A year ago I met a scholar named Ben Karp who asked if I would come for Sabbath dinner at a Jewish society at Yale called Eliezer. Karp co-founded Eliezer 15 years ago. It is a members-only society that takes Jewishness and Judaism seriously, he said. We started it so that people like you can talk about their Jewish experience. We stay up late and you can spend the night in the bedroom. Karp reeled off some impressive people who’d spoken at Eliezer. I said Sure and it was arranged for a Sabbath dinner in January.
I got to a dark stone townhouse in downtown New Haven at about 7:30. There was a stained glass over the front door of a religious character but no other sign that I was in the right spot. I knocked on the big front door and it promptly opened; Ben brought me in.
Ben is tall and slender and from a mixed racial background, and his work is decidedly multiculturalist: he studies W.E.B. DuBois, he’s a pragmatic two-stater. He led me upstairs to the scene of the Sabbath dinner. I was surprised to see a redbearded Chabad rabbi standing there in his black coat, with his tie open on his neck. The man asked me my Hebrew name—Pinchas—and then embraced me and began talking about Pinchas great grandson of Abraham.
Rabbi Shmully Hecht
I say surprised because I had last seen Shmully Hecht two years before when Richard Goldstone spoke at Yale. A redhaired, redbearded man with very alive blue eyes, Hecht stood at the back of the hall holding up a big sign that said, “The Dreyfus Affair, 1890, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1903… Goldstone, 2009.”
After Goldstone spoke, Hecht had approached him at the broccoli and red pepper spears reception and engaged in vigorous discussion. Goldstone had nodded quietly and then directed Hecht to look at the supplement to his report, containing a photograph of a Jewish star cut into a field in Gaza by Israeli tanks. Goldstone said that it had been one of the most upsetting things he had discovered in Gaza.
Shmully Hecht was also a founder of Eliezer. He and Ben and I went back downstairs to see who else had arrived, then we sat chatting. I could see my bedroom, a big bed with piled pillows waiting for me at the end of the night. Shmully said he was raised in a Chabad household but has had experience with many different forms of Jewish devotion. In fact he has more in common with an imam than he did with most Christian clergy– the religions were more similar—and for more than 1000 years Jews and Muslims had gotten along fine with one another across the Middle East.
Of course I have heard this same idea often from anti-Zionists. Why did that change? I said. Why should 2000 years of harmony suddenly end?
Shmully said that when Esau sold his birthright to Jacob there had been a quarrel. That quarrel was reasserting itself now thousands of years later.
Shmully’s wife came in. Shmully had told me ahead of time that orthodox women do not shake hands. She was pretty and darkhaired with an animated face and a big smile– in a word, vivacious. Toby.
We talked about my Jewishness. Shmully said that Jewishness was in someone’s soul and it would always reassert itself in a Jew’s life. It would call to him at a certain time in life. I said I think that is what has happened to me, though it has not been religiously.
We went upstairs to the long and lavishly appointed Sabbath table. By the time laggards arrived, there were about 18 people at the table, most of them graduate students. We drank wine and I spoke. I believe there were some J Street folks at one end of the table who agreed with me, but hardly any one else did. Still the atmosphere was attentive and respectful. Yale is a serious place, though Shmully is nothing if not charismatic, a storyteller who makes Jewish religion come alive in that immediate, ecstatic Chabad manner. He said that he had also befriended Richard Goldstone since the incident at Yale’s McMillan Center and he thought Goldstone was a fine man. Shmully loves to joke around about anything but the Jewish nation. Over the course of the night as we drank red wine and Japanese whiskey I kept joking that we were going to end up in bed together downstairs. Shmully had no problem with the joke.
Ben introduced me with a spiritual lesson. He said that there was a deep divide in the Jewish community and it shouldn’t be there. There were people like myself who felt righteous about being outcast. It reminded him of the urban renewal project in New Haven. It had cut a deep divide in the community.
