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Gross in Jerusalem

The travel writer and the ‘Times’ effect

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The Old City of Jerusalem.(Saul Zackson/Flickr)

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, has gone public with his “disbelief” and dismay at an article published in the New York Times Travel section by Matt Gross, formerly the paper’s Frugal Traveler columnist. He notes something very curious, which is that this self-identified Jew and avid professional traveler proclaims, in the second paragraph, that “of all the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one—besides Afghanistan and Iraq (which my wife has deemed too dangerous)—that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel.” He explains his thinking thusly: “To me, a deeply secular Jew, Israel has always felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden.” Harris thinks it odd “that a travel writer by profession could proudly proclaim no place—not, in his own words, Bridgeport, Connecticut, nor Iran, nor Chiapas—was beyond his scope of interest, save the Jewish state.” And the conclusion follows: that the Times should have perhaps assigned a travel writer “with the writing talent and absent the heavy psychological baggage” to pen this long piece. Harris could have added that the long Israel feature might have featured more than only Jerusalem’s Old City, which actually allows a Jewish author to dodge the “politically iffy” aspect by focusing, merely anthropologically, on history and religion.

(I highlighted Gross’ article earlier today as an example of the Times’s generally odd stance toward Israel and Jewishness. And I noted that part of the reason this problem exists is that American Jews feel a unique investment in the newspaper. Harris’s essay begins, “I sat down to read the New York Times Travel section … ”—of course, because surely he does every weekend.)

Gross has dealt with the problems of travel and his Jewishness before—in Tablet Magazine. In 2009, he wrote about visiting the cemetery in Lithuania where some of his ancestors, murdered by the Nazis, now reside.

Gross painted himself as rootless, even deracinated, while at the same time envious of those who are not: “I grew up wondering what it must be like to have … an identity tied to more than just secular Judaism, New England, and Star Wars.” I find the resentment odd given that Gross had larger aspects of his identity there for the taking and chose not to take them. “There are no family-tree assignments in my immediate future,” he added, “and at the ripe old age of 35, I’m comfortable basing my identity on the here and now. Judaism matters little to me; it’s a vestigial organ, a curiosity.” Yikes.

And yet! Proving that there is always one more way to look at a New York Times article, the left-wing blogger Philip Weiss chastises Gross’ article for its failure to look at Israel’s decidedly more-than-iffy political burden (it’s not clear whether the post is by Weiss or a reader whom Weiss is quoting): “The Old City of Jerusalem is made out to be in Israel. There is only the vaguest reference to Arab East Jerusalem. He describes the wall as separating Israel from the West Bank—a clear error. … He talks about coming out of Yad Vashem and seeing ‘a picture-perfect valley, a white-washed village clinging to the far slope. I stared at it a long time before I could move on.’ This is presumably where the ethnically-cleansed village of Deir Yassin was.”

What’s ironic is that, as Michelle Goldberg argued in her profile of him, Weiss’ opposition to Israel is inseparable from his deep engagement with his own Jewishness. Though politically they are opposites (or at least far apart), Weiss and Harris have far more in common with each other than either does with Gross and his bizarrely, deliberately impoverished identity.

“Zero Interest in Ever Visiting Israel” [Huff Post]
Lost in Jerusalem [NYT]
NYT Travel Section Features Visit to Another Planet [Mondoweiss]
Related: Grave Missteps [Tablet Magazine]
Mondo Weiss [Tablet Magazine]
Earlier: A Brief History of the NYT’s Israel Coverage

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Verificationist says:

While I feel the way Matt does about Israel, it was lame of him to lead with that kind of Israel sniffiness, which — here Harris is right — he would never permit himself with any other country, as it’s horrendously unprofessional. But casual, hold-your-nose Israel-bashing of this sort is a great privilege of certain Jews — I know so well because I do it sometimes. We scandalize our Israel-revering mamas and papas (and you, fellow Tablet commenters; hi, Bill Pearlman!) by being bored by Israel, even as a travel destination. We don’t actually have the strength of considered anti-Israel conviction; this isn’t about Israel as much as it is about the great satisfaction of scandalizing our own (parents and second country) and still be loved for it, because they can’t afford to let us go. And what a privilege to have a country (and parents) like that! We take advantage of all that. And cloak it under our exquisite, bored taste. Israel as the latest object of hipster boredom.

