Daniel Gordis has just come out with a new piece in Tablet Magazine, wondering about the manner in which Jews talk to each other when they disagree over Israel. It seems Gordis was the target of some nasty accusations because he signed a letter by American Jewish leaders asking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to endorse the Levy Committee’s report on the non-occupied status of the West Bank.
I find Gordis’ sudden concern over the nature of the discussion problematic. First, these kinds of ad hominem attacks have been ongoing for a long time now. Peter Beinart’s 2010 New York Review of Books article, his book Crisis of Zionism, and his New York Times op-ed calling for a “Zionist boycott” of the settlements has certainly exposed some of the meaner elements of the debate, but the dialogue had been marked by maliciousness even before then and apart from these specific arguments.
Second, Gordis himself has contributed to the mean-spirited nature of the debate in his own review of Beinart. In that review he was less virulent than many others, but although the language was different, the tone, intention, and effect were the same. Gordis questions Beinart’s love for Israel—though it’s not clear why one has to “love” Israel, while at the same time Gordis intimates there is only one “right” way one can do so—and he accuses Beinart of not loving his own people. He wonders even whether Beinart has a “Jewish soul.”
I don’t know whether Gordis simply never received mean and violent responses to his own columns and writings, or whether he ignored them, or whether he felt such righteous conviction that he interpreted them more positively than they were intended. But the fact that only after he himself is subject to such vitriol and accusations does he realize how terrible the conversation has become says something about how he views the nature of dialogue with those who hold opposite views. In other words, he never cared before.
One last point that deserves mention: Gordis’ Tablet piece was about the conversation among Jews. But surely, when looking at the hate and demonization that suffuses the discussion of Israel, one cannot ignore the levels of the same that Jews and Palestinians (and their supporters) direct toward each other. That Gordis is only concerned in this particular piece about the effects on Jews from intra-Jewish conversation, and not about the effects on Jews when they refer to others also says something.
Gordis makes no secret of his preference for a more insulated tribalism. But, of course, neither Jews nor Israel live in a bubble. How Jews act toward others affects the way we see ourselves, others, and the nature of our actions. If we dehumanize others, we make it easier to act repressively and violently toward them. If we dehumanize others, we lose our own moral way.
Surely how we treat “strangers” is as important as how we treat ourselves. It’s not just about how Jews talk to each other, but how we talk to everyone.