L.A. native Max Steinberg, killed in combat during fighting with Gaza / Courtesy of Steinberg Family
I’ve gone on the record about my ambivalence about Birthright, having argued that it actually discouraged a connection to Israel for Jews like me due to the clear bias of its agenda. Should I have been offered a more complex portrait of the country, I might have better understood what is really at stake and why I should care. Instead, like so many other Jews of my generation, I decided to let it be someone else’s problem.
Birthright is hardly perfect. It is absolutely one-sided and all too easy to see through for the more critically-minded, or maybe just less drunk, people on the bus. But let’s get one thing straight: it is not a cult.
In her Slate story on Los Angeles native Max Steinberg, who moved to Israel, joined the IDF and then sadly passed away in combat this past week at the age of 24, Allison Benedikt implies as much, suggesting that Birthright should take part of the blame for Steinberg’s death.
Benedikt says that joining the IDF “seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission” and suspects that Steinberg fell into this trap. (As Haviv Rettig Gur points out at the Times of Israel, this hypothesis doesn’t hold water when we look at the actual numbers.) She recounts how Steinberg had initially resisted going on the trip, but ended up feeling deeply moved once he got to the country and experienced his life-changing epiphany that he wanted to make aliyah at the gravesite of an American soldier who died fighting for the country. Does this make him brainwashed? Benedikt seems to think so.
It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune.
I guess on the whole Israel thing, I used to be kind of pareve. Not so much on the country’s scenic landscape or its culture, which I loved and deeply appreciated: its vibrancy and sheer chutzpah; its gorgeous men who looked nothing like the pimply boys in my hometown of Flatbush, whether they were in uniform or not; its falafel. But on the whole ardent Zionist devotion to the Jewish homeland that characterized the majority of my Israeli relatives, both sabras and American olim, I hesitated to commit similarly.
I admit that this was largely due to my rebellious nature, which had me instinctively buck any familial trend. I relished my role as the token liberal in an almost-uniformly Republican family. I liked looking beyond my immediate circle and empathizing with people who weren’t necessarily Jewish, white, or upper-middle class. And when I made friends at age 16 with a left-leaning socialist who saw clearly the persecution of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel, I only grew more daring in my critiques of the Jewish state. The discussions with my father grew more heated.
“Tova, one of these days you’re going to grow up and realize that Israel is all the Jews have,” he said to me, banging the table for emphasis. I sneered at his naiveté. This was America, for God’s sake. It was 2004. Being a Jew was more than acceptable: It was cool. And I continued to routinely call Israel’s policies into question, because I was a good little liberal.
But, alarmingly, my father seems to have been right. Everywhere I look, there’s news of anti-Israel demonstrations that regularly devolve into openly anti-Jewish sentiment, weakening the position — which I once held — that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are separate entities. The line between the two is growing blurrier, and fast. When angry protesters shout “Death to the Jews!” at “anti-Israel” rallies in Antwerp, Berlin and London, and Jews are trapped in a Paris synagogue and firebombed by an angry mob, how can you honestly posit that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with anti-Semitism?
Choir members at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida / Getty Images
When Christians fight, Jews are collateral damage. The prize is Israel, or at least how Americans perceive Israel. That’s one lesson to take away from the Presbyterian Church-USA’s (PC-USA) decision on June 20 to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.
The debate preceding the vote at the PC-USA’s General Assembly was emotional, or at least as emotional as a debate can be that features speakers whose lilting cadence is reminiscent of Mr. Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister. At one point, the bow-tie-wearing moderator sighed, “Guess I won’t be going to Israel next week.”
The divestment resolution passed by the slimmest of margins — the vote was 310-303. Shortly after, groups associated with the BDS movement trumpeted their achievement and a remarkably unified American Jewish establishment issued ritualized statements complete with finger-pointing and outrage. Even J Street’s senior vice president for community relations, Rachel Lerner, who attended the General Assembly to protest the resolution, expressed her exasperation with the PC-USA. “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads,” she told me.
You’d think that this was the first time a church group had voted to use economic pressure to call attention to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It’s not. The Mennonite Central Committee voted to divest last year. The Quaker American Friends Service Committee did so even earlier. Nor does the PC-USA vote signal a wholesale divestment from Israel or announce the latest dubious success of the BDS movement. The final text of the PC-USA resolution explicitly rejects the “alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS movement.” The fact that the vote will be misconstrued by observers and manipulated by BDS partisans who lobbied PC-USA delegates doesn’t alter the narrow scope of the resolution. BDS supporters will not be cheered that the resolution reaffirms the Church’s longstanding support of a two-state solution and the importance of “a secure and universally recognized State of Israel.”
Nonetheless, David Brog, executive director of Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI), vented his frustration with the Presbyterians before the vote in an email statement to me: “The fact that they are focusing their attention on the one democracy in the Middle East…raises troubling questions.” Indeed there are troubling questions at the heart of the PC-USA’s decision, but those questions have as much to do with Christian sectarianism as with anti-Israel politics.
“Zionism has been taken, kidnapped even, by the far right.”
So says Pulitzer-winning Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander in a Haaretz interview published over the weekend. Explaining that he was “a normal Zionist until 1968,” the professor says that nowadays he can no longer call himself a Zionist — thanks to the movement’s right-wing “kidnappers.”
Friedlander’s sense that Zionism has been stolen and besotted over the past three or four decades is one that will resonate with a lot of Jews — especially young Jews, who eye Israel’s rightward ideological shift, uptick in settlement building and price tag attacks, and occupation writ large with increasing dismay.
I share that profound dismay, but I actually think that Friedlander’s “kidnapping” statement misses the mark. It implies that Zionism started out as a perfectly sound concept but was, unfortunately, hijacked and problematized by right-wingers later on. But Zionism’s problems started long before the late sixties; they go back, I would argue, to the very beginning.
In fact, I agree that Zionism was “kidnapped,” but only if we’re talking in the Talmudic sense — that is, if we look at the movement through the lens of the Jewish legal category known as tinok shenishba — literally, a captured or kidnapped infant.
A Jewish settler boy sticks his tongue out at peace activists protesting in Hebron / Getty Images
This weekend, renowned Holocaust scholar Shaul Friedlander gave sharp expression to a feeling shared broadly by many Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora. “Zionism has been taken, kidnapped even, by the far right,” Friedlander said in an interview with Haaretz. And all around the world, these Jews shook their heads, and sighed. Yes, they thought, it has been.
I have enormous respect for Prof. Friedlander, but I’m afraid I have to disagree. Zionism wasn’t kidnapped, or even merely “taken,” by the far right. It was handed over, with barely a peep, by the vast middle.
Our Ze’ev Jabotinskys, Geula Cohens, and Meir Kahanes have always had a central role in Jewish nationalist thought, but the 21st century has seen their like rise to new prominence. Centrists, hard-core peaceniks, and leftists have watched grimly as Israel has drifted ever rightward since the second intifada. Every step toward peace seemed doomed from the outset, and Israel’s leadership took care to tell us that there just wasn’t anyone to talk to. More and more settlements were built, but again, Israel’s leadership always kindly clarified that these don’t stand in the way of peace, and really, what’s another road, another red roof?
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.”