Rabbi Danny Gordis brought the discourse on Israel to a new low this week. In a missive against me in the Times of Israel, Gordis, a former teacher and friend, a person for whom I have for years had deep affection and respect, accuses me of betrayal against both the State of Israel and his family. One might wonder what treasonous words one needs to utter these days to provoke such a serious accusation. Here’s what I did not say: I did not challenge Israel’s right to respond to Hamas rockets; on the contrary I said that Israel had not only a right but an obligation to defend its people. Nor did I suggest a moral equivalency between Hamas operatives targeting Jewish civilians and Israeli soldiers targeting Hamas operatives but inadvertently hitting Palestinian civilians.
My act of betrayal: the fairly unremarkable call to those who care deeply about Israel and bear witness to the fighting from across the Ocean to remember as the battle intensifies that war is never to be celebrated and that loss of human life is tragic.
Wielding the power of the pen, Gordis sets me up as a straw (wo)man, a representative voice of a naïve Jewish ideology, one that is willing to jettison allegiance to the Jewish people for the sake of some self-congratulatory humanism. Such Judaism, he claims, is “utterly universalized… almost entirely divorced from the richness of Jewish heritage and the worldview of our classic texts.”
What is shameful is that Gordis knows what many of his readers do not. For years my teacher and friend, he knows precisely what is the character of my Judaism, he knows just how deeply Jewish traditions and texts run in my blood. But it is far easier to cast aspersions on a straw man than engage in discourse with a real live colleague who shares his concern for Israel, the Jewish people and its future but nevertheless sees things differently than he does. So he follows the disturbing pattern he established years ago – pinpoint one voice, publicly eviscerate, hit send and reap the rewards of the resulting publicity. This may be a fine strategy to keep Gordis’s agenda on the radar of the American Jewish community, but it does not actually serve the interests of the Jewish people, his ostensible concern.
Gordis believes that empathy for Palestinian victims of war is an act of disloyalty. He comes to this conclusion based on two sloppy assumptions: First, he reads my call for empathy as an insistence that we love our enemies as much as we love our own children (or his). That is not something that I have ever argued, and he knows as much. Second, Gordis assumes that in asking American Jews to resist gloating and instead witness with humility and compassion I am necessarily indicating that one position is no more righteous than the other. This is also of course not the case. Grieving for your enemy’s babies – or babies that have the misfortune of living a block away from your enemy – does not call into question the legitimacy of your mission, your love of your people or your loyalty to the Jewish State. It simply means that you are a human being. Israeli generals, as Gordis well knows, take this so seriously that they work with ethicists and Talmudists to determine every possible measure to minimize civilian casualties in military action. I know of few armies in the world that take this mandate as seriously as Israel’s does.
Faced with the unimaginable vulnerability of sending one’s children off to war, I understand that Gordis may feel deeply isolated right now, as many Israelis do. But if he’s feeling alone in the world, I’d have recommended a moment of hesitation before accusing a colleague and friend of betrayal. In so doing, Gordis draws some terrifying new fault lines: he now redefines a traitor not only as someone who challenges Israel on any count (farewell, democracy), but also as anyone who recognizes the human tragedy of war while loving and supporting Israel.
The same day that his criticism of my letter appeared, Gordis published another article, this time in Tablet. There he decried the narrowing of discourse on Israel in the American Jewish community, evidenced by the cancellation of Peter Beinart’s speaking event at an Atlanta Jewish book fair. “Engaging with those whose views seem to me dangerous is infinitely harder, but far more important…” Gordis wrote. “Are we not ashamed to have created a community so shrill that any semblance of… Talmudic curiosity has been banished?”
Ironically, Gordis attacks me the same day, with no apparent awareness that such reckless, public assaults might be the precise cause of the shrillness in our community and the narrowing of discourse. It ought not be an act of courage in the American Jewish community to remind us that as Jews we are called to affirm our essential humanity even in the most trying of times. Indeed, many of us see that as a powerful expression of loyalty to Israel, a state built on the promise of freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets. One could even argue that these are the aspirations that have kept the Jewish people alive through a long and tumultuous history. If I remember correctly, this is a lesson I learned years ago from a former teacher and friend, a rabbi who saw his job as teaching Torah and giving people hope.
“Heartache,” the original message from Rabbi Brous to her community can be found here.
For the original post by Daniel Gordis, click here.
For a response by David N. Myers, click here.
For a response by Adam Bronfman, click here.
For a response by Ed Feinstein, click here.
For a response by Gil Troy, click here.
For the rejoinder by Daniel Gordis, click here.
Sivan Zakai argues that debates like this have harmed Jewish education in the US - click here.