Charles London to Daniel Gordis: Israel may be at war, but the Jewish People are not…

Here’s one I’ve been meaning to get to for a few weeks now: a great point/counterpoint between Rabbi Daniel Gordis and journalist Charles London (above).

Back in February, Gordis wrote a Jerusalem Post column in which he addressed Im Tirtzu’s nasty campaign against the New Israel Fund and its President, Naomi Chazan.  His conclusion: while Im Tirtzu may have gone a bit overboard in its rhetoric, folks need to understand that the Jewish people are at war with those who would “delegitimize Israel.”  And when you are fighting a war, you can ill-afford luxuries such as civil liberties:

Commitment to our democracy must not come at the cost of commitment to our survival. No country at war maintains the same freedoms of speech or action that countries not facing existential threat can permit themselves. Since the Jewish people is at war, it must think as a people at war must think.

London’s eloquent counter in the Huffington Post:

In my experience around the world, the Jewish people are not at war. There are Bosnian Jews building institutions in cooperation with their Muslim and Christian neighbors; there are Ugandan Jews who are at war with Malaria, HIV, and poverty, but not with some eternal anti-Jewish enemy. There are Iranian Jews struggling alongside Sunni, Shiite, Christian, and Baha’i for the very “liberties” their government denies all Iranians. There are Israeli Jews who are trying to build democratic institutions, multi-ethnic schools, and interfaith understanding, all of whom should take serious umbrage at his characterization of the Jews as a people at war.

Bravo: London’s response to Gordis’s Jewish siege mentality is spot on.

Yes, the Jewish people face challenges today, but we have faced daunting challenges throughout our history. And through them all, we have resolutely rejected the notion that physical might can ensure our survival. Mighty empires have come and gone, but the Jewish people have remained not by compromising our values (as Gordis counsels) but by affirming them.  By connecting our survival to a more transcendent truth.  By asserting that there is a Power far greater than physical power.

On this point, the young journalist eloquently reminds the rabbi:

I fear that arguments like Gordis’s war without end and war that values cannot endure undermines the spiritual genius of our culture. Jews have not survived for 2500 years because of nation-states, nor because they were not willing to risk life and limb for higher values. They have not survived merely to survive.

If this Jewish vision is your cup of tea, check out London’s recent book “Far from Zion: In Search of Global Jewish Community.”  (I far preferred it to Gordis’s “Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.”)

9 thoughts on “Charles London to Daniel Gordis: Israel may be at war, but the Jewish People are not…

  1. Lisa

    The Jewish right wing keeps couching the left’s objection to Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians as “delegitimizing Israel.” I expect that from them, but it concerns me that some centrist and mainstream Jews have bought into that.

    It reminds me of what happened in the U.S. prior to the current war and occupation of Iraq. People boycotted France and anything French, and nearly destroyed the careers of the Dixie Chicks – Why? Because they were “anti-American” for speaking out against the war.

    “No country at war maintains the same freedoms of speech or action that countries not facing existential threat can permit themselves. Since the Jewish people is at war, it must think as a people at war must think.” Gordis doesn’t get it: like the Commandments, the laws of a democracy are there for the TOUGH times – that’s when we need to protect freedom and liberty the most. Gordis’ philosophy is what led the U.S. to put Japanese Americans into internment camps during WWII, and what led to the detention without charges or trials of thousands of innocent Arab & Muslim Americans after 9/11. And it’s what’s led to the ongoing Occupation of the Palestinians and the siege on Gaza – which results in acts of resistance, which in turn perpetuates the paranoia that Israel is fighting for “survival,” which guarantees another generation of conflict and war.

    If Congress had actually listened to the left’s reasons for objecting to going to war in Iraq, instead of branding protesters as radicals and anti-American, we might not be in this mess – which is now almost universally agreed to be a mistake.

    And if the Israeli government and Israeli voters would actually listen to the left’s reasons for objecting to the Occupation and siege of Gaza, instead of branding us as “anti-Semites” or “self-hating Jews” out to “delegitimize” Israel, Israel might have a chance to not only survive, but thrive – and not only the occupied, but the occupiers as well, could be liberated.

    1. Shirin

      Israel does not need anyone to delegitimize it. It delegitimizes itself on daily basis by its own actions.

  2. Tharma Ritman

    I heard (and took notes on) Daniel Gordis’ address to the AIPAC convention at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare on February 29, 2004. The talk became incrementally more bizarre, paranoid, and delusional as it went along. Using a Purim theme, Gordis opened with Amalek, which he defined as “evil incarnate.” Next, he identified “radicalized Islam” as Amalek in our time. From there, he moved to the Palestinian struggle for human and political rights which, in his telling, was indistinguishable from radicalized Islam. In two easy steps, Gordis turned Palestinians into Amalek, Evil Incarnate.

