Lib­eral Jews and their anti-demo­cratic, anti-lib­eral cri­tique of Is­rael

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - DANIEL GORDIS

Could the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael be healed, at least par­tially, if we stopped ex­pect­ing the other to act as we would and in­stead learned to ap­pre­ci­ate how dif­fer­ent are our in­stincts, val­ues and pri­or­i­ties?

My re­cent book, We Stand Di­vided: The Rift Be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael, ar­gues that the an­swer is “yes.” Is­raelis need to learn a great deal more about Amer­i­can Jewish life and its ad­mirable suc­cesses, while Amer­i­can Jews ought to stop ex­pect­ing Is­rael to be­have as a He­brew-speaking, falafel-eat­ing minia­ture ver­sion of the United States. Both com­mu­ni­ties are too rich and ac­com­plished for the other to ex­pect them to mimic some­thing that is, es­sen­tially, en­tirely dif­fer­ent.

In writ­ing the book, I did not be­lieve I was say­ing any­thing par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial. But it turns out that I was wrong. Re­view­ers on the Left have as­sailed the book, in large mea­sure be­cause they be­lieve I failed to fo­cus suf­fi­ciently on the oc­cu­pa­tion. They’re right. Since I think that even if the oc­cu­pa­tion ended to­mor­row, mat­ters would not im­prove much, I fo­cused on what seem to me the more bedrock rea­sons for our di­vide – the ways in which we are rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent.

The most re­cent re­jec­tion of my ar­gu­ment came in the form of a re­view in Haaretz by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, for­merly the head of the Reform move­ment in North Amer­ica. In fine Amer­i­can style, Yoffie opens his take-down of my book with some nice com­ments. He is kind enough to call me a “se­ri­ous and thought­ful scholar,” and says We Stand Di­vided is “an im­por­tant, valu­able book” and “should be stud­ied by any­one who cares about Is­rael’s well-be­ing.”

Since I wouldn’t want my cre­den­tials as an up­stand­ing Amer­i­can im­pugned, I will there­fore be­gin in sim­i­lar fash­ion. Yoffie’s call for greater tra­di­tion in the Reform move­ment was and re­mains vi­tally im­por­tant, as was his urg­ing the Reform move­ment to em­brace joy-filled wor­ship in its syn­a­gogues. Whether or not one agrees with him on all mat­ters po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious, for a life­time of de­voted ser­vice to Amer­i­can Jewish life, he de­serves our col­lec­tive ad­mi­ra­tion and grat­i­tude.

It does not take long for Yoffie to take off the gloves, how­ever, as he calls parts of the book’s ar­gu­ment “wrong” (per­fectly le­git­i­mate), “ab­surd” (a bit less kind), “bizarre” and “dis­con­cert­ing.” (“Pa­tron­iz­ing” and “un­grounded,” which ap­pear in the head­line and which, I as­sume, Yoffie did not write, were ap­par­ently added by zeal­ous Haaretz edi­tors, ev­i­dently swept away by their en­thu­si­asm for Yoffie’s world­view.)

I will there­fore per­mit my­self a bit of blunt­ness, as well, be­cause Yoffie’s re­view is so scat­ter­shot, re­spond­ing is a chal­lenge. To see what I mean, do that old ex­er­cise we all did when we were in col­lege: Write in the mar­gin the the­sis state­ment of each para­graph, and then see how the ar­gu­ment pro­gresses. What emerges, frus­trat­ingly, is not an ar­gu­ment, but some­thing much more rem­i­nis­cent of the con­trails of Space Shut­tle Chal­lenger, twist­ing and turn­ing in all di­rec­tions, but headed mostly nowhere.

What is clear, how­ever, is that one of Yoffie’s chief frus­tra­tions with my book is that I do not share his level of frus­tra­tion about Is­rael’s Ortho­dox es­tab­lish­ment. Yoffie ar­gues that though I don’t dwell on it enough, Is­rael “must take into ac­count the ur­gent pleas of half of that peo­ple, liv­ing in the Di­as­pora, to rec­og­nize the Jewish streams they’re iden­ti­fied with, and to of­fer sup­port to Reform and Con­ser­va­tive Jews in Is­rael.”

IT SOUNDS rea­son­able, and Yoffie is right; in an ideal world, Is­raelis (like Amer­i­cans) would be more open-minded and more em­brac­ing of ideas that are not con­so­nant with their own. (For the record, I’m a Con­ser­va­tive rabbi, and reg­u­larly per­form wed­dings in Is­rael in bla­tant vi­o­la­tion of Is­raeli law.) But what does Yoffie mean when he says that Is­rael “must” do this? He knows, of course, that Is­rael’s haredi (ul­tra-Ortho­dox) par­ties can, and will, bring down any gov­ern­ment that moves in his pro­posed di­rec­tion.

