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‘Feelings’ and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

And why they don’t matter

Shaul Magid
June 03, 2021
Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images
Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images
Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images
Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images

You know the great lead-up to the chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” when the band picks up the tempo until Dylan leans into the mic and blurts out “How does it FEEL!” That is what I often think of whenever I listen to or read about the conversation about Israel/Palestine in the American Jewish community. If one wants to be heard in that conversation one must begin with a version of this formula: “I feel for my brothers and sisters in Israel, I feel for their plight, for how their lives how been disrupted.” And then if you are a liberal Zionist, your declaration of feelings is followed by, “and I feel for the innocent citizens of Gaza.” Then one can proceed.

The problem here lies less in the required mantra of how one feels than in the fact that what follows is largely an extension of those feelings. In most cases, it never moves beyond them. It’s through feeling that most American Jews speak about Israel, its security, and of course its relationship to Palestinians. I am not discounting or disparaging feelings; we all have them, we experience them, we grapple with them. It’s part of what it means to be human. The problem arises when we can only think through them, when our feelings become the borders of legitimacy and are used to establish social norms—when “feelings” become the litmus test of being a “good Jew.”

Who gets to be an active participant in those “Jewish conversations” about Israel, in Hillels, synagogues, summer camps, even in institutions devoted to pluralism, is often tacitly contingent on an assessment of how any participant feels about Israel. Loving, caring for, “feeling” for and about Israel is assumed, and when those feelings are questioned, or openly denied, participation becomes more problematic. Caring about justice or morality is fine, as long as it is framed by one’s “feelings” of fidelity to the country in question. I am not questioning whether such feelings are legitimate, they certainly are. I am suggesting, rather, that when they become the very condition of the conversation, they paralyze the more difficult exchanges about moral rectitude and deep critique, not only of policies (no country is “perfect” is a common refrain) but the very structures and institutions of the state itself. The very foundations upon which the state was founded.

This notion of “Do you love Israel?” is not new but, as Derek Penslar showed in his recent essay “What Does Love Got to Do With It?: The Emotional Language of Early Zionism” it goes back to the very roots of Zionism. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in conversation with people, or giving a talk about Israel/Palestine, and someone will ask me, “Do you love Israel?” as if my answer will determine whether what I have to say has any legitimacy whatsoever. But of course it doesn’t.

Some of us are quite adept at proceeding “as if” what we think or what we say is not primarily about feelings but about thinking beyond feelings. And yet the feelings manifest in myriad ways, edging up to the surface, almost always framing the discourse. “It’s complicated” is one common mantra, a salve to relieve the sting of a moral dilemma that undermines how we want to feel about Israel. When John Oliver recently delivered a provocative monologue on Israel/Palestine, saying, “Lots is complicated here. But some things are pretty simple,” he was skewered by American Jews. How dare he say killing children is not complicated. It has to be complicated because “that’s how I feel” and my feelings are really what matter.

How I feel, how I don’t feel, how I want to feel, and how I want you to feel—sometimes I think American Jewish conversations on Israel/Palestine are just one big therapy session or Pro-Israel Anonymous meeting. We share our feelings about how complicated things are, and if you dare question the legitimacy of my feelings, you cross a line, you are insensitive, or you lack “ahavat yisrael,” love of Israel—or, literally, love of the Jews, but love of the Jews and love of the Jewish state seem to have fused. We confuse feelings for policy and policy for feelings. The lines between nonfictional stories about people’s complicated feelings toward “occupation” become policy blueprints; writers become politicians and politicians become novelists. All of it seems to eventually get boiled down to the question: “But do you love Israel and the Jewish people?” And by “love Israel” it is meant “love Israel the way I love Israel.”

It must be said that this obsession with “feelings” is not only on the ostensibly pro-Israel side. Those critical of Israel and even anti-Israel or anti-Zionists also seem to be caught in a web of feelings, either about social justice, the Palestinian plight, or deeply identifying with the humiliating aspects of occupation. But it is in the American Jewish conversation about Israel/Palestine, I submit, where feelings become the very engine of the conversation itself, and often under the guise of thinking.