  3. Shirin

    countries…facing existential threat…

    The only existential threat Israel faces – the only existential threat Israel has EVER faced – is from Israel itself. If it does not change its fundamental nature, it will, sooner or later, self-destruct.

  4. Y. Ben-David

    I presume you are aware that almost half the world’s Jews live in Israel, so if we here in Israel are under threat (which we are) then a significant percentage of world Jewry is under threat, so it is not merely a matter of a small group of fantatic Jews who are supposedly making trouble for the rest of you and going around screaming that you are somehow not “connected” to us here is not going to help. If, G-d forbid, Israel were to go under NO JEW ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD WOULD BE SAFE. The fact that Jews live in relative tranquility anywhere in the world is due, at least indirectly, to the fact that the world sees Jews in the Jewish state as being tough, and defending themselves successfully, which, tragically was not the case up until 60 some years ago. And YES, ISRAEL IS PERCEIVED BY MUCH OF THE WORLD AS BEING THE NATIONAL EMOBODIMENT OF WORLD JEWRY. That is fact, whether you like it or not.

    Tharma Ritman is living in a fantasy land. Gordis lived in Jerusalem through the numerous suicide bombing attacks that killed or wounded hundreds or even thousands in just that city alone. Gordis, like many of us, but, apparently unlike Tharma is blind and deaf to the genocidal antisemitic propaganda that is spewed out BY THE OFFICIAL PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY MEDIA in addition to HAMAS. I take them at their word. This is NOT “paranoia”.

    1. Tharma Ritman

      Here’s a great response by David Shasha (Sephardic Heritage Institute) to Daniel Gordis’ article, “Of Sermons and Strategies: Anti-Israel American Rabbinical Students,” Jerusalem Post, April 4, 2011 []

      David Shasha writes:

      This is truly a startling article on a number of fronts:

      First, what we have here is yet more confirmation that there have been some very profound changes going on in the Jewish community. Israel is increasingly not being seen as the holy savior of young American Jews. They have called the old bluff of HASBARAH and have seen that the emperor has no clothes.

      Second, these purported changes are clearly being exaggerated for the most devastating effect by the mouthpieces of HASBARAH. The idea here is to scare older Jews as much as possible so that they will think that there is a great crisis in Jewish institutions and act on that news. The argument is akin to saying that the water fountains in these schools are poisoned with typhus and that “clear-thinking” and “authentic” Jews must come to the aid of these misguided young people. For, after all, as the article states, these young people are not only delusional, but that they are actively supporting violence against Jews. That is a key tenet of the counter-insurgency that Zionist HASBARAH represents: Any and all criticism of Israel is tantamount to putting weapons in the hands of the terrorists.

      Third, and most startling of all, is the advice given at the end of the article to follow the model of the Islamist movement as represented by the Saudi extremists. Without exaggerating the point, Mr. Gordis is asking Jews to create a fundamentalist “Madrassa” system of indoctrination where political operatives are planted inside Jewish institutions to ensure the “proper” result from a Zionist perspective. It is a perverse recommendation given the overwhelming distaste for Islam and especially fundamentalist Islam in Jewish circles.

      But this is the basic premise of HASBARAH with its roots in the Ashkenazi PILPUL tradition: Win at any cost. Adopt the tactics of your enemy; use political indoctrination as a means to stifle free thought; eliminate open discussion and demand that everyone follows one way of seeing things. We must serve at the altar of Israel no matter what it may take.

      This is the end result of many years of Zionist propaganda and reflects the essentially anti-Jewish bias of the movement and its practical manifestations in the Israeli political system.

      Now we can reasonably discuss individual issues having to do with Israel. People can take the positions that they feel are right and argue the matter in a rational way. But what is being suggested here is that there is only one way to be Jewish, and there is only Israel advocacy in the most constricted sense that is the “proper” way for any Jew to behave and think.

      This form of pro-Israel advocacy, militant and Right Wing in the manner of Gordis’ Shalem Center which conflates a spurious intellectualism with a reactionary support for the most retrograde Israeli policies, is presented as a Jew’s only possible option. That there might be other views of the matter is not possible. There is an inside and there is an outside. It is not the famous rabbinic dialectic where all opinions are heard.

      Here there is a monolingualism that forces all Jews to speak in the same way and where differences of opinion are not only frowned upon, but are absolutely refused in the name of a “Judaism” which bears little actual resemblance to the traditional Judaism of the Sages.

  5. Stewart Mills

    Thank for this Brant. Charles London is new to me. The following are some links or excerpts on Charles that may be interesting for others.