What, then, should Is­raeli prime min­is­ters do? Lose their gov­ern­ments over this is­sue, when what would fol­low would sim­ply be an­other gov­ern­ment equally be­holden to the haredim? What does Yoffie ac­tu­ally ex­pect Is­raeli lead­ers to do? Change Is­rael’s en­tire sys­tem of gov­ern­ment? Vi­o­late its demo­cratic prin­ci­ples? He of­fers us no hint.

In his anger about Is­rael’s fail­ure to em­brace Reform Ju­daism, Yoffie also re­veals how lit­tle he knows about re­li­gious trends in Is­raeli so­ci­ety. “It shouldn’t mat­ter whether there are many or few lib­eral Jews in Is­rael is large or small,” [sic] he writes “or whether you think non-Ortho­dox Ju­daism has a real fu­ture in Is­rael or not (Gordis, in my view in­cor­rectly, thinks not).”

Aside from the fact that that is sim­ply not an English sen­tence, Yoffie gets three things com­pletely wrong. First, I never said (be­cause I do not be­lieve) that non-Ortho­dox Ju­daism in Is­rael does not have a real fu­ture, be­cause I be­lieve that it (thank­fully) does. Sec­ond, Yoffie as­sumes that for those seek­ing some­thing other than Or­tho­doxy, the al­ter­na­tive is Reform or Con­ser­va­tive. That may be (de­creas­ingly) true in the United States, but it is cer­tainly not the case in Is­rael. Is­rael is ex­plod­ing with re­li­gious op­tions and creativ­ity – they just have noth­ing at all to do with Reform or Con­ser­va­tive Ju­daism, which are pro­foundly Amer­i­can phe­nom­ena, shaped to meet the needs of an Amer­i­can Jewish pop­u­la­tion.

But it is Yoffie’s third and fi­nal mis­take on this front of which Amer­i­can Jews should most take note. As many lib­eral Jews are keenly aware, Is­rael’s treat­ment of Mizrahi Jews (de­scen­dants of Jews from Mid­dle East­ern and North African com­mu­ni­ties) in the early years of the state was rep­re­hen­si­ble.

Upon their ar­rival from mul­ti­ple places in the Le­vant, David Ben-Gu­rion (the lib­eral, so­cial­ist prime min­is­ter Amer­i­can Jews still hold up as their ideal of Is­rael’s val­ues), had this to say about their way of life: “The dis­per­sions that are be­ing ter­mi­nated... and which are gath­er­ing in Is­rael still do not con­sti­tute a peo­ple, but a mot­ley crowd, hu­man dust lack­ing lan­guage, ed­u­ca­tion, roots, tra­di­tion or na­tional dreams .... Turn­ing this hu­man dust into a civ­i­lized, in­de­pen­dent na­tion with a vi­sion... is no easy task.”

While Mizrahim in Is­rael have not yet achieved eco­nomic par­ity with Ashke­nazim, they have made tremen­dous progress. The en­try of Mizrahim into the nu­clei of Is­raeli so­ci­ety – po­lit­i­cally, eco­nom­i­cally, cul­tur­ally and re­li­giously – is one of Is­rael’s great ac­com­plish­ments. De­spite all the work that re­mains, the story of the Mizrahim is a civil rights suc­cess that should be the envy of any democ­racy, and Amer­i­can Jews, liv­ing

We must ac­knowl­edge that we can­not both in­sist that Is­rael make con­ces­sions for peace now and re­spect the in­tel­lec­tual in­de­pen­dence of Mizrahi Jews

as they do in a coun­try mired in racial ha­tred with no ap­par­ent way out, ought to note what Is­rael has achieved.

Yet here is the rub. Civil rights progress means not only giv­ing peo­ple their eco­nomic due, but also tak­ing their ideas and their cul­ture se­ri­ously. And Mizrahi Jews, who now con­sti­tute a ma­jor­ity of Is­rael’s Jews, are in no hurry to make peace with the Pales­tini­ans or to em­brace lib­eral forms of Ju­daism. On the Pales­tinian front, what Mizrahi Jews es­sen­tially have to say is this: “We are ac­tu­ally the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of Jews who were forced out of their coun­tries by that cul­ture. For­give us if we don’t share your in­stinc­tive benev­o­lence, but we are the ones who ac­tu­ally know that cul­ture, and we be­lieve that their ha­tred for us is far more pow­er­ful than any in­stinct for peace might be. We are the pro­tec­tive buf­fer be­tween Is­rael’s se­cu­rity and your lib­eral naiveté.”

