On That Awl Essay
Why it’s so wrong, and yet so troubling
At this point, I feel like you’re not getting your money’s worth if I don’t write an actual post on the week-and-a-half-old Awl essay on How I Learned to Stop Loving Israel and Worry About My Mom, so here goes.
When I first read the piece, by Allison Benedikt, I was both touched and put off. Touched, because it feels like an honest, laid-bare narrative of an individual’s loss of innocence, wrought by some moving combination of parents (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” and Benedikt’s are no exception), herself, and the uncaring forces of history and politics. Read this way, it’s nonfiction that nonetheless provides the sort of truths—specifically, what happens when an individual’s conscience collides with the outside world—that we commonly find in novels. The voice of innocence was just that, a voice, a conceit, and as a literary device, I thought it was well done; indeed, as a piece of literature, I thought it was well done.
But was it intended as literature? Of course not, and that’s what put me off. Though The Awl occasionally publishes short fiction, this piece was clearly intended to make a polemical point. And as if the mere existence of a long essay about becoming dissatisfied with Israel weren’t enough proof that it was designed to persuade, Benedikt finally does leave her own personal, idiosyncratic experience behind in the concluding paragraph, and writes: “Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel. It seems my trajectory is not at all unique.”
No serious person can take this persuasively. Her Jewish friends don’t like Israel? Okay, so her Jewish friends also don’t like Israel (it shouldn’t be shocking, given whom she chose for a husband). Her trajectory isn’t unique? Well, there are millions of American Jews, so it would be weird if her trajectory were unlike any other. What Benedikt utterly fails to do is show why her experience—which she has just spent thousands of words laying out with utmost specificity—should be applicable to any other person. She has written a short story, but wants it to be treated like an op-ed.
Her argument against Israel is fundamentally irrational: It depends on that fallacy that people who aren’t her should be persuaded by her story in the absence of any larger logical claim. And it is offensive, and it offended all the people it did because who is Benedikt to tell us who “most of” us are and to tell us that she is “not at all unique”?
The answer, of course, is that she is The Wicked Child. I don’t mean to call her evil; I doubt she means any harm (although, going solely by the essay, her husband is pretty clearly a massive asshole, but that is neither here nor there). I mean she is The Wicked Child that she speaks of deleting from her Haggadah. Let’s go the tape: The Wicked Child (it’s generally The Wicked Son, religion being what it is) asks his father, “What’s this service to you?” What makes The Wicked Son wicked, in other words, is that he banishes himself from the community. Benedikt does not disown her Judaism; she is raising her two children in the faith. But she has banished herself from the rolls of American Jews who, whatever their feelings about Israel, feel a continued obligation to give a damn.
So how should we respond? The father is instructed to tell The Wicked Child that the Seder “is because God acted for my sake when I left Egypt.” The father, in other words, goes along with the son’s self-excommunication. Yet The Wicked Child has done this at every Seder for 2000 years, and indeed, as Rabbi Andy Bachman points out, no Seder is complete without his presence. So if we accept the Child’s self-excommunication, we also compel ourselves to remember it. It is not our job to convert him, to win him back. Nor is it our job to agree with him. But it is our job to recognize him.
And that is why Benedikt’s essay is troubling: While she is wrong—irresponsibly, narcissistically, and stupidly wrong—to suggest that her experience should somehow serve as a template for anyone else’s, we know that at least she exists, that her sad story is true, and that is enough to trouble us.
Life After Zionist Summer Camp [The Awl]