Sinning Against Each Other
On my list of worries this Tisha B’Av: Iran, Egypt—and the ugly ways we Jews talk to one another
A week ago Sunday, I opened up my morning copy of Ha’aretz and found myself looking at a photograph of … myself. Initially, I had no idea what the story was about, but I was fairly confident this could not be good news.
Ha’aretz was reporting that I’d signed a letter from the Israel Policy Forum, an American pro-Israel advocacy group, urging Prime Minister Netanyahu not to adopt the recent Levy Commission Report, which argued that Israel’s presence in Judea and Samara, commonly called the West Bank, did not constitute occupation. One of the letter’s authors had sent me a draft, asking if I’d sign it. I turned him down, explaining that I had some issues with the language. A day later, he sent me a revised version. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better. Would I sign, he wanted to know? I agreed—and promptly forgot about the whole thing.
Apparently others noticed. “One of the more prominent and surprising signatures,” the reporter wrote, was mine. Fairly or not, I’m seen as slightly right of center on Israel, and so people were shocked that I signed the letter.
Why did I do it? I felt then, and still believe, that adopting the report would alienate many American Jews struggling to feel and express support for Israel; I feared it would unleash an international backlash that Israel does not need, particularly now; and I worried that it would harden even further the sense among some Israelis that we can continue to progress without a serious strategic conversation about Israel’s borders and their relationship to our democracy.
As I made clear in a subsequent op-ed, I’m no attorney, so I’m not an expert on the legal conclusions of the Levy Commission. But I do spend a great deal of time with young American Jews. Increasingly, I see them struggling to maintain feelings of loyalty to Israel as they grapple with what they believe is Israel’s failure to move the peace process forward. Unlike many of them, I believe that the disproportionate responsibility for the current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rests with the Palestinians. But I’m saddened and worried by the growing numbers of even Orthodox students on college campuses making their way to the J-Street bloc.
My record is clear: I disagree passionately with the way that J-Street’s minimizes Palestinians’ recalcitrance and believe that pressuring Congress to pressure Israel is horribly misguided. But I honor these students’ struggle to remain committed to Israel’s cause even when they are troubled by what are sometimes problematic Israeli actions or policies. I saw no reason to breed further hemorrhaging of American Jewish support for Israel or an international outcry by adopting a report that many would see as cementing the current status quo, leading to rampant accusations that Israel is becoming an apartheid society. Israel does not need that.
My decision has been attacked on many fronts; that was to be expected. But what has genuinely shocked me has been the level of vitriol, blatant intellectual dishonesty, and expectations of conformity. Perhaps I was naïve not to have seen it so clearly before. (And, I ask myself have I, too, crossed the line in pieces that I have written in the past?)
As the Jewish world prepares to commemorate Tisha B’Av, the date of the destruction of both Temples, the second of which the Talmud claims was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews, I find myself despondent about the way we Jews talk to one another and what it means for our future. If the ugliness that the rabbis said led to the destruction of the Temple is now the tone we take for granted, why shouldn’t young Jews just walk away?
The first distressing issue was the blatant hate speech that some have no qualms using. After my op-ed appeared, Yisrael Medad, a resident of Shiloh (a settlement in the West Bank) and a friend, wrote a blog post that was picked up in a few places, including in the Jerusalem Post. Medad’s piece didn’t cross any red lines—he didn’t call me a traitor, for example—but his derisive tone, I think, invited some of the viciousness that has come to characterize too much of Jewish discourse about Israel. One “talk-backer,” from Kiryat Arba, posted this on the website of the Jerusalem Post (for which, I should note, I am a columnist):
I have realized for several years that Daniel Gordis is just a weasel whose antagonism toward Israel is hidden under a patina of faux religiosity … Gordis is a sick and twisted affront to the Jewish People, the worst kind of hypocrite, and a two-faced human mistake.
Comments sections are, of course, the province of those with too much time on their hands, and our culture of web anonymity invites terrible excesses. The vitriol of one thug (who made no attempt to hide his identity, by the way) was, unfortunately, not a terrible surprise. But the Post’s implicit decision not to silence this type of speech was.
Have we learned nothing at all about the dangers of language run amok from the horrors of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination? Are we wholly unchastened by where we’ve been in the past as a people? Do we not believe that there should be limits on what we can and cannot say to one another?
The fall of Assad’s pro-Iranian regime is a net gain for the U.S., even if what replaces it isn’t a reliable ally