The angry brouhaha between Daniel Gordis, Sharon Brous, David Myers and Adam Bronfman, pivots on a sensitive subject: while defending Israel, how do Jews relate to Palestinians, in whose name our people are being terrorized and delegitimized, maimed and murdered? I only know Gordis, but I feel everyone’s anguish. Perhaps the American statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s political insights can reframe the conversation, shifting it away from personal acrimony toward the substantive ideological clash at play here.
As an American, a Jew, a Zionist, a human being, I share the Brous-Myer-Bronfman empathy impulse. We were raised on Abraham Lincoln’s with-malice-toward-none-with-charity-toward-all nobility toward defeated Confederate soldiers. Hebrew School teachers who dared teach us about Dina’s, ahem, “ordeal,” condemned her brothers Simon and Levy for ambushing her attacker’s tribe after tricking them into circumcisions. And many Zionists, left to right, viewed Palestine’s Arabs, romantically, respectfully, culminating in the 1948 Proclamation of Independence guaranteeing equal rights. Moreover, we all, as sensitive human beings, sincerely regret Palestinian suffering.
Yet Lincoln understood the Constitution was not a suicide pact; he violated basic rights like habeas corpus to save the union. The Torah brooks no compromise with Amalek, who attacked the most vulnerable – as Palestinian terrorists do. Zionism entailed self-defense and self-determination, informed by the basic human instinct to survive.
I share Gordis’s fear of some Jews’ addiction to a “We are the world” evenhandedness, which he mocks as: “Thou shall love thy neighbor who attacks thee as yourself.” But his understandable disdain for this trendy cosmopolitanism should not be misread as believing that either Judaism or Zionism reject broad universal ideals. In “The Promise of Israel,” Gordis argues that Judaism and Zionism teach that we can best fulfill our universal ideals, including redeeming the world, through our particular identity, by knowing who we are. Adam Bronfman is correct. Hillel celebrated survival and altruism, self-defense and empathy.
The traditional universal-particular tension is less relevant here. We are facing the modern problem of how democracy defends itself against totalitarianism, a problem navigated by America’s former UN ambassador and the four-term New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. As I argue in my new book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” Moynihan realized that totalitarians subordinated everything to serve their goal. Calling Zionism racism was sweeping, totalitarian, demonizing Israel, justifying any violence against it. This insight explains the Hamas charter’s absolutism, negating Israel’s right to exist, rejecting any compromise, championing Jihad. Understanding totalitarianism explains Hamas’s delight in targeting Israelis and its fanatic willingness to sacrifice Palestinian children in its fight.
Moynihan also understood that self-critical post-sixties liberals had difficulty grasping totalitarian extremism and fighting it. Many open-minded progressives, he complained, believe “our assailants are motivated by what is wrong about us.” But Moynihan insisted. “They are wrong. We are assailed because of what is right about us. We are assailed because we are a democracy.”
Believing that “words do hurt us” and ideas count, Moynihan rejected moral equivalences or pleas for restraint when fighting evil. “What is this word ‘toning’ down; when you are faced with an outright lie about the United States and we go in and say this is not true…. Do you say it is only half untrue?” he asked. “What kind of people are we?”
So, no, Gordis is not guilty of what Myers called “a simplistic misreading of history” by talking about good and evil. Good does not mean perfect and Hamas is evil. Gordis admits: “Israel is far from perfect, and yes, much of life in Gaza is miserable.” Although national mythologies need revising, relying only on revisionists is also “simplistic.”
After September 11, Moynihan and 59 other intellectuals, from left to right, explained “What We’re Fighting For” – refuting the trendy, guilty assumption “that the American use of force always represents an imperial or nefarious purpose.” While trusting “reason and careful moral reflection,” the manifesto affirmed that sometimes “the first and most important reply to evil is to stop it.”
In this spirit of “reason and careful moral reflection,” let’s acknowledge that we are fiddling on the steepest, slipperiest part of our national Jewish roof – albeit as proud, safe Israelis and Americans, not oppressed Tevyas and Goldas. Brous, Gordis, Myers, Bronfman and I all agree that we must distinguish between Palestinians and Palestinian totalitarians, because Palestinian terrorist totalitarianism betrays Palestinians too. But we should respect Palestinians enough to acknowledge that many Palestinians cheer and choose the violence. We can abhor Palestinian political culture while mourning Palestinian suffering.
Moynihan, reflecting the American, Jewish, Zionist and humanistic traditions all these writers share, taught that democracies must fight for survival sometimes. We must remember our common humanity, seeking as Israel does, that golden mean between making war and pursuing peace, between hating our enemies but not hating our neighbors, between fighting totalitarianism and protecting our souls.
“Heartache,” the original message from Rabbi Brous to her community can be found here.
For the original post by Daniel Gordis, click here.
For the rebuttal from Sharon Brous, 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 the rejoinder by Daniel Gordis, click here.
Sivan Zakai argues that debates like this have harmed Jewish education in the US – click here.