Arrogance 101. Lecturer: Daniel Gordis

Gershom Gorenberg

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.

18 thoughts on “Arrogance 101. Lecturer: Daniel Gordis”

  1. It is most refreshing to hear someone tell off the J-Street people. Arrogance is the right word to use regarding them. The fact that they are essentially nothing more than a “Jews for Obama” organiztion which had the 78% Jewish vote for Obama go to their head and make them think that 78% of American Jewry supports their essentially anti-Israeli agenda really propelled them away from reality.
    J-Street is an anti-Israel organization that is falsely sellling itself as “pro-Israel”. An organization that invited Israel-hating bloggers Richard Silverstein and Phil Weiss to chair a session at their first national conference can not go on selling their false image.

  2. One more thing…regarding all the Generals who support the Left…it is important to know that the IDF is highly politicized and that during the Oslo period, Generals were promoted and chosen precisely because they supported the Left and Oslo, so a self-selecting process made sure that most Generals were Leftists. Moshe Ya’alon himself came out of the Labor Party but then began to think for himself and went a different way.
    Regarding the impact of these General’s views, I am reminded of Ehud Barak’s 1999 election campaign. In one of his election ads, he showed a council of IIRC NINE ex-Generals who were going to advise him, (he being an ex-General himself…supposedly the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history ).
    Well, Barak won the election and the rest is history. His government oversaw the outbreak of the worst period of terrorist violence in Israel’s history, and Barak and his Generals kept saying there was nothing that could be done about it.
    We don’t need a council of nine ex-Generals to tell us that there is nothing to be done.
    These big “patriots” and “military experts” failed miserably in their job of protecting Israel and its citizens and so throwing names of ex-Generals at me and having them claim they know what they are doing means nothing to me.
    I also think Israelis have seen enough of these “experts” to realize that Dagan, although he knows how to get rid of certain of Israel’s enemies, doesn’t have any greater understanding of Israel’s strategic position than anyone else and that his hoped-for political career will fizzle out before he can do damage like all those other ex-Generals did.

  3. I really appreciate Ben-David’s last comment. Certainly the anger and (for a time) helplessness over the Suicide Bombing War would alter the internal political dynamic in the IDF. It should be obvious, but I am not there, do not know Hebrew, and have no knowledge of the election campaign he speaks of. Clearly the IDF will not want to make a similar (horrible) mistake; so it inches to a view, through, I suspect, internal fighting, which holds it must decide security on the ground.

    I am not interest in attacking this outcome. I want to try and understand it. Because of the information Ben-David provides I think my understanding is a little better. Soul searching within the IDF has accelerated a constitutional crisis within Israel. Being an outsider, I can see why my attitude might evoke disgust or laughter. All I can do is hope that sometimes an outsider is useful.

    I want to stress that knowing a constitutional crisis is accelerating (if I am correct) is neutral as to outcome. But know it is happening, and that its resolution will affect more than security measures. Or so I say.

  4. Reading Gordis, Ben-Ami and Gorenberg’s comments puts a good context around my experience today at San Francisco’s annual “Israel in the Park” festival. The anti-Israel folks (including Jews) were outside protesting as usual; others of us were inside. While wearing my “Pro-Israel/Pro-Peace” J-Street button I was drawn into an argument by an “Israeli” couple (who clearly have been living in the US for years), who had to convince me that I had to be more “open minded” about the “reality” of the folly of negotiating with the Palestinians. I countered that they needed to open up their minds to the “folly” of the settlements; of course, the debate goes on from there in boring repetitiveness…the basic outline has hardly changed in the 40 years I’ve been following it.

    Gordis’ condescention (like my “Israeli” couple) is all about the usual efforts to define “legitimate” boundaries so that your opponents who are actually dangerous because they are “inside” the tent (like J-Street, that supports Israel as a Jewish State) are pushed “outside” and become illegitimate (as opposed to merely incorrect).

    Regardless of whether one supports J-Streets position it enlarges the tent in ways most Israelis don’t understand, since they are virtually clueless (and arrogant) about Jews and Jewishness in the American diaspora. In the US, almost no Jews support the settlements (beyond Jerusalem). Jewish youth are so alienated from the Israel (or the image of Israel – more or less the same thing in today’s world) that few of them see it as something positive to identify with, so mostly avoid it. J Street provides an alternative way to support Israel beyond the blind “Israel right or wrong” (…mostly to the right, that is) of AIPAC. Without an internal opposition, they are only left with BDS an the bi-national state as an option.

