Allison Benedikt’s memoir that might have been titled, Beginning to turn against Israel, at the Awl, is one of the most important interventions in months. It crystallizes the Jewish moment. Beautifully and sincerely written, with wrenching confessions about her family’s blindness and the important influence of her non-Jewish husband (yes just as my mother-in-law who smuggled sheets into a Bethlehem hospital gave me a path on the issue), it signifies a crisis inside American Jewish consciousness that Peter Beinart and J Street and the New York Review of Books are going to have trouble catching up with.
The lies are starting to slide off the table, in a hurry, American Jews are waking up. The importance of the Benedikt piece is signalled by Jeffrey Goldberg’s pugilism. Goldberg sees his own worldview becoming marginalized, and he has launched a vituperative battle with Benedikt and her husband, John Cook. But to his credit, Goldberg has run Benedikt’s response to his own criticisms of the piece. This is Jewish history unfolding, with the help of our non-Jewish brothers and sisters. Excerpts of Benedikt’s letter. And note, about halfway down a landmark revelation of Benedikt’s that I have bolded: the revelation that Israel is not my problem….
Wow, you really hated my piece on The Awl. Don’t get why such a personal, angry attack of a response, but… hey, it’s your blog.
To defend my husband, who needs no defending… John was not accepted by my parents or my sister for being a non-Jew long before they ever heard his opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. They didn’t want me to date him let alone marry him because he wasn’t Jewish. (I know, you’re shocked!) He handled a lot of that with grace, not to mention being a wonderful and active partner now in raising our boys as Jews–mostly if not entirely because of how important he knows it is to me. Coming up against John’s opinions on Israel was, in a way, as shocking for me as it was for him to get close to a family whose members all believed what he did on pretty much every major political issue of the day, except for this weird thing about Israel. Good, strong liberals except for this one weird thing where, oh well, if being a real democracy means not being a Jewish state, then forget democracy.
As for your questions:
…Does she wonder why her husband hates Israel with such ferocity? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I hate it as much as he does. (Though “hate” is the wrong word. Feel rage toward?) Sometimes I think he can’t “get it” because he has no ethnic identity. Other times I think his remove from the situation gives him clarity. Mostly, I think he is so angry, as I am (and I believe you too?), because if Israel is to claim itself a Western democracy, it should live up to certain ideals that it does not.
Does she ever try to answer for herself why Israel exists? Why it was founded or why it continues to exist? Actually, yes, on both counts. And I read about it too. None of this has led me anywhere but toward disillusionment.
Or is she happy to subcontract out her thinking about the most important questions facing Jews first to her camp counselors, and then to her husband? Happy to? No. Have I done this at times? Yes. But just on the way to figuring out what the hell I think for myself. I’m still not there, but I’m working on it! (Which is, coincidentally, what my essay is about.)
Does she ask herself whether she has a responsibility to make Israel a better, more humane, place? I don’t believe that I have that specific responsibility, no. But I have thought about it. And I think that’s a lot of the reason my sister is there, for which I give her credit (in my mind if not in my piece–because frankly her politics are her own to discuss). Of course, I do think we all have a responsibility to make the world better–but specifically Israel, because I am Jewish? No.
Does she question herself about the consequences of abandoning Israel? I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve abandoned Israel (did you read the essay?), but if you mean have I thought about what it would mean for there to be no such thing as a Jewish state? I have thought about this plenty of course! Who that takes this stuff seriously hasn’t? (I guess you don’t think I take it seriously, but you’re wrong.) I bet I land, uncomfortably, about where you land: If the decision comes down to brutal occupation forever to maintain the Jewishness of the state OR true democracy, which would mean no Jewish state, I would have to choose the latter–but there is nothing easy or wishful in me writing that, and I hope it never comes to that (though more and more it seems like it will).
Does she think about the sin of the wicked son in the Passover story, and how that sin might echo in her own life? This is not meant to be snide, but John and I lead a seder every year and I’ve taken to making my own Haggadah because I’m not comfortable with many of the traditional stories and blessings. The wicked child bit is something I’ve deleted. But anyway, to you, aren’t I the one who doesn’t know how to ask?