Michael Feuer
Educator and policy analyst

Gordis v. Shulevitz: An Open Letter

Dear Daniel and Judith,

I’ve known you for many years, and have admired greatly your contributions to Jewish life and literature. So in friendship I take the liberty to share some reactions to your recent exchange (here and here). You both accept an empirically dubious premise of a growing rift between American and Israeli Jews, put forward divergent claims that rest on shaky logic, and end up widening the rift you claim to be worried about. Daniel, you blame the alleged rupture mainly on “progressive” American Jews, and warn that if we’re not careful “… the notion of a single Jewish people [may become] nothing more than a vague and romantic memory.” Judith, you seem equally convinced about the underlying narrative, but blame the situation mainly on right-wing “ethnonationalist” Israeli policies that are incompatible with American principles of democracy.

Now, if there were solid evidence of a real divide between our communities, it would be incumbent on us to figure out who is to blame and what we might do about it. But careful diagnosis should precede treatment planning, and the available data tell a nuanced story. From the recent survey of Jewish voters in Los Angeles, the third largest Jewish metropolitan population center in the world (after New York and Jerusalem), nearly three-quarters of respondents believe it is important that Israel exist as a Jewish state, more than two-thirds are pro-Israel even though they may be critical of the government’s policies, a majority view Jewish identity as cultural/secular rather than primarily religious, and three-in-five say that being Jewish is an important part of their life. The most recent Pew survey suggests that close to 90% of American Jews believe Israel is either “essential” or “important” to their sense of being Jewish. Gallup polling shows that 95% of American Jews have favorable views of Israel while 10% have favorable views of the Palestinian Authority.

Where are Israelis on these issues? In a survey conducted for the American Jewish Committee, the overwhelming majority say that being Jewish is important, about 40% say that being Jewish is primarily cultural rather than religious, and close to 80% say that living in Israel is an important part of being Jewish. When asked how they view one another, 40% of Israeli and 39% of American Jews choose “extended family” and 28% of Israeli and 12% of American Jews say “siblings.” (For added wisdom on this notion of family, see the comment by Avinoam Bar Yosef, head of the Jewish People Policy Institute, here.) Even on the thorny problems of the conflict, it’s not as though Americans and Israelis are hopelessly at odds. The highly-regarded Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) found that almost 60% of Israelis favor a two-state solution (even though a majority are not optimistic about peace in the near future), which compares closely to the AJC result showing that a similar percentage of American Jews favor a two-state solution. Embedded in all these surveys are fascinating glimpses into differences correlated with religious belief, education level, political affiliation, and other background variables. Indeed, “within-group variance” matters, and is mostly absent from your analyses.

It would be tempting perhaps, but premature, to celebrate these findings and stop worrying. Although we’re not experiencing the Grand Canyon chasm that comes across in your essays, subtle differences and shifts warrant careful statistical and historical attention. But why bias such inquiry with the preconceived notion that divergence is necessarily bad?

Daniel, this is where your framing of the debate is puzzling: When in history did the Jews define themselves as a “single people,” and what would that really mean? Wasn’t the idea of reducing Jewish identity to one acceptable definition rejected by biblical and rabbinic authorities starting as early as b’reishit? We could have adopted – shall we say – a pontifical solution, but that was incompatible with Judaism’s grand invention, monotheism. From the beginning we argued among ourselves and, when that wasn’t enough, with God. Amos Oz, of blessed memory, said this beautifully in a 2011 lecture about Israel, when he spoke of the cacophony of ideologies among the Stalinists, socialists, liberals, rabbis, humanists, soldiers, farmers, Shoah survivors, and others who hoped the Jewish state would reflect exactly their version of the Zionist dream. I’m reminded of the old barb, about two Jews with five opinions: clearly, we have always preferred open debate over imposed conformity.

A paradox in the history of Israel sheds light on an aspect of the debate. Leon Wieseltier has written of the “friendly competition” between American pluralism and Israeli sovereignty, the two viable answers to the “Jewish question.” One of Zionism’s claims for its legitimacy, therefore, rescuing the Jewish people from a hostile world, did not apply obviously to the situation of Jews in America (although some enlightened thinkers, Ahad ha’Am, for example, dreamed that Zionism would bring cultural and spiritual renewal to the Jewish people even if they didn’t all “come home”). With their worldview partially occluded by local experience, some American Jews had trouble understanding all the fuss about the founding of the Jewish state, and many couldn’t see why they should uproot from Queens and relocate to the Negev. (I recall when a Jewish neighbor asked my father, a graduate of six years of Hitler’s camps, “who needs Israel, anyway?” he answered something along the lines of “let me tell you about some of my recent experiences…”) We put pennies in that blue box on the mantel, sent loving aerogrammes to our friends in Jerusalem, and shipped cartons of used dungarees for our cousins to wear when on weekend leave from the army. But by and large, the poor track record of participation by American Jews – financially, emotionally, and physically – in the early days of statehood, was in part a consequence of how comfortable they felt in their adopted golden land.

