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Gross in Jerusalem

The travel writer and the ‘Times’ effect

Marc Tracy
January 17, 2012
The Old City of Jerusalem.(Saul Zackson/Flickr)
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.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.