Daniel Gordis’ Bizarre Misreading of Israel and American Jews
Daniel Gordis has written an important, valuable book about the problems that exist in the relations between American Jews and Israel.
Gordis is a serious and thoughtful scholar, and “Divided We Stand: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel” is generating considerable discussion. It should be studied by anyone who cares about Israel’s well-being.
Alas, many of his arguments are simply wrong.
The volume’s central thesis is that liberal American Jews – the vast majority – blame the rift between their community and Israel on “what Israel does.” They refer, primarily, to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and her failure to recognize Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel.
Gordis disagrees, claiming that no matter what Israel might do on these issues, U.S. Jews would still be unhappy – because the real problem lies elsewhere. The issue is not what Israel does but what Israel is.
According to Gordis, American Jews have been unhappy with Zionism and Israel long before Israel was created, and before a Palestinian problem or a religious pluralism problem even existed.
In his telling, Zionism and then Israel set out to do one thing: save the Jewish people and protect Jewish lives. And Zionism did that by establishing an ethnic democracy, devoted to the values, welfare, security, and culture of the Jewish people. While its minority population enjoys equal rights, it bears certain burdens that accompany minority status, and cannot feel entirely at home in the Jewish state.
Particularist democracies are common in the free world. Many democratic states promote the religion, culture, and language of a dominant ethnic majority, while also working to guarantee minority rights. But America, pluralistic and diverse, is something else – what Gordis calls a “liberal democracy.”
Lacking a majority ethnic population that defines its national identity, America’s unifying principles flow not from ethnicity or religion but from the values of its founding documents – the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And these values, Gordis points out, have a distinctly universalistic tinge, applicable, as Lincoln put it, “to all men and all times.”
America periodically invites people from nations around the world to join the American experience (a value-based policy that the Trump administration has rejected), on the condition that they embrace American values.
And therein lies the rub. Americans, Gordis says, shaped by universalism, see ethnic democracy as illiberal. And American Jews, identifying fully with the American ethos, are uncomfortable with Israel’s devotion to one people – even if it is the Jewish people. Israelis, in turn, are baffled and angered that American Jews prefer universal principles over identification with the Jewish state.
Is Gordis right? Mostly, no.
A person from another planet reading this book would conclude that American Jews are generally hostile to Israel, or at best, deeply ill-at-ease with Israel’s singular devotion to the Jewish people and to revitalizing Jewish life. Gordis argues that with the exception of the “honeymoon years” of 1967-1982, Jewish Americans have seen the whole idea of a Jewish nation-state as problematic and at odds with their universalistic vision of humanity.
But this is nonsense. Gordis correctly points to the serious reservations about Zionism that existed among American Jews in Israel’s pre-state and early state period. But the history of the last 70 years is one of steady growth of support, affection, and ultimately love of American Jews for the Israeli enterprise.
While fierce disagreements are common, and there are obviously dissenters on the fringes, the poll data is overwhelming. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 95 percent of American Jews have favorable views of Israel, far more than the average for all Americans.
American Jews do not love and support Israel despite her Jewish character but because of it. They are perfectly capable of understanding the distinction between liberal and ethnic nationalism, while realizing that both can be consistent with progressive values and exist in a democratic framework.
And this is true not only for older Jews but for younger ones as well. The great majority of Birthright participants return excited about Israel because they are fascinated by her majority Jewish culture and thrilled to be in a place where Hebrew is the language of everyday, soldiers in the army are mostly Jewish, Shabbat and the festivals provide the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, and the public square is dominated by arguments referencing Jewish identity and tradition.
The argument that Gordis makes for a mistaken, fuzzy-headed, universalistic critique of Israel by American Jews is often weak and sometimes absurd. Early in the book, he claims that Israel’s capture of Adolph Eichmann in 1960 generated dismay among American Jews and opposition to trying him in Israel. But it did not, except for a handful of intellectuals. Most American Jews cheered the capture of Eichmann, and were riveted by the trial, which they applauded.
Gordis also claims that they’re so repelled by particularism that “there is scarcely an American Jewish liberal who would dare speak aloud about denying the Palestinian right of return once and for all.” But where is the evidence for such a statement?
American Jewish liberals overwhelmingly support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And they recognize that the Palestinian right of return makes such a solution impossible. American Jewish liberals may be “guilty” of many things, but supporting the right of return is not one of them.
Gordis makes frequent references to the anti-occupation group IfNotNow, noting, rightly, that it refuses even to endorse unequivocally the idea of a Jewish state. But the problem with “We Stand Divided” is that it often seems to be written as a necessary full-scale pushback against what you’d be forgiven for thinking is the mighty communal presence of IfNotNow.
But IfNotNow is an unworthy straw man for Gordis. It is a small group of young people, mostly naïve or misguided, who possess a flair for publicity but very little grassroots backing.
