Tel Aviv, the administrator in the volunteers’ office in offering me my current residence said, “This is a serious kibbutz — you seem like a serious person.” (For the record, I rejected offers to work in a meat packing factory in Beersheba, and a couple of kibbutzim bordering the Gaza Strip, for reasons that I’m sure are apparent). It was mentioned that there was a possibility of working outside as part of the gardening team, and I accepted, thinking foolishly in retrospect that like the Jews of the Second Aliyah, I could be transformed and made better through toil in the fields, turning these soft writers’ hands into those of an honest laborer.
It was day three when I realized that this metamorphosis was destined to fail. The first couple of days were exhausting, but in a way that left me fulfilled. On those occasions, the climate had been temperate, but the air that Wednesday was thick and heavy, and the atmosphere humid and muggy. The mercury climbed north of 90, as we cleared the grassland of brush and other waste, in preparation of that evening’s memorial for Yom Ha’Shoah. It was not necessarily the mindless repetitive nature of the task at hand — hoisting unwanted nature into a ‘piler’ and flinging it onto a flatbed truck — since when your normal occupation consists of putting one’s mind to use, jobs without thought can relax. Rather, I was flustered and worn down by the physical strain of the activity, in combination with the energy sapping heat.
It’s much harder to be mean to someone to their face. The tone of the Beinart book reviews have been strangely personal. I don’t know if it’s something about Beinart himself that is inspiring this kind of out-of-proportion animus, but it has many otherwise levelheaded analysts turning to a kind of sniping that distracts from the content of the book. That was not the case last night. Gordis, who wrote one of the harshest takedowns, going so far as to wonder why Beinart “hates” Israel so, was respectful and gracious, saying that that though the book made him “sad” that he absolutely thought Beinart had a right to say what he was saying. Beinart was friendly as well, at one point offering Gordis the compliment that — with the exception of his positions on the conflict — he’s the kind of man Beinart would want to have as a rabbi.
I found all this very hopeful.
Not that much divides them. It become quickly clear that there is a very thin line dividing Beinart and Gordis. They are both in agreement about how corrosive the settlement enterprise is and the need to halt any expansion. They both worry about threats to Israel’s democratic nature. And they both believe, as Beinart put it, that the Jewish state “should not be a secular democracy like the United States. Israel is a mix of the tribal and the universal.” What separates them is the question of who should bear the onus of making the first move toward upending the current dismal status quo. Beinart thinks pressure should be applied on Israel to end, at the very least, the settlement project, if not the military presence in the West Bank. Gordis thinks this is not the right place for pressure. It should be applied instead to the Palestinians who, he insists, have not shown their willingness to accept a Jewish state. Until they do, said Gordis, Israel shouldn’t touch the existing settlements because it might appear like a concession.
This seems like more of a tactical difference. Not a small one, but still a tactical difference.
What separates them ultimately is a question of appearances. Gordis doesn’t think America Jews should give the impression that they or anyone else is “turning the screws” on Israel, as he put it, because it would provide aid and comfort to the Palestinians, prolonging their refusal to accept peace. Beinart thinks that making it clear to Israel in the most dramatic way possible (i.e. a mostly symbolic boycott) that it is losing its soul is the only way to stop a slide toward an apartheid state.
Usually when another blogger sufficiently channels my own anger about something that has me piqued, I tend to just try and let it go and give them the last word. And that was my first reaction this morning when I read, with increasing agitation, Jeffrey Goldberg’s post about a new Israeli ad campaign targeted at yordim, those ex-pat Israelis who have made their home in the States. He managed to capture the utter absurdity of its scare mongering approach. Even if you marry an American Jew, your children won’t know the difference between Chanukah and Christmas! They will never call you Aba! Goldberg also pointed out something that should have been apparent to the geniuses who came up with this idea: that these ads might just alienate American Jews a bit. And, also, if Israel is concerned about losing its citizens to the West — not an illegitimate concern — then maybe they could think of a more positive way of calling them back home than telling them they will be responsible for erasing the Jewish people.
I guess I’m not done.
You see, I am the child of yordim, the fearful spawn that the ads refer to, those “who will not remain Israeli.” And it’s more than a little offensive to see my entire Jewish (and, yes, Israeli) identity dismissed as irrelevant because of my parents’ decision to emigrate before I was born. Not only do I speak Hebrew fluently, know just a little bit about the Jewish holidays, and, yes, call my father “Aba” — but so does my two-year-old daughter!
What happens when you toss out a centuries-old culture for one that is newly invented and whose center is half a world away? What happens when that new culture is closely tied to a politics that may not be shared by all members of its supposed community? What happens when the culture then gets rejected along with the politics and there is nothing left to replace it with? What happens is “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” a piece on The Awl by Village Voice film editor Allison Benedikt.
In her piece Benedikt describes her odyssey from flag-waving, summer camp-attending, Zionist youngster to disillusioned, intermarried, non-Zionist Jew. It’s an increasingly familiar narrative in which a young Jew, raised on one version or another of Zionist orthodoxy, discovers that Israel has significant flaws and jettisons most of what passed for her Jewish identity. It’s the phenomenon described by Peter Beinart in his much-discussed New York Review of Books essay from last year, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” In Beinart’s rendering, and seemingly in Benedikt’s, it is Israel’s sins that are at issue. If the country doesn’t shape up with respect to the Palestinians, it will eventually lose American Jews’ support.
But Benedikt’s piece isn’t really about Israel, or its policies, so much as it is about American Jewish community and culture. The key line in the piece is where she describes her sister as having “become Israeli, which is a lot different from being an American Jew.” As Jeffrey Goldberg noted in his response, Benedikt doesn’t really grapple with the issues she raises — why there is a bombed out disco in Tel Aviv, or soldiers guarding checkpoints, or why her husband is so hostile toward the country. But, as Gal points out in his earlier post, the piece isn’t really an argument, or even a provocation. It’s a symptom — what happens when the myths you were raised on turn out to be just myths.
An essay published by the web-zine, The Awl, has gotten a lot of attention in our little corner of the blogosphere. It’s called, “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” and the author is Allison Benedikt, film editor at the Village Voice. I should say before I go any further that Allison is a friend and the purpose of this short post is to add perhaps some more context as to why she wrote the piece since she herself has come under attack.
About three-quarters of the essay is a description, written in an almost childlike voice, of Allison’s developing love for Israel, fostered mostly at what she calls Zionist summer camps. It’s a very effecting chronicle and tells a story that many, many American Jews will relate to — of David Broza and teenaged summers spent in an IDF T-shirt and flip-flops on the Tel Aviv beach. But then Allison grows up and eventually starts dating (and marrying) a man with fiercely critical views of Israel, and her love, her Zionism, dies.
There were those readers who immediately identified with this disillusionment and Allison’s articulation of it was described by them as another Peter Beinart moment. But some thought the transformation too dramatic and extreme, from unquestioning love to unquestioning hate. Jeffrey Goldberg, for one, found it jarring, and unloaded on Allison in a post yesterday, describing her as incurious for not asking more questions during this switching of allegiances and essentially exchanging “one simplistic narrative for another.”