Rabbi Gordis once gritted his teeth over discrimination at WASPy school– and now urges Palestinians to learn that lesson

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Daniel Gordis is a rabbi who grew up in Baltimore but moved to Israel (I attended seders at his parents’ immaculate suburban Baltimore house when I was a boy). He has lately published a book called Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. Sounds fun!

The Magnes Zionist, who is also from Baltimore (he was bar mitzvah’d at the same conservative synagogue as I was, though I was in the inner city branch), has written a great post showing that Gordis is implicitly arguing for expelling Palestinian Arabs from Israel before too long. I’m going to quote two passages from Jerry Haber’s post.

The second passage is particularly compelling. In it, Haber says Gordis’s belief that Israeli Palestinians should simply lower their heads and put up with Jewish theocratic rules originates in Gordis’s own experience as a Jew experiencing Christian prayer/religious instruction at an Episcopalian school in Baltimore. Haber believes the unnamed school is the same one he attended: Gilman, which eliminated the Christian portion of the curriculum years after he left the school.

I think this is a hugely-important point.

I went to public high school, but Gilman was the establishment institution in Baltimore, the prep school that trained young men for leadership. I used to curse the place as a bastion of privilege and WASPiness. And well that it did eliminate the Christian instruction; for the Establishment was changing under the weight of the meritocracy, it was beginning to include Jews, and WASPs were saying sayonara. There are no Protestants on the Supreme Court today.

So our society changed; and a religious burden that Gordis today finds exemplary but when he was young was obnoxious– a religious burden that likely played some role in forming his view of Christian life, from which he fled– is a religious burden that our society eliminated 20 or 30 years ago out of a sense of fairness. 

The lesson of the story is simple: In their dealings with Palestinians, Zionists have consciously and unconsciously taken as models forms of anti-Semitism that prevailed in the west many decades ago, but that the west has long ago eliminated. Nationalism of the 19th century, gentlemanly anti-Semitism of the 20th century: these traditions molded Zionism, but they’re gone. I.e., Zionism is anachronistic. Haber:

As he puts it, “Given their history and their families on the other side of the line, Israel’s Arabs are unlikely to become patriots.” Rather, Arab Israelis are potentially an existential threat to the Jewish state. Today, they do not constitute such a threat, but they may very well in the future.

What is particularly striking about the account (aside from its chilling similarity to ethnic exclusionary language used against Jews in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe) is the utter failure to understand why most Israeli Arabs refuse to leave Israel: Their motivation is crystal clear from their writings and their statements: This land, and this state, are their homes in three ways: As natives, it is their home in a way never can be for Rabbi Gordis and myself, who were born and lived much of our lives outside of Israel. As members of the Palestinian people, with the consciousness of having a common history and identity, this land is their homeland. And finally as Israeli citizens, it is most assuredly their homeland. For despite the best efforts of ethnic nationalists on both sides, there has evolved an Israeli identity shared by native-born Israelis, whether Jew, Arab, and immigrant children of foreign workers. With all due respect to Rabbi Gordis, neither he nor I can ever be as Israeli as Ahmed Tibi, Emile Habibi, or Azmi Bishara. We are immigrants; they are not….

A final comment: When Rabbi Gordis considers the place of Israel Arabs in a Jewish state, he is reminded of his position as a young Jewish student in an Episcopalian prep school. All students including Jews were required to attend Morning Chapel, during which there was a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. As a proud Jew, he balked at bowing his head and saying the prayer, but he did not try to change the policy. He understood that it was a Christian school, that it wished to foster traditions, and that it would have been unreasonable to try to change them. He could always leave if he didn’t like them, which he eventually did. He thought the policy “eminently fair”. The moral is clear: If you are an Arab living in a Jewish state, you are encouraged to take advantage of its benefits. But don’t think you have any right to try to claim more rights than you have been given, or to lobby to change the system.

What Rabbi Gordis doesn’t write, and what he doesn’t know, perhaps, is that several years after he left the school, it eliminated the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the singing of hymns altogether – as a result, in part, of complaints from Jewish parents over the years. At first there was an attempt to replace the hymns that mention Christ’s name explicitly with ones that did not. But finally, all Christian prayers were dropped. Morning Chapel became Morning Assembly. No doubt some fine and meaningful traditions were lost, but the school still teaches classes in religion, still has a chaplain, and has retained much of its Episcopalian heritage.

How do I know this? You see, unless I’m mistaken,* I attended the very same Episcopalian school in Baltimore that Rabbi Gordis attended, albeit at an earlier date. Like Rabbi Gordis, I stood in silence when the school said the Lord’s Prayer (though hearing it every morning drove into my head); I sang the hymns, omitting Christ’s name. When I attended the school, Catholic students were exempted from the mandatory religion classes, during which period they received their own instruction; they had their own religious educational autonomy, as it were. Jewish students were not exempt, and much of what I know about the New Testament and Christianity I learned from those classes, which were not always pleasant for a proud “in-your-face” Jew like myself.

As a result of my experiences at the school, where I encountered both genteel and not so-genteel anti-Semitism from students and faculty, I resolved never to be as insensitive to the feelings and position of a minority as they had been of mine. Fortunately I made lifelong friends with some of my fellow students, who, as Christians, were genuinely pained by the insensitivity of the majority, and who later worked hard to make the school more inclusive, and to preserve what was true and good in its traditions.

Like Rabbi Gordis, I, Bezalel Manekin, thought the policy of requiring students to attend Morning Chapel eminently fair, at the time. Unlike him, I understand now that when circumstances change, holding on to discriminatory practices can be eminently unfair.

*If I am mistaken, then at least the Episcopalian schools we attended were sufficiently alike for the point to remain.

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