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?
A second phenomenon was blatant intellectual dishonesty. A well known U.S. newspaper columnist wrote me saying: “I am dismayed that you would sign the letter urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to disregard the Levy Report. Your ‘explanation’ in Ha’aretz only reinforced my feelings of disappointment. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot effectively endanger other Jews and then argue that you have done no such thing.” That’s bunk. It had never occurred to me that I’d endangered Jews in the first place, so there was no point denying it. Why invent that accusation, instead of addressing my decision on its merits or lack thereof?
In similar fashion, Giulio Meotti, an Italian journalist, declared: “Unfortunately, the settler public has been marked with the scarlet letter of murder and expulsion and now, their ethnic cleansing has also received the imprimatur of influential Jewish rabbis and Israeli personalities like you.”
Really? Asking the prime minister to ignore a report is tantamount to urging “ethnic cleansing”? Meotti knows better. And the websites that posted his letter know very well that he’s a serial plagiarist. Was going after me so important that is was worth publishing someone with such tainted professional ethics?
The third issue, and perhaps the most distressing, was the implicit attitude behind all of these accusations: “You’re either with us, or against us.” Daniel Greenfield, a widely read blogger taken seriously by some people I take seriously, tweeted, “Daniel Gordis loses all credibility by signing on to pro-Hamas group Israel Policy Forum’s letter.” Even if we ignore the absurdity and incitement of calling the IPF “pro-Hamas,” there’s an important issue here: If a person makes one move with which you disagree, must they immediately “lose all credibility”? For some, apparently so.
It wasn’t only bloggers who suggested this letter had to have meant that I’d abandoned my principles. One supporter of the Shalem Center, for which I work, suggested that the only way to explain my decision was that I’d signed in order to raise money: “I can only hope that your chance to rub shoulders, even virtually, with your co-signers will result in some sizable gifts to Shalem College.” The mere suggestion was despicable. We’re in grave danger if support for Israel allows no disagreement about how to support Israel.
Happily, I should note, there were rays of light. The St. Louis Jewish Light wrote that I must be feeling like Justice Roberts and continued, “Gordis is absolutely right and yet, the backlash he’s received from both commentators and a slew of web posters makes it sound like he’s sold out Israel’s safety and security. Such could not be further from the truth.”
Others, even when disagreeing with me strongly, were also models of civility. Jonathan Tobin, writing for Commentary, said that he understood my worries about the Levy Commission, but then gave thoughtful explanations for his belief that the letter was a mistake; his column was a model of intellectually fair argument. Eve Harow, an Efrat resident and passionate spokesperson for the communities of Judea and Samaria, took me on in no uncertain terms (and gave me permission to quote her): “In this case by joining with those who, unlike yourself, jump on opportunities to malign Israel, you let many people down. Levy does not preclude some kind of treaty; it gives us more an even legal playing field which ultimately … may even garner us what we seek since they’ll understand that we have made a sacrifice too.”
Fair enough. Harow and I disagree. But she didn’t impugn my sincerity or demand lock-step agreement. She simply implicitly suggested that we talk. Hers, I believe, is precisely the mode of engagement we need, particularly when we disagree.
Israel is entering a new and very uncertain future. Iran may get a bomb. Hostile regimes have arisen in Turkey and Egypt, and Syria will soon fall. The American election looms. With Israel facing perhaps unprecedented isolation, do we not need a broad tent now, more than ever? Or do we want to watch as young people abandon the conversation, and the State it is about, out of sheer disgust with the way we conduct ourselves? We must choose.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin recently shared a beautiful thought with me. The Talmud suggests that the First Temple was destroyed because of serious violations like murder, idolatry, and incest. The Second was destroyed because of “baseless hatred.” Since the first violations are seemingly so much more serious, why was the First Temple rebuilt after 70 years, while the second never was?
The answer, Rabbi Telushkin heard from his own teacher, Rabbi Aharon Kreiser, was that baseless hatred, dismissive attitudes, and communal rancor are different. They are the sorts of actions for which we can always find explanations and justifications, and so, we never really confront the fact that we’ve sinned. This is why, Rabbi Kreiser said, the Temple that was destroyed because of baseless hatred has never been rebuilt.
We have no Temple now, of course. We do have a Third Jewish Commonwealth, a state that faces unremitting hatred from its neighbors and much of the international community. Without question, we need to defend it. But as Tisha B’Av looms, we would do well, I think, to ask ourselves what kind of a Jewish world we’re defending and whether, even if we’re successful at preserving the Jewish State, those whose loyalty we desperately need will want to have anything to do with us.
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