Letter to a Progressive Jewish Friend in America

Gershom Gorenberg

Excerpts from my new column at Hadassah Magazine:

Dear L——,

Please don’t give up on Israel. And please give me a chance to explain before you hit the delete button.

I know, your last e-mail virtually asked me not to write this one. You said that you were tired of news about growing West Bank settlements, stalled peace negotiations and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s bellicose statements. Your daughter says the campus debate between anti-Israel and pro-Israel groups is too shrill to bear. You would prefer to focus your progressive political energies on issues close to home. When I write, you implied, I should stick to updates about my kids….

I know you are not alone in your despair. In the recent, excellent documentary Between Two Worlds about American Jewry’s internecine battles, there’s a scene in which Daniel Sokatch, head of the liberal New Israel Fund, explains why young Jews are leaving the conversation: “People will walk away from an argument that looks like [a choice between] ‘Israel, right or wrong’ or ‘Israel is an apartheid demon state.’ That is not a compelling paradigm for most young American Jews.” My only quibble is that lots of older Jews are equally unhappy with a debate restricted to those choices.

But I don’t think you can walk away. If you choose silence on Israel, your silence will also be a statement, interpreted in a way entirely different from what you intend. Besides that, “progressive” means “working for progress.” Giving up on Israel because it isn’t living up to your liberal values would violate those values. …

The bottom line is that you should be working for a better, more progressive Israel and for a more open discussion of Israel among American Jews—a discussion in which supporting Israel includes supporting peace and social change. And the dissonance that makes you want to give up on Israel is a result of two assumptions that I think you will reject once you examine them.

The first is that a Jewish country will automatically be progressive, because that’s how Jews naturally act. Think about it: You don’t believe in the inborn superiority of particular ethnic groups any more than you believe in the opposite, the inherent inferiority of ethnic groups. The Torah does not tell us to remember that we were strangers in Egypt because Jews are instinctively, unequally committed to equality. It repeats that message in a loud drumbeat because we are people, and the natural thing for people to do when they get power is to forget that they were once powerless….

The second flawed assumption is that you should feel tied to Israel only if it is already a progressive country. Think about that word: Progressives are people who work for progress. To your good fortune, Israel is rich with organizations working for change— groups promoting human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, religious freedom, Jewish-Arab dialogue and, of course, peace. In the last several years, American Jewry has seen a flowering of organizations supporting those efforts. …

Read the full column here, and come back to SoJo to comment.



7 thoughts on “Letter to a Progressive Jewish Friend in America”

  1. Well you and Haim can take credit for one bit of tikkum olam; I have finally found myself left of the right. A main cause? The rabbinic delegitimization of giers in the Conservative and Reform movements. This is not my understanding of “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.” But all this time, the prose of you and Haim has acted as a safehouse of sanity and nuance. I appreciate that.

    Congratulations on making the Newsweek booklist; just please do not ask me to buy Newsweek. I’m still reading your book on Kindle.

  2. This comment of yours in the column really makes me wonder:
    Back then, Israel’s economic policy was remarkably egalitarian. The gap between rich and poor was small. Inexpensive, nonprofit health care was nearly universal. The Jewish state was a Scandinavian social democracy displace to the Levant
    Israel was NEVER a “Scandinavian social democracy” and there was ALWAYS a huge gap between the haves and have nots.
    Yes, what you described was the “official view” Of things in order to make liberal Jews in America feel “nachas” for a socialist Israel, but believe me, those liberal Jews in America would NEVER trade their high living standard in America for the poverty that the Israeli “middle class” lived in. They wanted Israelis to live their “socialism” for them while they benefited from America’s capitalist society.
    Israel was NEVER “egalitarian”. Remember the word “proteksia”. Proteksia was “connections” with someone who was in a posiition of importance in the Histadrut or the government. Whereas the average citizen, as late as the 1980’s had to wait FIVE years to get a telephone, those with proteksia got it right away. Those with proteksia got far better medical treatment in special hospitals for the socialist “elite”.
    True, salaries were more equal but the well-to-go got various under-the-table benefits. For example, the average citizen had to pay onerous taxes and customs duties for electronic goods making them cost 4-5 times what they did in the US. Well, a connected person working in a gov’t or Histadrut company would be given a trip to the US or Europe, supposedly as part of his job-but in reality simply a perk where he could lay at the pool or sightsee during his visit there. Then he could buy all this electronic goodies (radios, VCR’s, cameras, etc) for far less than they average Israeli could and then bring them back, tax-free, through the green channel at the airport. Thus, although nominally, his salary was not much higher than his fellow workers, he actually had a significantly higher standard of living. It just didn’t show up in the statistics.
    I also recall the unbelievably low standards of food quality and variety when we came in 1986.
    It was the dismantling of the suffocating, corrupt, inefficient socialist system in Israel that has raised EVERYONE’s standard of living in Israel.
    Your nostalgia for this terrible system that most Israeli’s are glad to be rid of really makes me question other things you write.