Of course, travel journalism isn’t news reporting — there’s room for the personal, and Matt Gross should most definitely alert us to his personal feelings about a place. But his personal feelings about Israel make him a bad person to have written this story. They should have chosen someone else. Someone who might have actually seen it as a true traveler (which is to say open mind, full heart), an honorific that does not assign lightly.

Apart from everything else, the article is bad. I wandered here, I wandered there. Matt in general doesn’t tear into places like a hungry hyena, but this piece came out too bloodless even for him. Dare I say because of the sentiments that lead it. It’s a false sale — a travel piece about journalism that turns out to be, in form and tone if not content, an article about Matt. And the worst part is that he shows no awareness of that in the piece.

Philip Weiss opportunistically seizes on a few stray errors and the mildly positive (at least not outright condemnatory) tone of the Gross piece to rehearse his stale, two-minute hate routine, but the snippet you offer is telling. That pathetically written line about Deir Yassin is a giveaway of just how shallow his feelings about Israel and Palestine really are. After the reflexive swipes at a writer with the effrontery to be employed by a major news organization, he reverts immediately to ethno-historical stereotypes, viz. the invisible villages eradicated by Israel, the victor-victim dichotomy without any shading or nuance, etc. In fact, all of this has been implicitly referenced by Gross, has in fact established the tenor of the piece, but then Weiss has never been one to allow himself to be preempted by the actual journalism of other writers, or the prior reporting of facts. His recitation of Pro Palestine shibboleths has all the genuine emotion of a comintern youth credo. It’s sloganeering, without any animating humanity–a good description of Weiss generally.

I don’t think it’s “pathetic” to write about Deir Yassin or lament the absence of reference to Arab East Jerusalem I think it’s a brave and honest act of facing history. I think not facing history as unpleasant as it may be to some is pathetic, weak, and an act of complete cowardice.

Oh, come off it, Marc–Weiss and Gross (and Michelle Goldberg, for that matter) are terrified of their own Judaism, and of the accompanying association with Israel, for exactly the same reason: it represents the mortal threat of inescapable otherness. To a great many thoroughly assimilated, secular, leftist American Jewish intellectuals, Israel is a living embodiment of the Jewbird in Bernard Malamud’s classic short story: an inconvenient reminder that to be Jewish is to be separate from the Gentiles–perhaps even disdained by them. And as in Malamud’s story, such reminders often provoke bitter hatred.

Of course, Weiss (and Goldberg) handle their hatred very differently from Gross. While the latter simply flees from his unwanted associations, Weiss and his ilk prefer to invent an alternative Jewish identity that centers on hurling invective at anyone who dares cling to Jewish separateness. But both are aiming at the same target: Jews, like Harris, who aren’t afraid to be different.

David Sher says:

There is nothing worse than self hatred of the kind that Mr. Gross seems to have. Yes, it is a burden to be part of the longest running show in the business. It is a burden to be a link in an eternal golden chain starting at the very beginning of civilization. Its far easier to seek a casual anonymity and to carry the veneer of annoyed entitlement. “How dare the Jews have a history that impacts me at parties or at the water cooler! By what right do they make a claim on me…I’m a good guy…not one of those militaristic nationalistic types.

Its the same mentality that made college students spit on soldiers returning from Vietnam. Its a mentality that insists that the dirty work be done by others and out of the light of day. Its a mentality of cowards.

Jules, I was referring to the (hollow) pathos of the line, not the factual event, and the utter superfluousness of his remarks given the overall message of the Gross piece, which is framed by his remarks about his own unease with Israel.

Now try to behave and maybe next year Santa will turn you into a real boy.

