Tablet has excerpted a book by the conservative Zionist Daniel Gordis, whom I had seders with as a boy, and the book includes blunt assaults on American Jewish identity. Gordis is attuned to the fact that American Jews are becoming alienated from Israel because of its human rights abuses; but he warns us that by placing humanitarian values over allegiance to the Jewish tribe, we are placing ourselves in danger–from the next round of Nazis. It is a repulsive and fear-filled argument: a blackmail.
Though other aspects of Gordis’s argument about Jewish identity and assimilation are much more plausible.
Here are some Gordis excerpts. First, his awareness, with hints of his blackmail:
Young Jews today, discouraged by Israeli policies that they cannot abide, either explicitly or tacitly join those who condemn the Jewish State. But they do not recognize that the de-legitimization of Israel will affect them, too, that they, too, have a personal stake in Israel, no matter how discomfited they may be by some of its policies… Faced with a choice between loyalty to their humanitarian values or to their parents’ Zionism, they have chosen the former….
Now here’s the blackmail, straight from the bottle with the skull and bones on it:
But one thing we do know, even if it is not commonly expressed (because anyone who says it must expect to be accused of fear-mongering): The Jewish life that American Jews take for granted is actually dependent on the existence of the same Jewish state from which many young Jews now distance themselves.
This is the point that today’s younger generations of American Jews simply do not understand: American Jewish life as it now exists would not survive the loss of Israel…
Without the State of Israel, the self-confidence and sense of belonging that American Jews now take for granted would quickly disappear….
A successful campaign to delegitimize –and possibly destroy – Israel could undo much more than the Jewish state. It could radically alter American Judaism as we know it.
No one would have to be killed, or exiled, or dismissed from their job. All that would have to happen is that Jews would suffer the second enormous blow to their People in the space of a century. With that, the Jews would become stateless like the Chechnyans, the Tibetans, or the Basques. They would tiptoe around the world once again, like Tibetans and Basques still do, waiting to see what history has in store for them next…
That’s really outrageous. He’s saying that if you care about humanitarian universal values, you risk going to the ovens, because the world hates the Jews. When the fact is that Gordis’s human-rights-abusing Israel is endangering Jews, in Israel but also elsewhere in the world. I don’t understand why Tablet runs this kind of fear-mongering.
Though I am sympathetic to some of Gordis’s argument. As I’ve written before, I think that Jewish identity is so wrapped up in Israel not just because of the Zionist orchestration of the community; but because American Jews lacked a basis for particularist identity-formation. That we’re integrating. As Gordis writes:
Without Israel, what would remain to make Jewishness anything more than some anemic form of ethnic memory long since eroded?…
I concur somewhat with Gordis. Looking at my own life, I see that Diaspora Jewish identity is softening and the crisis he sees between those who align themselves with Israel and those who are alienated from Israel will also play out as a “continuity” crisis– declining Jewish numbers. The American Jewish collective bodies have overwhelmingly thrown in with Zionism; it was their bet for sustaining the Jewish “people” and the Jewish religion too. Their flocks are secularized; and Israel provides a source of identity and focus for collective action. My mother’s best friend moved to Israel in 1968 not so much because Israel was threatened but because she didn’t want her children to marry non-Jews, and she saw American opening its arms.
Anti-Zionist Jews like myself certainly make a lot of noise about Jewish traditions and pride in our Jewish identity/heritage, but we’re not sustaining the brand. We’re integrationists by and large, we’re secularists. Moses Mendelssohn was the great integrationist of 18th century Germany, and his grandchildren were baptized. As an anti-Zionist and integrationist, I can’t claim that I’m sustaining either the Jewish “nation” or the Jewish religion. That’s because my definition of community and nation is American; my president is the son of a Kenyan and the essence of the new globalized world is that nations must respect minority rights.
The price of my beliefs may well be just what Gordis says, that the American Jewish collective that so formed me vanishes. I will certainly mourn it, but shrug and say that other traditional identities are also disappearing. Countless languages are disappearing in New Guinea, and other American “ethnos’s” are also slowly dissolving. Chris Christie’s Italian-Irish mix is very common here in the Hudson Valley. And privileged WASPs are also performing a slow fade, in part because my wife’s generation aren’t going to church– any more than privileged secular Jews are. Her niece tells me that privileged New York City life is a “seamless” fabric of non-Jews and Jews. She wants to go on birthright, for the cultural exchange…