Just read Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ recent op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, one of several articles that have given some free publicity to Ta’anit Tzedek. But it wasn’t Gordis’ offhand slam on TT that really bothered me – it was the decidedly patronizing way he analyzed the gulf between the American Jewish community and Israel – or as he termed it, American Jewry’s “growing abandonment of Israel.”
Gordis’ main premise: American Jewry’s newest generation is essentially self-centered (tainted “with the ‘I’ at the core of American sensibilities”) and simply cannot relate to the national sense of duty embodied by Israel:
In America, the narratives of immigrant groups are eroded, year by year, generation after generation. In America, we are oriented to the future, not to the past, and if we cling to some larger grouping, it is to a human collective whole rather than to some “narrow” ethnic clan…
Similarly, the recreation of the State of Israel is truly powerful only against a backdrop of centuries of Jewish experience, and is spine-tingling only if my sense of self is inseparable from my belonging to a nation with a past and a people with a purpose.
In today’s individualistic America, the drama of the rebirth of the Jewish people creates no goose bumps and evokes no sense of duty or obligation. Add the issue of Palestinian suffering, and Israel seems worse than irrelevant – it’s actually a source of shame.
It’s not clear to me if Gordis is interested in winning over the hearts and minds of young American Jews, but if he is, I’d suggest that talking down to them from an Israeli ivory tower is not the way to do it. I’m afraid that record just doesn’t play any more.
Gordis is correct when he posits that the old narratives simply aren’t working on American Jews the way they used to. But that’s only because a new, more complex narrative is now being written by the current generation. It’s compelling in its own right, though this may be difficult to understand when viewed from the conventional Israeli vantage point.
I work with a great number of American Jews – particularly the 35 and younger demographic that Gordis cites – and from where I sit they look nothing like narcissistic, self-obsessed Americans he describes. On the contrary, most are engaged, seriously seeking Jews. Yes, it’s true, unlike previous generations they don’t necessarily understand their Judaism in traditionally tribal terms anymore. But that doesn’t make them self-centered. Rather, they are increasingly viewing their Jewishness against a larger, more universal global reality. In short, to be a Jew and a global citizen is what gives them “goose bumps.”
If, as Gordis suggests, American Jews are abandoning Israel, I’d suggest it’s not due to the lack of a sense of Jewish “duty or obligation” – I believe it’s because they are left cold by an Israeli national culture that appears to them to be overly tribal and collectively self-centered.
Indeed, while most young people today seem to be interested in breaking down walls between peoples and nations, Israel often appears determined to build higher and higher walls between itself and the outside world. It’s a poignant irony of Jewish history: while Zionism was ostensibly founded to normalize the status of Jewish people in the world, the Jewish state it spawned seems to view itself as all alone, increasingly victimized by the international community.
Gordis himself exemplifies this “it’s us Jews against the rest of the world” ethos in the opening paragraphs of his article:
About one thing, at least, the world seems to be in agreement: Israel is the primary culprit in the Middle East conflict, the cause of relentless Palestinian suffering and the primary obstacle blocking the way to regional peace.
The international chorus of opprobrium is growing by the day…It’s relentless, this ganging up, but it’s also not terribly new. The momentum has been building for years, and though we may not like it, we cannot honestly claim to be surprised.
While I understand the psychology of this world view, I don’t think it helps make Israel’s case for young Jews today – nor do I think it promotes a particularly healthy Jewish identity. It seems to me to be the product of self-pity, more than pride – a victim mentality that’s not likely to get us anywhere with newer generations of Jews who are feeling increasingly comfortable with the “outside world” and who don’t particularly identify with the claim that when push comes to shove, all the world really does just hate the Jews.
I will also predict that Gordis’ two cynical references to “Palestinian suffering” will not resonate for growing numbers of Jews who are legitimately troubled by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. I understand full well that our criticism sounds galling to most Israeli ears. And no, I don’t believe that we American Jews can even begin to understand how Israelis feel – on so many levels.
But whether Israelis like it or not, there is a steadily growing demographic in the American Jewish community: proud, committed Jews who are deeply troubled when Israel acts oppressively, who feel implicated as Americans and as Jews in these actions, and who are galled at being labeled as traitors when they choose to speak out.
At the very least, I hope that Gordis will understand that if American Jews are identifying with organizations that protest Israel’s oppressive policies (organizations, yes, such as Ta’anit Tzedek) their affiliation does not come from a shame-filled desire to “bash” Israel. It comes from a deeper and much more Jewishly authentic place than that.
I realize that all of this may be too much to ask for. It’s long been clear that the American Jewish and Israeli Jewish communities are two very different animals with two decidedly different ways of understanding what it means to be a Jew in a rapidly changing world. (Sociologists Steven Cohen and Charles Liebman pointed this out with great insight in their book “Two Worlds of Judaism” twenty years ago).
But it seems to me if we truly want to facilitate the Jewish future, we’re going to have to do it together. And to do that, we’ll need to meet one another with openness and understanding, not dismissal and judgment.