  3. you write: The existence of a Jewish country is too large a part of the 21st-century Jewish reality to be excised from Jewish communal life in America. But when students find Jewish campus organizations devoting their energy to refuting any criticism of Israeli policy (including criticisms voiced daily here in Israel), many stay away from campus Jewish life entirely.

    But isn’t that the core of theoroblem. Judaism has ben around a lot longer than any extant polity. why should it be subordinated to the zionist agenda?

  4. Thank you for the reminder that there are many opportunities to show support for Israel, and that showing support — contrary to the latest American political rhetoric — does not always involve endorsement of the State or current government’s policies.

    It certainly can be difficult to get behind a government that pursues a foreign policy of turning away friends and transforming trading partners into enemies.

    It’s certainly easy to feel alienated when the Diaspora is dismissed with comments such as “those liberal Jews in America [who] would NEVER trade their high living standard in America for the poverty that the Israeli ‘middle class’ lived in” (the many thousands who have made Aliyah notwithstanding).

    At least the Prime Minister had the wisdom to pull the latest ad campaign and not insult expatriates or the Diaspora further – http://www.jta.org/news/article/2011/12/02/3090538/american-jews-complain-about-israeli-ads-aimed-at-expats .

    The key, as you say, is to support the groups building the Israel-we-want-it-to-be. Hey, if “Netanyahu showed wisdom” can make it on this blog site, anything’s possible! 😉

  5. John Sterns-
    Most American Jews who made aliyah came after the suffocating socialist system started to be dismantled. Relatively few of those who did come were attracted by the MAPAI-HISTADRUT socialist economic/political system. Do you really think most American Jews who made aliyah want to go back to that rotten situation? Do you think Gershom wants to go back to the time when you had to wait 5 years to get a telephone and mail was delivered once a week if you were lucky? (and this was in the 1980’s!).
    I want to emphasize that my criticism is directed at those “progressive” American Jews who want to vicariously live out their socialist dreams by having Israelis have to cope with all the drawbacks of that system while they themselves would never agree to live under such conditions.

  6. Brilliant article. I particularly appreciate the focus on progressives as a piel verb; a movement toward an ideal, recognizing that we still have a ways to go to get to that ideal.

    I cross posted in full at my blog so that my readers can consider your wisdom as they struggle with these same issues.

  7. “My old friend, don’t give up. Get involved. ”

    I get what you’re trying to say, but look at it from our perspective. Every time we express our opinions about this in our Jewish communities, we get shouted down by the other side. After a while, spending time in the community gets so unpleasant, that one needs to withdraw, even if only to preserve one’s sanity. I for one, used to be a regular at Shabbos services, but after too many sermons about Israel, there are other things I’d rather do on a Saturday morning. I don’t need the emotional hassle.

    Furthermore, even the Zionist progressives need to make a better case for the need to have “power over their lives as a collective,” whatever that means. For me a “Jewish collective” that has political power leads to individual Jews having less power over their lives. We Diaspora Jews have no power over what the “Jewish collective” does in Israel, indeed, the “Jewish collective” treats us like dirt — our customs and religious leaders are disregarded, sometimes we are not even considered to be Jews according to this “Jewish collective.” We are seen only a a source of political pressure on our government to be used for power politics involving policies which we oppose.

    It seems to me that if progressive Israeli Zionists want American Jews to be engaged with Israel, the Progressive Israeli Zionists are going to need to engage more with us — preferably outside the framework of the existing Jewish establishment, which, in my opinion, has been corrupted by the status quo and the desire to play power politics.

    Gershon’s speaking tours and regular columns in Hadassah Magazine are a step in the right direction, but the American Jewish world needs more “left-wing” voices in its discourse.

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