When I spoke, I copped to the righteousness of the excommunicated. I said there was a pleasure in it. I spoke for about 15 minutes and told a story I always tell to Jewish audiences, how I as a feature journalist and Christmas tree Jew have a very similar background to the guy who gave Jews the Zionist religion, Theodore Herzl, and like him I have awakened to Jewish experience in midlife. But where the anti-Semites had made Herzl Jewish again, the neoconservatives did that to me, when they pushed for a war to take everyone’s attention off the occupation. I spoke a lot about Palestinian conditions in occupation, and how they had shaken me, made me want to have nothing to do with the Zionist project.
After I spoke the questions began respectfully but critically and grew more heated. At the end it almost became a heated argument. But even then people were polite. It was remarkably civil considering that most people at the table had an active relationship with Israel, had family there even.
Ben began the questions by asking me Did I ever have misgivings about my work given that it has been attractive to anti-Semites, and what did I aim to do about that. I said the short answer was Yes. That pained me. There is no doubt that anti-Semites have been drawn to some of what I’ve said, and there have been anti-Semites on the comment board. I tried to explain how hard it is to police a comments board and also how tribal internet communities are. Also, I said that the conflict was polarizing. Communities are deeply divided. It was like Ben’s image of urban renewal, a great wound. I’m in one camp and they’re in another.
A young scholar next to me who is studying proto-Zionism in Europe in the 1800s out of a commitment to Israel said how could I be so sure that anti-Semitism was not going to return in a virulent form. It had been recurring throughout our history. Every 50 or 100 years there were major episodes. Of course it could happen again. And why did I not think that Israel could be struck by a nuclear warhead from Iran soon and it would be gone in the blink of an eye, she said.
The rebbitzin was also tough on me. She leaned across the table to speak directly and familiarly. She used the word my mother has used with me to describe my website: “vile.” She had gone on it that day and been shocked by things she read. People there wanted to dismantle Israel. And then to see me talk about my Jewishness and Jewish history in a thoughtful way–she couldn’t believe this was the same person yukking it up with haters of Israel. Toby seemed to suggest I was masquerading. But she had gotten a taste of the site and said she was hurt by it. She told me about her grandmothers escaping the Holocaust. But their parents died, and many of their relatives died. This was not that long ago. You are not sensitive to this. This is an emotional issue. It’s not something that you can be rational about. These things really happened to our community. I felt bad. I nodded listening to her and said that I was sorry for her family and that I respected the emotion.
Shmully said that I was wrong about the occupation. That land was bought by Jews. It belonged to us. Abraham had bought Hebron to bury Sarah. It’s in the Bible. All of Eretz Israel is the Jews’. He said that some people were afraid of the idea that Jews have guns now. We didn’t use to have guns. Now we do. Nothing would change if Jews left the West Bank. We had left Gaza and nothing had changed. There were just rockets.
When I spoke of the dispossesson of Palestinians, several members of the group contested me. They said that Palestinians had sold the land. They said that no one was getting pushed off their land. When I said that Nabi Saleh had been denied access to its wells, and had to have water trucked in, Toby said Well who trucks that water in—Israel.
There were other comments: Palestinians were desperate to be on the west side of the Green Line because they were treated better than anywhere else in the Middle East. My time line comparing Israeli discrimination to American discrimination in the deep south circa 1964 was skewed. There were Arab members of the Knesset after Israel was founded and an Arab member of the Supreme Court.
I said we should measure a society by people’s consent to their government, and Palestinians didn’t consent to their government, or they did not like it. I felt there was broad acknowledgement at the long table of that truth, though it was stated that Islam doesn’t tolerate being under Jewish rule. The Jews are dhimmi. Second class citizens. Muslims couldn’t accept citizenship in a Jewish state. I said that human history is fluid. I said that American Jews would never accept minority status without equal rights in the U.S. and that is all we should be for in Israel and Palestine.