EACH OF us can agree or dis­agree with that world­view. But what we have to ac­knowl­edge is that we can­not both in­sist that Is­rael make con­ces­sions for peace now and re­spect the in­tel­lec­tual in­de­pen­dence of Mizrahi Jews. Amer­i­can Jews who want to im­pose their views on Is­raelis must at least ac­knowl­edge that they would do so at the ex­pense of Is­rael’s democ­racy and even more tellingly, at the ex­pense of tak­ing se­ri­ously those Jews who are fi­nally, after decades of strug­gle, be­gin­ning to be heard. Is that re­ally what Yoffie wants?

Mizrahi Jews are also mak­ing a pro­found con­tri­bu­tion to Is­raeli re­li­gious life. They have brought to Is­rael a deep and abid­ing rev­er­ence for Jewish tra­di­tion, even if they are not punc­til­iously ob­ser­vant. What they are teach­ing Is­raeli so­ci­ety is that the re­lent­lessly the­o­log­i­cal project called mod­ern West­ern Ju­daism is far from the only way to em­brace Jewish life. Thou­sands of young Ashke­nazi Is­raelis are en­gag­ing tra­di­tion with­out adopt­ing Or­tho­doxy, pre­cisely be­cause Mizrahi Jews have mod­eled for them how that is pos­si­ble.

That, Amer­i­can Jews are likely to cel­e­brate. But, and here’s the rub again, Mizrahi Jews are in no hurry to change gen­der roles in Ju­daism. Women in Mizrahi com­mu­ni­ties are mak­ing huge progress, but rit­ual egal­i­tar­i­an­ism is for the most part nowhere on their agenda. Is it for us to tell them that our way of Jewish life is more en­light­ened? When they look at the rev­er­ence that per­vades their own com­mu­ni­ties and the ut­ter lack of rev­er­ence that is the stan­dard in Amer­i­can lib­eral Jewish life, Mizrahim are not in­clined in the least to em­u­late the lit­tle that they know about what is hap­pen­ing across the ocean. But where do they, their views, their rights to opin­ions get re­flected in Yoffie’s as­ser­tion that “Is­rael” (what­ever that is) “must” rec­og­nize Reform and Con­ser­va­tive Ju­daism? What if “Is­rael” – mean­ing large num­bers of Is­raeli cit­i­zens – just doesn’t want to? Where is this mas­sive Mizrahi in­flu­ence re­flected in Yoffie’s pre­scrip­tion for Is­rael? Nowhere, ac­tu­ally. Which, iron­i­cally, is pre­cisely where David Ben-Gu­rion wanted them.

All of this ul­ti­mately proves the cen­tral the­sis of my book. What sep­a­rates Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael is, well, ev­ery­thing. The ma­jor­ity of Is­raeli Jews and the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can Jews are de­mo­graph­i­cally dif­fer­ent, have dif­fer­ent in­stincts when it comes to con­ces­sions for peace, and dif­fer when it comes to vi­sions for Jewish life. It was in­evitable that Jews who con­sti­tute 2% of the pop­u­la­tion of the coun­try in which they live and those who con­sti­tute some 80% would see the world dif­fer­ently and cre­ate rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent vi­sions of what Jewish life can and should be.

Is­rael was not cre­ated in or­der to en­able Amer­i­can Jews to feel vir­tu­ous – it was cre­ated to be a sanc­tu­ary of Jewish sur­vival. Is­raelis have fash­ioned dif­fer­ent in­stincts than Amer­i­can Jews on the ideal bal­ance be­tween risk and the quest for peace and have made their own unique de­ter­mi­na­tions about what Jewish cul­tural sur­vival looks like.

We ought to cel­e­brate those dif­fer­ences, not be­moan them, for it is our dis­agree­ments that give us what to learn from each other. The first step to­ward that mu­tual learn­ing, how­ever, is not preach­ing, but lis­ten­ing, see­ing each other through the most gen­er­ous lens we pos­si­bly can. Sadly, con­de­scend­ing and pa­ter­nal­is­tic at­ti­tudes to each other (in Rabbi Yoffie’s con­clud­ing words, “It may be that Is­raelis them­selves don’t see as clearly what US Jews see from there”) take us in pre­cisely the wrong di­rec­tion. The writer is se­nior vice pres­i­dent and Koret Dis­tin­guished Fel­low at Shalem Col­lege in Jerusalem. His lat­est book is We Stand Di­vided: The Rift Be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael (Ecco/ Harper Collins).

(Wikimedia Com­mons)

‘WHAT SEP­A­RATES Amer­i­can Jews and Is­rael is, well, ev­ery­thing... [yet] we ought to cel­e­brate those dif­fer­ences, not be­moan them.’

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