    1. Chapter 1 from his latest book “Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community” [Harper 2009].

    Click to access farfromzion-chapter1.pdf

    2, A QandA with Charles London about “Far from Zion”

    Charles London is the author of “Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community” [Harper 2009]. Prior to beginning the book, London “had never strongly identified with my Judaism,” he said. During the course of his research for his first book, One Day the Soldiers Came, he stumbled upon the Jewish community in Sarajevo. “They had used their historical experience of disaster, displacement and vulnerability to help that city survive the siege,” he explained.
 Inspired by the Sarajevo Jewish community and the discovery that his grandmother was raised in a Yiddish-speaking shtetl in Virginia, he set off in search of far-flung Jewish communities “around the world that might teach me something about how they got there, why they stayed, and what it meant to be part of this global people in an interconnected world.”
    Michael Orbach: So, what did you find?
Charles London: Everywhere I went had something new to show me about a different way to create community and to create a Jewish and a national identity. The diversity showed me the strength and vitality of the Jewish people, even as it showed me the effort it took to have a meaningful Jewish life in the modern world, be it in the ‘Bible Belt’ in Arkansas or amidst the enforced piety in Iran. I also realized that for every place I went, there were 20 others I could have gone. I could spend the rest of my life looking for these communities and not exhaust the search, though that is changing. Over 80 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel or America now. I do hope that other 20 percent can remain a source of creativity and strength for the rest of us.
    MO: What was the 
highlight of the trip?

    CL: There were so many — enough to fill a book! But right now, two places come to mind. In Uganda, a group of black African subsistence farmers had been practicing Judaism on their own for about 100 years. They had barely survived the reign of Idi Amin, and were just starting to come to the attention of global Jewry. They were making formal conversions by the hundreds and doing some amazing interfaith peace work and economic development. They ran a primary school and a high school serving youngsters of all faiths. It was an amazing thing to walk along a dusty hill in eastern Uganda on Friday evening and have a group of African school children of all faiths yell out “Shabbat Shalom!” as I passed the Hadassah Primary School. I never thought I would stumble upon a Jewish school in an African village.
And in Bentonville, Arkansas, right in the heart of the Bible Belt, the first new Jewish community in the south in over 50 years is springing up. Like the Jews in Uganda, it’s a DIY [do it yourself] kind of community. They are building their faith institutions and practices for themselves, without a professional class of educators and clergy like I’d had growing up on the east coast. In both cases, these communities reminded me that, even as some Jewish communities fade around the world — as they have for centuries — others are springing up. We’re a persistent people.

    MO: Was there any unifying factor between the disparate Jewish communities?

    …The other unifying factor was simply a desire to be connected to each other, to be part of the same ecosystem as the other Jewish
communities. I saw that we are not one people, but rather, more like a rainforest: rich in diversity, stronger for our diversity, and deeply tied to one another. We may struggle amongst ourselves over everything from women’s prayer to the politics of Israel, but we are all creating the same project: a living expression of Jewish values on earth, even if we understand those values differently sometimes, and a meaningful and safe Jewish life for everyone who seeks it.

    3. “Far from Zion” on facebook

    4. Charles London ’02 Gives Voice to Children of War

    Charles London [Columbia University] ’02 was sitting in Shapiro Hall “watching bad television” during his junior year, he recalls, when he realized what he wanted to do with his life.
    “I just got so fed up by the images of children we were seeing” on television, he explains, “that I decided there had to be more to it than this.”
    So London, who goes by “Sandy,” decided he would seek out and tell the stories of those who could not speak for themselves. He partnered with Refugees International, a well-known aid agency, for support and funding, and during summer 2001 traveled to refugee camps in Tanzania, on the border of Congo and Burundi. Then, during winter break of his senior year, he visited areas in eastern Congo. He was hooked.
    London, now 28, spent the next five years recording the stories of refugees and child soldiers in Africa, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.

    The fruit of his labors, One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War, published in 2007 by HarperCollins, is an account of his time spent in some of the world’s most dangerous locations, an outsider’s view of the bloody conflicts in the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Kosovo and Burma that have left millions dead or nationless. Of the book, United States Ambassador Richard Holbrooke wrote: “By taking us into the world of innocent children torn apart by war, Charles London brings an uncomfortable truth to life. This book is difficult reading, but attention must be paid.”

  6. sally campbell

    this is a wonderful resource for people like my husband and me; since 9/11, we have been trying to learn and understand more about Israel/Palestine and why this disastrous occupation continues. the voices of the Jewish people in the diaspora carry great weight and this site is both educational and inspiring. carry on the good work and we will do our best to support you !! thanks so much, Sally Campbell
    (and good Pesach!)


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