American Jews shouldn’t be disappointed that Israel’s not a liberal wonderland.
by Gershom Gorenberg
Rabbi David Gordis has despaired of Israel. In the pages of Tikkun magazine, the longtime American Jewish leader and educator recently wrote that Israel is “a noble experiment, but a failure.”
A friend told me about the article at her Shabbat table while I was visiting the United States. “Despair,” I responded more sharply than I expected to, “is immoral in politics.”
“Maybe so,” she said, “but I think a lot of American Jews feel that way.”
Reading the article only strengthened my reaction. Gordis was executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in the 1980s, and he opens his article with nostalgia about exchanging repartee with Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Abba Eban at a Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meeting 30 years ago. Those were the years, he says, when American Jewish organizations more or less maintained unity in support of the Israeli government in power. (Right-leaning groups, including AIPAC, he says, broke the rule by criticizing Labor-led governments.)
Then comes his lament. “Present-day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary” dimensions of Jewish life, he writes, for an “oppressive occupation,” an “emphatic materialism” and “fundamentalist religion.”
From my perspective, Gordis is a latecomer. As a graduate student in Jerusalem, I was organizing protests against Israeli government policies before Gordis was defending them from his seat at the AJC in New York. Since then, I’ve spent three decades as a journalist covering occupation, settlement and religious politics.
Still, I find Gordis’s picture of Israel to be a caricature. Perhaps that’s unavoidable in a brief article. But he should know Israel better than to describe the right wing as “entrenched” in power when its share of the vote has shrunk over the past three elections. It now has a majority that could collapse with the defection of a single Knesset member.
And it is stunning audacity for an American to lecture Israelis about materialism. “Look at your own society, ” I wanted to shout. Gordis, it seems, wants Israelis to be larger-than-life idealists while American Jews applaud from their well-appointed living rooms.
What really offends, though, is the despair—from Gordis, and from whichever American Jews feel the same way while thinking themselves liberal or progressive.
I can best define despair in politics as unrealistic pessimism. History gives evidence that dedicated, organized people can bring about political change. The creation of Israel is, in fact, one example. The civil rights movement in America is another. I’m certain there were people who told Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham not merely to move slowly (we’ve all heard about that), but to give up hope: “Look, Reverend, Jim Crow is entrenched policy. America’s promises are a sham. Give it up.” King didn’t. To bring about political change, you need to keep two conflicting recognitions constantly in mind. One is that it’s urgent. It must happen today, because the situation is intolerable. The other is that transformations require a very long march.
When you despair, you exempt yourself from the slog. Declaring that nothing can be done, you stop asking what you can do. You become an unindicted co-conspirator in the status quo. When Gordis—or anyone—tells American Jews that Israel is beyond hope, he absolves them of any further obligation. Without noticing, perhaps, he also tells Israelis to give up on their country.
“Yes,” a progressive American Jew might respond, “but I am on the sidelines. I’ve got other issues that matter to me. I don’t have to get involved in this one.”
The rub is that you don’t actually have the option of not being involved. Those major American Jewish organizations—like the one Gordis directed—are still giving political cover to Israeli government policies. They claim to speak for all American Jews. Inside the Beltway, strangely enough, all too often they are still believed. An American Jew who gives up on Israel allows them to continue to claim to represent her or him.
But you don’t have to let them. There are American Jewish organizations that are lobbying in Washington for more vigorous American support of a two-state outcome. They want your involvement. There are groups in Israel working for economic change, human rights, Jewish-Arab equality and religious diversity. They would like you to help out, not turn your back and shrug your shoulders.
What Gordis is actually saying is that Israel has not lived up to the image of a liberal wonderland that was promoted by the American Jewish establishment. Their imaginary Israel was a projection of the desire to believe that if Jews created a state, of course it would be better, more righteous, than other countries. Now that it’s clear that Israel doesn’t match the illusion, Gordis declares it a failure.
Historically, though, that imagined Israel never existed. A Labor government, one in which Abba Eban served as foreign affairs minister, started the settlement project in occupied territory. Golda Meir declared there was no such thing as a Palestinian people. The major American Jewish organizations went on supporting the government in power.
Philosophically, it’s remarkably illiberal to assume that Jews will automatically be more liberal than other nations when they have power—or to be furious when they are not. All that Zionism gave us—and it’s a great deal—is the chance to be the majority, to have power and to cope, ourselves, with our problems—with the clash of security and human rights, with creating a just economy, with the place and shape of religion in a modern state.
If you are a progressive, you don’t expect success at the outset, or even after the brief historical moment of 70 years.
You work for progress. You don’t despair.
Gershom Gorenberg is a journalist and historian living in Jerusalem. He is the author of The Unmaking of Israel.