The paradoxes accumulate more quickly than we can unravel them. After Israel’s 1967 victory American Jews felt an even greater sense of safety and security. That’s a good thing. But for some the relief may have translated into something like “Now I can continue to be a proud American and a proud Jew, Israel is there in the background or on the side to protect us all, and I can keep doing my ethnic or religious Jewish stuff here without having to burden myself with problems of conflicted identity…” Again, the phenomenal success of the Zionist project may have also been a factor in undermining one of its most potent and legitimate aspirations, the in-gathering of Jews from all their diasporas, including America.

Again, let’s not glide over subtle within-group differences. It is true that most American Jews have always sided with Israel (and still do), especially when it is under attack. Most, but not all: opposition or resistance was perhaps strongest among the ultra-orthodox, early Reform Jews, and segments of the left. And within the latter group there was yet more variance, with some feeling uneasy or embarrassed (as they mingled in the salons of their high-brow liberal friends), and others, a smaller minority mostly on the fringe, developing overt hostility. (I experienced this as an anti-Vietnam war activist who had to endure the decision by Students for a Democratic Society and other “allies” to oppose Israel in the aftermath of the 6-Day War.) At risk of opening yet another can of agitated worms, identity spasms of Jews on the extreme left have again become acutely painful, with provocations that make the UN resolution equating Zionism and racism look tame. Susie Linfield’s new book provides historical perspective, and the recent commentary by Blake Flayton in the New York Times, about his experience as a gay, progressive college student who is attacked on campus as a baby-killer and apartheidist because he is an unabashed Zionist, is more than troubling. But it would be a disservice to lump all progressive American Jews into the same bucket of slop — organizations such as Zioness, which are combating the false dichotomy between Zionism and progressivism, are showing the way – just as it would be wrong to tarnish all centrist or moderately right-wing Israelis with the stain of zealotry that exists in some minority outposts.

Greater attention to historical detail would improve your critique too, Judith. To start, a more accurate title would have been “Why are some American Jews, mostly on the far left, again falling out of love with the Jewish State (assuming they ever were in love…?).” It’s not the kind of catchy headline that sells papers, but surely the Times editors, rather than staying fixated on images of family breakup when covering America and Israel, could have come up with something more authentic. Anyway, when you say “once upon a time, American Jews supported Israel almost unanimously…” what do you mean by “almost?” Do you have in mind that subset-of-a-subset of American Jews who never warmed to the idea of Israel, even before we had settlements? Or are you referring to the subset of progressives who always knew it would be hard for Israel to be Jewish and democratic and who now take out their (legitimate) anger at Donald Trump by vilifying Jews anywhere who welcome his apparently friendly stance toward the Jewish state?

Your comments about “ethnonationalism” are puzzling. Regardless of how that word might be defined theoretically, it is the basis for your accusation that Israel has become (or always was) a “political oxymoron” clinging to the impossible dream of being Jewish and democratic. Does this apply to other ethnicities, say Pakistanis and Kurds for example, seeking national liberation and self-determination? In any case, your suggestion that American “classic liberal democracy” treats all citizens alike doesn’t square with the data. Our founding documents enshrined the aspiration to equality (as does Israel’s Declaration of Independence, by the way), and our “great seal” proclaims e pluribus unum; but a few details seem stuck in the implementation phase. A good place to try out your celebration of America’s classic democracy would be at a gathering of researchers studying persistent gaps in educational opportunity; or with residents of Southeast DC, where life expectancy is 20 years shorter than in our Northwest quadrant.

Is it true – and a good thing – that a classic liberal democracy “forges the many into one?” Our complicated history of immigration is stained with ugly splotches of nativism, and we’re suffering through another round today. But that was never the norm: “Americanization” did not require letting go of ethnic or national or linguistic heritage. (German immigrants in New York succeeded in part because they insisted on German as the language of instruction in their kids’ schools.) As for oxymoronic Israel, does it deserve no credit for efforts to prevent the majority from suppressing its various minorities? How many Arab supreme court justices, tenured professors at the Hebrew University, or elected Knesset members would it take to make the point? Have either of our societies finished our work on equality? Hardly. But it’s unfair to suggest that Israel cannot be a Jewish democracy unless it adopts America’s model for fulfilling its founding promises.

