Every so often, Birthright sponsors a special tour for kids from American liberal arts colleges, places like Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Vassar, Williams, and Oberlin. I always try to wrangle an invitation to meet them and –- because I know a guy — I sometimes succeed. I do this because thirty years ago, I went to Swarthmore, and I flatter myself that the brainy, articulate kids on the tour are not all that different from who I was when I was their age, maybe sharing a certain bookish affection for ideas and perhaps the wish to do something with my life that has meaning, a wish those sorts of schools are famous for inflicting on their graduates.
And so it was that a couple of days ago, I found myself on a grassy expanse on the bluff overlooking a Tel Aviv beach, addressing thirty-odd, bright-eyed kids. I chose to talk about something that bothers me: how fractious and factious public debate about Israel has become. I said I thought that public discussion of Israel -– here and also abroad –- is more often than not about fables of a horrible and threatening “them” and a virtuous and beleaguered “us”. Of, say, Judeo-nazis (to use the wretched term coined by the great philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz) and our innocent victims, or of, say, Islamo-fascists and their anti-Semitic crusade to destroy Israel.
I said that this tendency to understand ourselves in fables and to debate ourselves in fables condemns us to a discourse of rage and outrage rather than to one that might produce progress solving the vast and vicious problems that we face. I said that scorched-earth discussion of Israel stifles, stymies and strangles us, preventing us from finding common ground we desperately need to find. I said that it is what led Haifa University recently to opt not to honor Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann because of his unacceptably right-wing views, and led the Knesset to pass laws making it harder to fund Peace NGOs because of their dangerous left-wing views, and it led Hillel International to prevent former speaker of the Knesset Avrum Burg from speaking at one of their events at Harvard because of his dangerously, what?, not-quite-Zionist-enough views.
All this was on my mind, I said, because we had just buried Arik Sharon, and my facebook feed had become Rashomon. One post read:
Ariel Sharon (R.I.P) was truly courageous and showed us the meaning of personal integrity. He kept true to his beliefs, at the cost of his own reputation and often to his own political demise.
And the one right after it went:
Sharon was a f*cking pig, and Sabra and Shatila was only the worst of the blood on his hands. It’s obscene for Biden to be leading a delegation to help whitewash his memory.
I said that what’s implied at the end of each of these posts is, If you see the world differently, then you are at best a moral simpleton, and at worst, the accomplice of an evil enemy. And that message, I said, is a tragedy and a danger.
My passion was real, and I delivered all this with brio, quoting Hamlet (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy!”), and when I finished, I felt pretty good about what I’d done. Several kids lingered as I put my notes into my bike bag. One woman told me she’d liked what I had to say, and disagreed with only one thing. Sure, some kids on campus are boisterously committed to one or another scorched-earth position on Israel, some anti-, some pro-, she said. But most kids — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Budhists, atheists, whatever –- really don’t care one way or the other. My Facebook feed may be filled with people fighting about whether Sharon was sinner or a saint, but hers isn’t. Hers, like that of practically everyone she knows, is filled with links to the Onion and cat videos.
I knew right away that she is right and that I am an idiot. I get exercised by kerfuffles like Hillel’s efforts to limit who Jewish kids can invite to speak on their campus, and I get upset by BDS and the teapot-tempests of arcane academic associations boycotting Israel. These things matter, but probably a lot less than I usually think. The biggest danger to support for Israel is probably not from ideologues who criticize Zionism or Israel policy. The biggest danger to support for Israel is probably that, in the minds of many kids on campus (and their parents), Israel has become irrelevant and tiresome. It’s not the haters on Facebook that best signify erosion of support for Israel; it’s all those goddamn adorable kittens, who are always only a click away.
That’s what I learned from the woman on the bluff above the beach. That for many Americans, including many American Jews, this is the way love for Israel ends, not with a bang, but with a whisker.