Daniel Gordis is wrong; the West Bank is the most important test of Jewish peoplehood

In the wake of the Israeli government reneging on a deal to open a shared prayer space for other Jewish denominations along the Western Wall, American Jews have thrown up their arms in anger at what they see as a clear betrayal of the American Jewish community.

Among the chorus of those criticizing the move is Daniel Gordis, acclaimed Jewish writer, commentator, and professor. Mr. Gordis wrote a controversial piece in the Jerusalem Post where he insisted that the only way to make Israelis care about an issue none of them care about, religious pluralism within the Jewish nation, is to hit them where it hurts; their hospitals.

It’s an interesting claim. Among the other industries Gordis said that American Jews should boycott in order to leverage the Israeli government was El-Al, which Gordis describes as “critical to Israel’s security” and which any Prime Minister cannot allow to fail.

After the piece was published, Mr. Gordis came under some fire for these “modest proposals”, understandably because he is one of those voices who insists that American Jews have no place lecturing Israel on the occupation, let alone his opposition, like my own, to boycotts and sanctions of the Jewish state.

Daniel Gordis wrote a new piece today in the Times of Israel, defending his position. In it, he took to task the claim that he was being inconsistent on his positions regarding pressuring Israel. He claimed that Diaspora Jews, particularly American Jews, must make a differentiation between aspects of Israeli policy that involve Israel’s security, in which they “don’t have skin in the game”, as he puts it, and issues of “people-hood”, like the issue of the Kotel, which Jewish people all over the world have a clear stake in.

It’s an interesting argument. It also fundamentally mislabels and misunderstands the nature of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians within the West Bank and the occupation that leads logically from it.

Mr. Gordis seems to insist that the occupation and the conflict are merely matters of physical security, and therefore, American Jews, who do not have sons or daughters in the IDF, who are not in the IDF themselves, who do not live under constant physical threat from Israel’s enemies, should have no say in the policies related to the management of this conflict or the occupation. Certainly, the occupation contains within it elements of security and management. The system of checkpoints and labyrinthine collection of laws–which include the denial of freedom of association– that govern the Palestinians of the West Bank are, indisputably, part of Israel’s security apparatus. But is that the whole story?

The truth of the matter is that the existence of the occupation does not purely stem from matters of physical security. If this was the sole issue, if Israel was under imminent threat of terror which it largely is, then reasonable and justifiable measures are to be expected of any state that must protect its citizens. But here’s the problem; if Israel’s quandary is primarily security-based, then why move hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens into these territories if they are supposedly too dangerous and too unsafe to be relinquished? One could make the argument that the settlements, at least those just over the Green Line, provide Israel with strategic depth (although this can be and is debated). But what exactly is the strategic significance of Ariel, a city of 15,000 people in the middle of the West Bank, if the ultimate goal is temporary security, not the annexation of the entirety of the territory? The answer is that there is no obvious justification for Ariel except that a subset of Israeli politicians intend to keep the West Bank. And if that is the goal, what exactly about this conflict is purely physical, when everything Israel does is an attempt to bind itself, quite physically, to the Palestinians?

The answer is clearly that in addition to this being about physical security, it is also about spiritual idealism. Our issue here, the Kotel, has been the focal point of Diaspora Judaism for the last 2,000 years. Diaspora Jews, understandably, are sensitive to it and it is uncontroversial for Mr. Gordis to claim that they should have a say in the future of the wall, and it clearly represents an issue that, whichever side you land on, is important to the Jews of the exile.

But the religious Zionists are no longer exiled Jews, and they have their eyes on a bigger prize; Yehuda and Shomron. Hebron and Shiloh and Beit El and Maarat HaMachpelah, places that were holy and played center stage to Jewish history long before the foundations were ever laid for the Kotel or the Beit Hamikdash. Even today, the Kotel represents a sort of rotten compromise for the religious Zionists who lament that they are kept from prayer on their own holy mountain. The Kotel? That’s only the beginning.

And thus, Rabbi Gordis’s argument falls apart, because the question of the West Bank is consequently not only a question of physical security, but, like this Kotel quandary with which we are faced, is an issue of peoplehood and spirituality and, by Daniel Gordis’s own logic, must include Diaspora Judaism in some sort of conversation about it and Israel’s future. The settlements began as strategy and security; they have ended up as theology. Israel may be insecure, but it is not gripped by insecurity. Parts of Israeli society are gripped by spiritual fever. They are taken by the romanticism of returning to the birthplace of Jewish civilization. Every year they get closer to this ideal. To the religious settlers, this is the ultimate justice. American Jews can ask themselves if they too share this conclusion. If they do, then so be it. If they don’t, then they certainly have a say in where this grand project of Jewish self-governance will go. If American Jews don’t have a say in that, they don’t have a say in anything.

All of this is not to say that Israel does not face serious security concerns in the West Bank and beyond. It does, of course. But to believe it is all simply about security is to not give enough credit to the settler and religious Zionists movements that insist on annexation and the absorption of Judea and Samaria into Israel. They are, after all, exacting the same kind of concessions with their small blocs that the Ultra-Orthodox do with theirs. Observers of Israeli politics know there is little difference, except, in this case, there is more significant opposition to the idea of annexation within Israel than there is acceptance of a shared prayer space at the Kotel. As Daniel Gordis states plainly, Israelis simply don’t care that much about it, or are hostile or confused by the idea of a pluralist Judaism.

The Kotel is a sideshow. The real battle for Israel’s soul and future, of the nature of the Jewish state, is happening in the hills of Judea where Jewish civilization was grown and incubated thousands of years ago. Attenuating the connection of American Jews to Israel by saying that our matters of peoplehood stop at the border of the Old City is to deny them their right, as Jews, to partake in the conversation of Jewish civilization.

About the Author
Aaron is a university student in the United States. He's interesting in politics, global affairs, philosophy, and economics. You can find more of his writing at the Binghamton Pipe Dream.