This brings us to the famous debate between Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem about Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. In letter to Arendt after her Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared in 1963, Scholem accused Arendt of lacking “ahavat yisrael.” Arendt was commissioned by The New Yorker to cover the trial. Not a victim of the Holocaust per se but certainly a victim of Nazi antisemitism (she was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and settled in Paris), Arendt went with an open mind. What she saw was, for her, appalling, not because she thought Eichmann was innocent but because she felt Israel was putting on a show trial, using Eichmann as a tool for a collective expression of rage and revenge. One can certainly understand the rage of survivors confronting a Nazi, a murderer, like Eichmann. Arendt was sympathetic to that. But she felt the trial should have taken place in the international court, even as she ultimately agreed with the death penalty. What seemed to get to Scholem was her critical comments about the Judenrat, Jews who chose to save their lives by working with the Nazis. There was something sterile about Arendt’s approach, Scholem claimed in his letter, something that seemed to lack “feeling.”

How I feel, how I don’t feel, how I want to feel, and how I want you to feel—sometimes I think American Jewish conversations on Israel/Palestine are just one big therapy session or Pro-Israel Anonymous meeting.

In his excellent new book, Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy, Adam Stern offers an interesting take on this encounter. Scholem was also unhappy with Arendt’s use of the term “banality of evil,” claiming she had “blurred the boundaries between theses and slogans,” uttering “stock phrases” that didn’t really have any substantive meaning. Arendt famously responded to Scholem’s charge about “ahavat yisrael” by writing in her response to him that she doesn’t love any state or any “people.” But she also added, “Incidentally I would be very grateful if you would tell me since when the concept (ahavat yisrael) has played a role in Judaism, when was it first used in the Hebrew language, etc.” Scholem never responded to that request, but Stern claims that Arendt was cleverly turning the tables on Scholem with that question, as if to say that the phrase ahavat yisrael itself may be nothing more than an empty slogan, and that you, too, “dear Gerhard” (Arendt always referred to Scholem by his German name), might not really be saying anything at all. Her chastisement of Scholem—and Arendt was one of the few people who intimidated Scholem intellectually—was that Scholem’s empty slogan saved him the “the time required in order to think.”

Maybe one of the reasons we Jews can’t seem to get anywhere on Israel/Palestine is because we’re mostly feeling instead of thinking, or at least thinking through our feelings in a way that doesn’t produce “thought” but rather polices emotions. So when someone uses the term “apartheid,” the pushback appears to me less a contestation of whether or not that term applies in this situation—it described a series of formal legal acts of population separation instituted in South Africa, and we can talk dispassionately about whether it’s a good analogy—but rather about how it makes some of us “feel.” And when “settler colonialism”—the concept dates as far back as the 1960s, in the writing of French Jewish historian Maxime Rodinson—is used in regard to Israel, most of us don’t want to explore how that term can, in fact, mean something wider than the formal definition of European colonialism (which many early Zionists had no problem with) because it supposedly suggests that the individual is not “sympathetic” to Israel.

One new pro-Israel angle is that Jews are not colonizers but the Arabs are colonizers from the Arab conquests in the seventh century, and Zionism is decolonizing the land. Which, to my mind, completely misunderstands the term colonialism. But all of this is irrelevant because this term, which may or may not be right, doesn’t make us “feel” good—so we won’t, and we can’t, tolerate anyone else even engaging with it.

I have no problem with people, Jews or non-Jews, who express their love for Israel. Like Arendt, I may not know exactly what “loving” a state really means, but I respect the gesture of being passionately invested in a larger political project. But then equal legitimacy must be given to those who don’t “love” the state, or Zionism, and who might love some other state or political project, for whatever reason.

