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Response to Gordis: a simplistic misreading of history

Rabbi Brous's message reflects a long tradition of harmony between Zionist and universal ideals

Rabbi Daniel Gordis’s critique of Rabbi Sharon Brous induces in the reader a certain fatigued response. On more than a few occasions, he has seen fit to anoint himself as the guardian of a fixed moral boundary line, insisting that one either stands with him – or against the Jews. In his latest pronouncement, he issues his own “J’accuse” against one of the most promising leaders to be found in American Judaism (who, in the name of full disclosure, happens to be a friend), Rabbi Sharon Brous. The crime? Nothing less than betrayal of the Jewish people. That the accused has inculcated a love of Judaism, Jews, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel in thousands of young people is of little moment to Rabbi Gordis.

What’s the heart of his brief? Plain and simple: universalism. How could a Jew, no less a Jewish leader, have the temerity and heartlessness to assert that Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security? Even more outrageous is Rabbi Brous’s assertion that “Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.” Such expressions reveal to Rabbi Gordis an utterly universalized Judaism” that is treasonous and full of self-loathing.

I’ve often asked myself when reading his postings – and all the more so today: In what world does Daniel Gordis live? All I can summon up is a certain milieu of American Zionists huddled around a campfire circa 1958, just after the appearance of the Urtext of Zionist moral virtue, Leon Uris’ Exodus. To Rabbi Gordis’s credit, he is very effective at channeling this hyper-sentimentalized, heroic model of Zionism into a form avidly consumed by hundreds, perhaps thousands of American Jews (though with barely a trace of resonance, it would seem, in Israel).

What is wrong with this view? Well, in historical terms, just about everything. Time permits only two short examples to demonstrate the problems:

The unbridgeable chasm between Judaism and universalism that Rabbi Gordis proposes is wrong-headed and simple-minded. It’s too large a subject to take on here. Let us retreat to slightly more contested terrain: the opposition between Zionism, of which Rabbi Gordis regards himself as a proud representative, and universalism. It is not only that the great liberal German Jews who came to Palestine such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Ernst Simon – those whom Rabbi Gordis’s Shalem Center colleague Yoram Hazony unfairly excoriated in The Jewish State – saw Zionist and universal ideals as harmonious. Nor is it that good Labor Zionists such as David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katzelson often spoke of the confluence of Zionist and universal values. Rabbi Gordis would do well to brush up on the writings of Revisionist Zionist icons, Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, both of whom drew amply on non-Jewish thinkers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Tomas Masaryk to make the point that Zionism can and must be nourished on universal values. Or perhaps he can recall the archway in a home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot that belonged to Revisionist-oriented Zionist and Hebrew University professor Joseph Klausner. It was etched with the phrase “Judaism and Humanity.” Would this render Klausner guilty of betrayal in Rabbi Gordis’s book? Incidentally, should Rabbi Gordis have any questions about the importance of concern for civilians caught in conflict on the other side of Israel’s borders – exactly that sin for which he castigates Rabbi Brous – he may want to consult the Israel Defense Forces’ vaunted code of “tohar ha-neshek” (purity of arms), one of whose four principal sources is “universal moral values based on the value and dignity of human life.”

In the grand cosmic divide between good and evil that Rabbi Gordis proposes – and indeed, this kind of absolutism seems at least as dangerous as the moral equivalence of which he accuses Rabbi Brous – he maintains that “it is the Jewish State that for seventy years has sued for peace and the Arabs-Palestinians who have always refused.” One can’t and shouldn’t dispute that the Arab side has, sadly and all too frequently, evinced little interest in a peace agreement with Israel. But it is simply not true that Zionists and Israel have only been peace-seekers for 70 years. In the midst of a war they did not start, Zionist and later Israeli leaders saw an opportunity in 1948 to rid the land of non-Jewish undesirables – native Palestinian Arabs – the overwhelming majority of whom would in fact be displaced. The notion that they then aggressively sought peace with the displaced Palestinians or their Arab neighbors has been seriously challenged by archivally based scholars such as Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim. Moreover, the recent book by Avi Raz, another archivally based researcher, The Bride and the Dowry, calls into question the claim that Israel was intent on suing for peace after the Six-Day War. (I might recommend that Rabbi Gordis catch up on recent scholarship on the infamous Khartoum Summit that he mentions; scholars such Avi Raz and Yoram Meital suggest that the summit was less a story of Arab rejectionism and more of a new Arab realism.)

Mentioning these examples is not intended to bring joy, but rather a dose of humility in making sweeping claims of our own moral virtue – and a measure of caution before brandishing the claim of betrayal against a fellow Jew. These are extremely tense and scary times. Of course, our thoughts and prayers should be – and for many of us, naturally are – with our own. But one needn’t and shouldn’t attack others simply because their sense of compassion and ethical propriety extends beyond the tribe. On the contrary, we should be applauding just that capacity to manifest empathy beyond one’s own without surrendering a sense of love and belonging to the Jewish people.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis is a smart, talented, and admirably committed Jew, but for too long he has been hectoring us about adhering to his brand of Zionism which rests on a rigid moral absolutism, a troubling set of false dichotomies, and a highly imperfect reading of the past. Our times demand better. Let us pray for shalom `al Yisrael ve-`al kol yoshve tevel (peace upon Israel and people the world over).

“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 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.

About the Author
David N. Myers teaches Jewish History at UCLA. He has written extensively in the fields of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history, with a particular interest in the history of Jewish historiography. His books include "Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz" (Brandeis University Press, 2008)