A time for nuance, indeed

The right-of-center scholar Daniel Gordis has penned an op-ed that could have been written by Peter Beinart circa 2011. It’s a shrewd critique of pro-Israel activism that I urge everyone to read in its magnificent entirety. For now, though, this will do:

Over whom are we really battling? We’re battling over that small, middle ground, composed of many young American Jews who, while not entirely hostile to Israel, just don’t care that much. And the “Israel can do no wrong” song turns them off. Nothing else in their lives that truly matters is always right. So they are suspicious of this Israel advocacy world.

What they want is nuance. What they (rightly) demand is a serious engagement with the intellectual and moral issues at the core of Zionism. What they want to know is that Zionism is for smart people, not for robots.

This is an argument Liberal Zionists have been making for years. The StandWithUs model of (in Gordis’s words) “Israel can do no wrong” is no longer working, if it ever even did. Of course, these organizations don’t actually have to utter words of this kind. It is the lack of nuanced discussion which Gordis describes that betrays this attitude.

It’s unfortunate that this essay was published nearly two months after Sheldon Adelson launched his doomed anti-BDS initiative, the “Campus Maccabees”. Last month, he appointed the executive of Christians United for Israel to run the effort. If BDS was a problem exclusive to Oral Roberts University, perhaps this choice would have been appropriate. Instead, it’s an ostentatious demonstration of how out of touch the center-right pro-Israel establishment is.

I’m not writing to say there’s an easy way to make the case for Israel, particularly on campus. Quite the contrary, it is more difficult than ever before. But there are two facts that shouldn’t have to even be mentioned. First and foremost among them: a public marriage of the StandWithUs model and evangelical Zionism will not make Israel any more appealing to a secular American Jew on a university campus. It will do rather the opposite.

Second, supporters of Israel should want to portray Israel accurately. Israel is not a consensus society, and neither should the pro-Israel community in the diaspora. Healthy and even deeply divisive arguments take place in Israel everyday — check the op-ed pages of any Israeli newspaper, this one included — on issues ranging from the role of religion in public life, to the price of housing, to the conflict with the Palestinians. Why should these debates not take place amongst ourselves in the Diaspora? What are we so afraid of? The only thing we have to lose is something that doesn’t actually exist — Jewish unity.

The desire to “speak with one voice” is an understandable one. I recently wrote in these pages about how this desire has manifested itself in the debate over the Iranian nuclear program. But it doesn’t reflect reality, and pretending it does will only do us harm. It’s time to end the moribund activism and begin the healthy conversation.

About the Author
Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and American foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at