The most serious error of “We Stand Divided” is its misreading of how U.S. Jews understand Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the state of religious freedom in Israel. Gordis basically presents both issues as red herrings diverting attention away, on purpose or otherwise, from American Jewry’s reluctance to fully embrace and endorse Jewish statehood and the Zionist cause.
His contention is that when U.S. Jews criticize West Bank settlements and creeping annexation, or the oppressive Orthodox monopoly on Jewish life in Israel, they’re just bluffing: their problem is still with Israel as an idea, no matter what policies Israel adopts.
But Gordis has it exactly wrong. Most American Jews, and definitely affiliated U.S. Jews, take the positions they take on Israel/Palestine and religious pluralism precisely because they support the premises of Zionism and Israel as a Jewish state. Because they care, and they are engaged.
Gordis does not hold back from criticism of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. But he asserts at length that Israelis attach little importance to recognizing non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. He quotes Einat Wilf approvingly: Most Israelis “could care less how citizens express their religious identity, Jewish or otherwise.”
And he identifies with those Israeli academics who argue that, Orthodox Jews excepted, Israelis simply do not see religion – and in particular liberal streams of religion – as an essential element of a flourishing democratic and civic culture. Pluralistic religion may be important in America, he says to American Jews, but it is not in Israel, and is not likely to be in the foreseeable future.
But, apparently oblivious to the irony, he later asserts, that Israel is “not only the state of its citizens but also a state that is fundamentally devoted to the Jewish people.” Israel, he adds for emphasis a few pages later, is not just a state, it is a project of a people, united by a commitment to this enterprise.”
Gordis is here playing both sides against the middle. If Israel is really devoted to the Jewish people, then she 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 shouldn’t matter whether there are many or few liberal Jews in Israel, or whether you think non-Orthodox Judaism has a real future in Israel or not (Gordis, in my view incorrectly, thinks not).
The pleas of Diaspora Jews come not from what Gordis would refer to as some misplaced universalistic liberalism, but from the obvious fact that when Israel dismisses U.S. Jews’ profound religious concerns, she turns her back on that “common Jewish enterprise” that Gordis himself says is fundamental to Israel’s purpose.
The Gordis argument is a bizarre and disconcerting one. He tries to show that U.S. Jews who are offended by Israeli policies that actively discriminate against them as Jews – who take offense precisely because they do feel connected – are actually evidence that they don’t care at all.
Similarly, American Jewish backing for a two-state solution is not a rejection of particularism, but an embrace of it. American Jews do not know how long it will take to reach – will a two-state deal come in a year, in ten years, a hundred years?
But this they understand: Israel cannot be a specifically Jewish country – and all the talk of a state “devoted to the Jewish people” is just posturing – if it does not have a stable Jewish majority. And Israel cannot be a Jewish state if it has more Arabs than Jews.
Zionism can mean different things, but it can never mean either bi-nationalism or apartheid. Separating from the territories and moving toward two states is a process that must begin now, no matter how long it may take.
Gordis would have us believe that this insistence on Jews forming the majority of a Jewish state is yet another disingenuous attempt by American Jews to distract from their own universalism. It really isn’t. It is the continuation of the most essential tenets of Zionism: sustaining a specifically Jewish country, democratic but with a Jewish majority, a Jewish language, a Jewish flag, and a Jewish public square.
It is interesting that Gordis quotes Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua as an advocate and champion of the kind of Jewish ethnic democracy that he wants Israel to be. “In this reality,” Yehoshua is quoted as saying, “everything is Jewish. The territory, the language, the army and police, the way of life – and most importantly, sovereignty and responsibility.”
But Gordis is undoubtedly aware that a month ago, Yehoshua said in an interview to Army Radio: “We must change the relations between hawks and doves and think about something revolutionary – a bi-national state, to include the Arabs with us…I was in favor of a two-state solution for 50 years. Today I say that it is no longer possible. We must create full cooperation with the Palestinians…’
Last year, he wrote in Haaretz about the urgency of the situation: “What’s in danger now is not Israel’s Jewish and Zionist identity but its humanity – and the humanity of the Palestinians who are under our rule.”
Rabbi Gordis, take note: One of Israel’s foremost nationalists is now saying, after 50 years, that if his country does not find a way to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and end the occupation, Israel’s Jewish nationalism will give way to a bi-national reality, and Jewish particularism as envisioned by Zionism will come to an end.
Are American Jews, as you suggest, foolish to be arguing about the Palestinian issue, foolish to warn that in the absence of negotiated progress, there will be no democratic Jewish state? Do you really think this is just a performative escape for them from their misgivings about Jewish statehood?
I don’t think so. I don’t think any rational reading of these issues could support Gordis’ key contentions.
American Jews believe in Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and they know a threat to Jewish statehood when they see one.
And by making their voices heard on issues of peace and religion, they are doing what they see as necessary to keep Israel a specifically Jewish country – and to express their desire to be part of that ongoing project.
I urge you, Daniel Gordis, to give American Jews some credit. It may be that Israelis themselves don’t see as clearly what U.S. Jews see from there.