Bill Pearlman says:

Phil Weiss revels in the death and suffering of other Jews. And is just sorry that Hitler didn’t finish off every Jew in Europe

Eh, I read this post and thought I should go over the NYT piece myself. And to be fair, once Gross pulled his head out of his ass, he actually wrote a very interesting, colorful, detailed view of his time in Israel. I 100% agree with David Harris that the initial paragraphs are weak-sauce boilerplate Azajew horseshit (that was where Gross’ cranium and sphincter intersected) but he recovered pretty well after that; even the Leftist whinging about Israel security guards struck me as more rote than incendiary.
I would add that PhilUnwise should write about subjects that cover the Venn Diagram area of “things he knows something about” and “things he doesn’t abhor”, but there are already enough defunct former websites with only empty space, so no need to bother.

Bill Pearlman says:

On mondoweiss Jews are ticks, dogs, and rats. Phil Weiss has as much engagement with Judaism has Heydrich. Or Stella Goldschlag. The “Jew hunter” who gave Jews up to the gestopo.

Blood and genes don’t make people into a community. Culture does. America has a culture which involves many sub-cultures. Gross is a typical American Jew; most aren’t religious and don’t want to move to Israel either. That makes sense. Some American Jews may have real ties to Israel, but professional Jews (Jews who make their living from being Jewish) want everyone to have them – the result has been a lot of hogwash, the mythicizing of Israel as heroic and moral, when it’s just a new, small country with all the ills you might expect. Why should a normal American Jew want to visit Israel until it gets its act together better?

When I come out of Yad Vashem, what I see is Ein Karem, not the site of Deir Yassin. But then, what do I know? I only live in Jerusalem.

Given the NY Times’ usual degree of Israel-bashing, I was amazed they even printed Gross’ article. I agree he didn’t really get to see most of the city, but he basically liked what he did see and didn’t rant about “Israeli occupation” or some-such garbage, which seems almost de rigueur these days. There were a number of factual errors he should have checked before submitting his article, and he certainly missed out on some of Jerusalem’s best restaurants.

I read it. Besides being moved by Yad Veshem which concentrates on dead Jews, Gross cared most about the bars, places that deaden and distort the senses.

Even in the bars, he didn’t feel comfortable in the Lion’s Den, a (koshers0 sports bar, maybe because sports celebrate life and kosher is against “his religion.”

jacob arnon says:

Gross is obsessed with his Jewishness otherwise he would not have mentioned it in his article.

People who don’t care about their ethnicity don’t mention it as often as he does.

jacob arnon says:

As for Weiss he has written that his Jewishness means nothing to him. he uses it to attack Israel.

He is also not a leftist since he seldom writes about working class issues. For him it’s Israel and Jews all the time. This is his obsession.

Carol Stein says:

I identify very well with Matt Gross’ reaction to Israel. He did not set out to write a treatise –just to express his genuine amazement upon encountering a place like no other.

In 1991, my husband and I were among the least likely people to visit Israel. It’s not that we didn’t care about Israel;it’s just that we never considered actually going there. There were lots of other places much higher on our “bucket list.”

But one day my mother called and said she wanted to revisit Israel, and she wanted to take us with her on a 17-day tour. Her friends would be going, too. I don’t remember what my husband said, but I said “No, thank you.” The last thing I wanted was to use my hard-earned vacation time traveling to Israel with a bunch of old people in their 60s and 70s.
I stalled. I mentioned the offer to some friends. Without exception, everyone said I was crazy to refuse. People who had been to Israel said they envied us because going there the first time is like nothing else we would ever experience.

Still skeptical, I finally consented. But secretly I worried that Israel would not live up to its build up, and I would be the only person in my crowd who didn’t “get it.” I’d be embarrassed–the only person to “flunk Israel.”
The rest is history. From the first day I felt a compelling attraction to the country,which grew stronger every day. It was the people, the awesome landscapes, the history, the smells and sounds, the way Israelis expressed their love and commitment to their country; the way families demonstrated love for their children; the way that men greeted each other with hugs and kisses; the way those odd Hebrew melodies I learned at summer camp kept surfacing in my head; and the uncanny way I felt more at home there than at home.

Back home, we made it our goal to tell everyone what we had experienced, and do what we could to pique their interest so they, too, would make a trip to Israel a priority. Many of them have, and now we envy them.

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Gross in Jerusalem

The travel writer and the ‘Times’ effect

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