American Jewish leaders may sometimes be myopic, as Daniel Gordis noted in Haaretz recently, but it is the myopia of Israel’s political leaders that is truly frightening at the moment.
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A fervent and a thoughtful Zionist, Gordis wants progressive American rabbis to recognize certain realities that, in their yearning for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, they may be tempted to ignore. Many Israelis, he reminds us, despair of ever seeing a “land for peace” agreement; Hamas fanaticism and deep Palestinian hatred for Israel make such an agreement unlikely. He accuses some progressive leaders of a nave universalism and of failing to stand with Israel, both during the Gaza conflict and following the UN vote on Palestinian observer status.
As a “tough dove,” I am not without some sympathy for what Rabbi Gordis has to say. Peace may not be possible now. Extremism of a particularly vicious variety is a Palestinian disease for which a cure has yet to be found. And progressive Jews do, on occasion, demonstrate naivete about Middle East matters. They see what they want to see rather than what it. For that reason, when the Gaza conflict started, I was among those who called for Jews in the progressive camp to rally to Israel’s side, without reservation.
But I found Gordis’ article to be very troubling.
In the first place, it is a mistake to think that American Jews are being led astray by a pack of universalist-leaning, wild-eyed liberals. American Jews are a sensible, pragmatic group of people. And what we learned from Operation Pillar of Defense is that Jewish devotion to Israel runs very deep. My own concerns about what might happen in progressive circles were largely unwarranted. In the mainstream Jewish community, support for Israel was instantaneous and strong; and Jewish institutions sprang into action, offering political backing and financial help.
In the second place, ignoring “realities” – the major theme of the Gordis article – is not, at this moment, primarily a problem of the progressive rabbinate, or of the left; it is a problem of the right, and of the government of Israel itself. Rabbi Gordis is critical of a few rabbis who, he thinks, have a bit too much of a universalistic bent; that is fine. But why has he nothing to say about the actions of Israel’s leaders that defy reality and common sense? These are the matters that, right now, are causing American Jews much distress—and not out of ideological purity, but out of sincere dismay and concern. Having come together in unity and reawakened solidarity during the war in Gaza, they now find themselves confused and incredulous; Israel’s recent actions are simply incomprehensible to them.
And none of this means that American Jews have nave ideas about the imminence of peace. Most have probably not worked this out in detail, but in general, they are cautious, suspicious, and have no illusions about Arab intentions. Still, they simply do not understand what Israel is doing and how it is consistent with Israeli interests and the “reality” to which Gordis refers.
Why, they wonder, has the Prime Minister responded like a petulant schoolboy to the stupidities of the Palestinian Authority at the United Nations? What possible good can come from a settlement proposal for the E1 area—a proposal opposed by Presidents Bush and Obama and certain to infuriate Americans and Europeans alike? How can Israel remain strong without the diplomatic legitimacy that is now being undercut by settlement activity? Why endanger the goodwill that at last is being restored between Israel and the United States by defying American wishes on less-than-critical matters? Why let the Palestinians—both the PA and Hamas—off the hook for their multiple sins by “punishing the Palestinians,” since Israel is the one that ends up being punished? What happened to the Iranian threat—the existential issue to which the Jewish world has devoted itself for years and that now appears to have taken second place to everything else? Does anyone remember, when considering American and European reactions to settlements, that the Europeans are essential to the sanctions against Iran and the Americans are essential for a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities?
And most important of all, even if we assume—as Rabbi Gordis does—that there will be no peace for years to come, what is the end game of Israel’s government? American Jews love Israel and want to support Israel, but if peace is not possible, they must hear from Israel what the plan is. How will Israel deal with the territories, retain her democratic values, and maintain the support of the world? Stumbling along and keeping things as they are is not a plan.
American rabbis should never object to a reprimand from an Israeli colleague, particularly one who has helped us to think about Israel in new and important ways. But I urge Rabbi Gordis to remember that if he is concerned about confronting reality, there are realities that he is not addressing.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.