A big handsome young undergraduate with a shock of dark hair said that I was being narcissistic. I was taking my standards and expecting other people in the world to accept them. I was being completely self-referential. It was kind of psychological and I wasn’t sure what to say. I did a lot of listening. Later he came up to me and said I should read Peter Singer’s book about his grandfather in Vienna, who was killed in the Holocaust (when I got home I ordered it). Now and then I looked down at the J Street Jews at the table but they were mostly quiet and listening. They did not get drawn into the conversation.
The most heated conversation took place with a small businessman with a green knit skullcap. What I said made him angry. He spoke in a withering dismissive tone, a little snappish. As if I were the enemy. How much time had I spent there? Five visits, six or seven weeks, I said. Well that’s no time at all to be reaching such judgments. I said I never went to Vietnam or South Africa.
He said it was worrying when people like me expressed such ignorance. I said that he should be worried, because Israel had always depended on the American Jewish community and we’d had enough. He said I had no idea what I was talking about. Israel was a free place for Palestinians by and large and what was the point of what I was saying, you want to destroy Israel, you think it was a mistake, you want to undo the mistake. That is what you are trying to do.
I said I waffled on partition for just this reason. I wasn’t against a Jewish state per se but it wasn’t up to me, it was up to the people there to accept it or not, and Palestinians citizens didn’t want it.
He said, What do you want Israel to do. What do you want it to do? Right now? I am asking you, tell me!
I said, stop discriminating against Arabs and allowing Nabi Saleh to have access to its water. The man in the green skullcap said that such discrimination was by individual landlords, and he denied that the occupation was hateful. I said that the Palestinians did not like it. He said I was calling for the destruction of Israel and I was dangerously naïve. I said that many American Jews were coming to the same conclusion I was because they didn’t want to continue to support these practices.
Shmully said that if you went around New Haven there were just as stark economic differences between one community and another as there was in Israel and Palestine. Why didn’t I begin my reform efforts in New Haven?
There was a soup course and then a main course of chicken at 11 o’clock. The food was excellent. The wine was excellent. I know because I drank a lot of it. Shmully kept refilling my glass. Then he led the end of the Shabbat service. I stayed up joking with him and Ben. Then I went to bed, that kingsized bed on the first floor with the big white comforter. There was a computer and a desk in the room and also a Chinese cabinet with liquor inside, all for the taking of guests. Ben said that I should lock the guestroom door as members of the Eliezer group might be coming and going all night. The Eliezer group now owns the next door building and will soon expand into it. Eliezer felt like a fancy club, not that different from the men’s clubs at Harvard when I was there. It’s odd for me to see Jews having a fancy club at Yale. But this is our modern condition. Wassail!
I had had too much to drink and did not sleep well. I had a dream about a football game. A Jets player was scoring a touchdown by stretching out over the goal-line. I was watching the player and noting that he was white. He used a clever device to hold on to the ball as he stretched over the goal-line, almost like phylacteries. I decided the dream was about racism. I notice race on the football field– so who am I to be upset when the members of the Eliezer society speak of Jews in exceptional terms and as a nation. So many people are guilty of racism, nationalism.
I woke up at 4 and then at 5 from having drunk too much red wine, feeling terribly guilty. I was in an entirely Jewish setting and had betrayed the Jewish people. I was not helping, I was not helping. I was alienating myself from highly intelligent and kind people. They were kind to me anyway. Now I understood why Goldstone had reconsidered his report, if he had spent any time with Shmully!
The tiled bathroom was beautifully appointed, with a glass bowl sink set on the countertop. I used the toothbrush provided and went upstairs to the Sabbath room of the night before. It was miraculously cleaned up, there was no sign of the tumult and food of the night before. The chairs were back upside down on the table top. The silver Judaica wine pouring device to pour 20 silver cups at once was cleaned and set upside down in its different parts on a drying rack.
I took some of the cookies I had not been able to eat from the night before and closed the heavy front door after me. It was 6 a.m. and still dark on Shabbos. I drove back home wondering how I was going to mend my ways.