I confess, I’m not a regular reader of Daniel Gordis’s blog. But an acquaintance thought I should read what Gordis – senior vice president of the Shalem Center – said last month when given the opportunity to address a visiting J Street delegation.
So I obliged, and read, and was truly struck by Gordis’s – let’s put this delicately – self-confidence. Invited by a group of visitors to present his political perspective and to hear theirs, Gordis was – shall we say – sure enough of himself to tell his hosts with firm certainty what they actually think. Repeatedly, he attacked them for “arrogance.” And then, according to Globes reporter Vered Kelner (in Hebrew), he left without actually allowing them time to answer him. Not everyone would have that ability to teach about arrogance.
Here’s a bit of Gordis’s talk:
You believe that people who are not willing to make major territorial concessions to the Palestinians right now are not serious about a two-state solution. You think that those of us who claim that we favor a two-state solution but who are not willing to give up the store at this moment are bluffing. Or we’re liars. Or, at best, we’re well-intentioned but misguided. But bottom line, if we’re not willing now to make the concessions that you think are called for, then we’re not really pursuing peace.
But that is arrogance of the worst sort. Does your distance from the conflict give you some moral clarity that we don’t have? Are you smarter than we are? Are you less racist? Why do you assume with such certainty that you have a monopoly on the wisdom needed to get to the goal we both seek?
…. Is it that we Israelis really don’t want to end this conflict? We enjoy sending our children off to war? We look forward to the next funeral at Mount Herzl? We’re not aware that time is not on our side? Or is it that we live here, and that even rank and file Israelis know a bit more about the complexity of this conflict than you give us credit for? Why would you assume that we’re stupid, or immoral, or addicted to the conflict?
Let’s parse this: Gordis asserts that J Street’s members should not be taking a position on Israeli policy because its members don’t live here and don’t understand the situation. He strongly suggests that those who do live here, who do know more about “the complexity of this conflict,” don’t want “to give away the store” by making the territorial concessions necessary for peace at present. Reading his words, one is supposed to think that “we Israelis” all agree with him.
Interestingly, though, Gordis himself works for a think-tank that
has received funds from Diaspora Jews such as Ron Lauder and Sheldon Adelson, who have extremely strong views on what policy Israel should take. The Shalem Center is devoted to spreading neoconservative and hawkish ideas in Israel, while also serving as a bullpen for right-wing pols such as Moshe Ya’alon and Natan Sharansky when the right is out of power here. One of Adelson’s other projects is the freebie newspaper Yisrael Hayom, which has earned the nickname “Bibiton,” the Bibi Times, for its unstinting efforts to sell the current prime minister. As a 2008 New Yorker profile noted, Adelson is also a major contributor to the loudly right-wing Zionist Organization of America, and bitterly opposes a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Would Gordis would give the same admonition against interfering in Israeli affairs in conversation with Adelson or at a meeting with a ZOA delegation? Perhaps. After all, he has great self-confidence.
As it happens, quite a few people who not only live here and who, I suspect, have more grasp of the “complexity of this conflict” than Gordis does, have directly expressed support for J Street – such as ex-general Shlomo Brom, a former head of strategic planning for the IDF; ex-foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami; ex-general Ilan Paz, the former head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank; and – all right, you know I could go on and on. Others, who may not be on J Street’s list of supporters, are deeply concerned that Israel isn’t acting more assertively to make peace now. For instance, Meir Dagan, the recently retired head of the Mossad, asserted last week that Israel should have accepted the Saudi initiative.
Of course, not all ex-generals are on the dovish side of the spectrum. Besides, Israel’s decisions should not be based purely on the latest expert opinion from a former general or diplomat. There are also questions of values, of what you think Israel should be. Gordis suggests that Diaspora Jews should not be weighing these issues. Instead, they should remain inside a supposed “big tent” of Israel supporters, of which Gordis has appointed himself the doorkeeper.
But Diaspora Jews no longer have the option of not taking a position on Israel’s policy, because silence has also become a stance. The supposed “big tent” organizations and especially AIPAC are responsible for that. On one hand, AIPAC has presented itself as the voice of Israel’s supporters in America. On the other, its positions are distinctly hawkish. It has put its energies into restricting or foiling U.S. relations with the Palestinians, not into supporting peace efforts (as I described in greater depth in this 2008 article). It has been far warmer to right-wing Israeli governments than to dovish ones.
American Jews can actively support AIPAC, or groups to its right such as the ZOA, or more dovish organizations such as J Street. Saying nothing, however, is likely to be misread by politicians, and by lazier political reporters, as tacit support for the AIPAC position. Even if American Jews wanted to take Gordis’s advice and remain neutral, they no longer have that option.
Here’s another lovely irony in Gordis’s talk: He demanded to know why J Street had allowed someone in favor of the BDS campaign to speak at its recent conference. With a quick glance at the J Street website, he would easily have found the answer: The organization firmly opposes the boycott and sanctions campaign, but prefers to hear people with whom it disagrees than to silence them. So it brought speakers “to the left and to the right of J Street’s own positions.” In other words, it invited Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, to its conference for the same reason it invited Daniel Gordis to speak to its delegation to Israel. (Though I disagree with her position, my impression from the text of her talk is that Vilkomerson spoke cordially. She did not accuse J Street of arrogance for its stance against boycotts of Israel. Apparently she lacked Gordis’s self-confidence.)
In an addendum to his post, Gordis quotes a bit of Vered Kelner’s Globes report on the J Street trip to Israel and to Ramallah. Since he’s not reproducing the whole article, I don’t object that he skips Kelner’s description of the Shalem Center as a place “seen as Benjamin Netanyahu’s intellectual rearguard” or of Gordis himself “an old-style American Jew: a liberal at home, a nationalist on the street in Israel.” I do object to his mangling of a conversation between Kelner and J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami after a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The actual text reads:
[Kelner:] Ben-Ami, you pointed out to Gordis that he didn’t mention the occupation, but Fayyad also didn’t mention “occupation.” Perhaps that discourse doesn’t interest anyone any more?
[Ben-Ami:] True, the occupation wasn’t discussed in either of those meetings, but for the Palestinian on the street it’s his life. And one of the messages that we’re bringing to Israelis is that it’s possible to live like that’s not happening, to ignore the reality, but it’s clear that the occupation does leave its mark. Both on the state and on the Jewish people.
Gordis cuts Ben-Ami’s answer down to:
“True,” Ben Ami answered, “neither Gordis nor Fayyad raised the occupation, but we’re here to remind Israelis that you can’t pretend that the occupation isn’t part of reality.”
And then Gordis argues that the way that Ben-Ami is “framing the issues is no longer the way that Israelis and Palestinians are discussing them.”
In Gordis’s version, Ben-Ami sounds as, let’s say, self-confident as Gordis himself. And Ben-Ami’s comment about the Palestinians is missing. But Ben-Ami was right. The occupation is either the text or the subtext of every political conversation with a Palestinian. It is what Palestinian politics is about. If Gordis thinks that Palestinians no longer frame the issues in terms of the occupation. then let me humbly suggest that he has missed not just just the complexities of this conflict but also some of the raw, elemental facts.