For years now, popular nonfiction writers have been selling feelings as ideas and policies to American Jews. When I read their work on Israel/Palestine or Zionism, I don’t usually come away with any new ideas or insights. Unlike Herzl, who made the argument that Jewish nationalism was rooted in European economics, and Leo Pinsker, who marshalled a theory of hospitality to justify a Jewish state, today’s great defenders of Israel explore the nature of people with gut feelings and dreams. Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis, to take two well-known examples, are masters of “feeling.” And they are popular in part, I think, because people read them to have unreflective feelings affirmed or articulated in a cogent manner. This is not to say they have nothing to say; they have plenty to say. But as I read them, their work is emotive and moving, not analytic or theoretical. It makes us feel good but it doesn’t do the hard work that I believe needs to be done.

Perhaps in a socio-political reality as complex and emotionally charged as Israel/Palestine, each side is unable to provide the ‘thinking’ necessary because the ‘feelings’ are too overwhelming.

Perhaps in a socio-political reality as complex and emotionally charged as Israel/Palestine, each side is unable to provide the “thinking” necessary because the “feelings” are too overwhelming. In such political cases, an outside party is called in. But in this case, and here I speak only of the Jewish side, as I simply do not know enough about the other side, if the third party doesn’t adequately understand our “feelings,” if we feel they are not sufficiently schooled in how we “feel,” we distrust their judgment, not because they are not expert in such problem-solving but because they don’t “feel” as we do, or don’t sufficiently understand how we “feel.” So we look for how these third-party actors “feel,” what investment they might have, or what yichus, what lineage. Jared Kushner was totally ill-equipped to take on the duty of Mideast diplomacy, and everybody knew it, but many American Jews trusted him because we trusted his “feelings.” We wanted David Friedman and Jared Kushner to represent the third party because of their “feelings.” But if anyone of Arab descent, however qualified, is appointed as an envoy, many American Jews immediately dissent. Take for, example, the negative Jewish response to the appointment of Hady Amir, Biden’s new deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli and Palestinian affairs. This is not because we think Amir is an antisemite, but because, you know, how can he really understand our “feelings” about Israel?

Sadly, from my point of view, there is very little real thinking going on in the American Jewish community about Israel/Palestine. But there sure is a lot of feeling. If you are too critical of Israel, if you want to talk about policy and institutional structures and address the significant charges made by the other side, you are not “feeling” enough empathy for the Jews, or for the country called Israel. And not “feeling” the right way is very bad, bad enough to accuse you of abetting the enemy. In these moments, ideas, structures, legal categories, even international law, mean little.

There may be no exit from this ethos of feeling. Setting aside feelings that were inculcated from childhood is very difficult. The Zionization of American Jewry has produced generations of Jews who “feel” for Israel, albeit with very little knowledge of Israel’s complex reality. The heady and deep divides between Marxists, laborites, socialists, and capitalists that once were at the center of debates over Zionism have been obliterated by popular nonfiction writers who tell us about different people’s dreams, passions, and love. That is the ticket into the club of Jewish peoplehood. I was certainly a product of that. Many in my generation still well up in tears when we hear the score for Otto Preminger’s Exodus, even those who know the film is total propaganda. We just can’t help it. Those of you who are still reading may accuse me of not “loving” Israel enough. I can’t assuage your suspicions, so I will not show you my bona fides. My question is: Why does that matter? I am a Jew who believes in justice and equality. I did not lose my Zionism at progressive protests. I lost my Zionism in the IDF.

But if you conclude that my “feelings” for Israel don’t meet the bar of being included in the conversation, there is little I can do. I respect how you feel, even as I may not quite understand it. But if we can’t figure out a way to think beyond our “feelings,” I am afraid we will remain caught in a vicious circle out of which little will emerge except more feelings. Those who don’t understand our feelings will invariably become our enemies, and our negative feelings will then be directed toward them. So: “How does it FEEL?” We will find out, and we won’t like the answer.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

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