I know what you’re thinking, Judith: whatever obstacles Israel faced in its quest to establish an egalitarian state, the odds of succeeding while lording over three million Arabs in the West Bank are significantly and perhaps fatally lowered (especially given relatively low projected birth rates and in-migration). Fair enough. The “occupation” hangs over many Israeli and American Jews (me included) as a dark cloud. And the meteorological metaphor is apt: for as it is said about the weather, many Jews and non-Jews, in America and Israel and just about everywhere, complain about the occupation but can’t seem to do much about it. That’s true not just about arm-chair pundits who sniff haughtily about those idiots in the middle east who can’t get their act together; generations of serious scholars of geography and politics and national security have spent their adult lives trying to come up with viable solutions, which suggests the need for more humility and less scolding of Israel as the sole or principal culprit. Should Israel assume the risks of attacks from terrorist organizations and take a chance with unilateral withdrawal? Maybe, but honestly that didn’t work very well in Gaza, and I doubt that residents of Murray Hill (Manhattan), in a hypothetical nightmare, would withdraw from the west bank of the East River if missiles from terrorist cells in Queens were a plausible threat.

Of course there are things the Israeli government could be doing – and other things it should stop doing. And everyone has opinions: just tune in to any of Israel’s all-day talk radio stations to hear the debates, peppered with potent criticisms of government policy. Or read reports of Israel’s venerable think tanks, staffed by current and former career military officers, many of whom oppose the government but are not naïve about risks. If you’re worried about the over-reach of religion, you might take solace from noticing the kipah-wearing Attorney General who has just indicted Bibi Netanyahu (talk about “within-group variance!”). Most visitors to Israel are awed by the multilingual cacophony of contestation and by Israelis’ uncanny ability to manage daily life, build an economy that competes with the world’s giants, and keep a sense of humor in the face of nontrivial threats. So a few words of affectionate support, along the lines of “gosh, that conflict with the Palestinians is a wicked-hard problem and I wish I knew what to advise …” would be welcomed. (Citing Ari Shavit, whose “magisterial” essay was dismissed in its key arguments by reputable scholars, is not helpful.)

Since I challenged the logic in both your essays, I should question my own. Granted, your argument, between an Israeli and an American Jew, itself provides evidence of a rift of some sort. But the divergence is less severe than you imply, and attention to the nuances – even if only in terms of disaggregating “American Jews” and “Israelis” into their factions and sub-identities – could be restorative. Overstating the case, and ignoring that some aspects of the fight between pro-Israel American Jews and their foes on the Israeli right are justifiable, makes it look as if the costs of reconciliation are prohibitive.

Let me offer a few modest and perhaps naively optimistic proposals for how we might shape a more constructive dialog. First, let’s stop the scolding. Here the American side needs to work the hardest. Israelis may marvel at our discombobulated health care system and grieve with us over school shootings; they may be unable to grasp why the person who won the popular vote is not president; they may find that celebrating Memorial Day buying mattresses on sale is a curious way to remember fallen soldiers. But fundamentally they love America (and didn’t stop even when our presidents and secretaries of state were unfriendly): next time you’re in Palo Alto, stop in at one of the coffee shops and join the conversation – in Hebrew. In a word, Daniel, your persistent scolding of American Jews is uncharacteristic of most of your Israeli compatriots; and as an educator you surely know that reprimand – a favored rhetorical technique of American Jews “fed up” with Israel – has pedagogical limitations.

Second, it might be more useful to focus on issues that matter to both communities, such as the fragility of representative democracy or growing economic inequality or the future of digital technology or the imperative to educate children with special needs or the role of religion in the public sphere. Instead of staging endless debates about whose democracy is better or whose religious practices are more Jewish, let’s find ways to work together on solving some of the problems that matter in everyday life. My experience teaches me that such opportunities produce positive side benefits in terms of enhanced mutual understanding. To borrow a familiar metaphor, I’d save at least some of the debate about Jewish identity for “final status talks,” once our communities, gathered safely in a “big tent,” are reminded of how much they have in common and how rewarding it is to learn together.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that we have enough real enemies in the world – all those antisemites and anti-Zionists whose convoluted reasons for distrusting and hating Jews could fill a five-dimensional periodic table – and avoid giving them the sadistic pleasure of watching our bickering boil over into a real and irreversible rift. Your intellectual and moral leadership, with some refinements in rhetoric and reliance on better evidence, would be a great gift.

About the Author
Dr. Michael Feuer is Dean and Professor, Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University, immediate past-president of the National Academy of Education, and co-chair of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE). He is adviser to the Initiative for Applied Education Research of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and chair of the Jewish Agency's Advisory Group for Evaluation and Strategy.
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