  5. Gershom Gorenberg, I have carefully read every word that Daniel Gordis said to JStreet, and find no arrogance in it. You, on the other hand, are almost unbelievable. Not even waiting for comments on your jealous tirade, you busily advertise your forthcoming book! You should be ashamed of yourself. Daniel Gordis works his heart out for Israel; what do you do?

  6. Ron Feldman-
    Depends where and with whom you hang out. If you live in San Francisco, you are not seeing a representative slice of American Jewry. It is a stretch to argue that no American Jews support the settlements and young American Jews don’t identify with Israel.
    If you say Israelis are arrogant in their attitude towards American Jews, I can say the same about particularly Leftist Jews in their attitude towards Israelis. Such as their preaching that we should take risks for peace, when it is OUR necks on the line, not theirs.
    I have to ask again, as I did above, why J-Street, which claims to be “pro-Israel” would invite realy Israel haters like Silverstein and Weiss to their first national conference and a BDS’er to their their second. Since you are pro-Israel, don’t you feel a disconnect from the national leadership that seems to want to grovel to the radical anti-Israel groups?

  7. YBD, I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that “risks for peace” line before; that doesn’t make it more true though. As if permanent war, mostly of choice, didn’t entail its own risks, as if Israel, of all places, wasn’t one of the most dangerous places in the world for Jews to live in. Calling leftist diaspora Jews “arrogant” is a tad hypocritical, to say the least, as you’re engaging in your own game of false choices, placing “their” necks on the line – “they” being the Palestinians in your case.

    Richard Silverstein and Phil Weiss don’t need me to speak for them, I’ll just suggest that no few left-wing Jewish critics of Israel speak out of love for the country, or what it could be. The reason may be related to why patience with Israel has been wearing thinner and thinner with many Europeans: sentimental, eventually violent nationalism has been the bane of 19th/20th century’s Europe, and we hate to see you (who came out of us, so to speak) repeating our worst mistakes.

  8. I did remind Gordis that Ben Gurion tent was “Bli Cherut veMaki” (without Begin’s and the Communist parties). So how come those who were outside the BG tent appointed themselves to be the tent gatekeepers now?
    And he speaks of arrogance…
    Greetings from Rochester!

  9. I think Fiddler right that what is going on in Israel and its surrounds is not unique to that locale. Our evolution made us this way; it made us other ways as well, and there the fight is.

    It is not true, however, that memory of the Suicide Bombing War of 2000-2 can be ignored; nor, as we now see at boarder of Syria and Israel, can the memories of displacement, trapped generations, and helplessness be ignored. While Syria clearly fomented the Palestinian challenge of a few days past, the motivation underlying those risking bullets is obviously quite real.

    I think the settlements irreversible. I find the greater Israel logic supporting them repugnant. But I would focus on constitutional process in Israel as the only way to form alternative thoughts in politically heard settings.

    Certainly the word political economy of this conflict is engulfing. Perhaps part of the problem that we, all of all sides, like it that way. Just keep saying the same. I think Bibi likes it that way.

  10. thank you
    Last summer I heard doniel hartman introduce Gordis to a group of american rabbis as the premiere interpreter of israel to american jews unfortunately that may well be true. Unfortunately you dont hold that title

    fortunately a large number of the rabbis didn t buy what he was selling

  11. Mr. Gorenberg is absolutely right that the Shalem Center is a foreign American implant in Israel. It’s about as Israeli as…well, to be frank, as Israeli as the South Jerusalem blog. That’s not to criticize the substance of either: lots of times the American way is better than the Israeli way and lots of times it isn’t. But there are basically no Shalem-style neoconservatives in Israel, just as there are basically no South-Jerusalem-style Freedom-Rider liberals. Both implants would almost certainly be rejected by the Israeli immune system if they ever became significant enough.

    Viewing the Shalem Center types from a distance, I don’t think any more highly of most of them than does Mr. Gorenberg. I’d never heard of Gordis, but from what’s quoted here he comes across as an arrogant fool (I happen to share his apparent political position, by the way). That Hazony guy seems like a real piece of work too. An exception, though, is Martin Kramer. While he fits into the neocon category (though he rejects that label), most of his analysis seems really insightful, whether you share his biases or not. Maybe he’ll do some good stuff there in spite of everything, I don’t know.

  12. The Greater Israel movement is backed into a corner, and folks like JStreet are coming along just when things are getting pressed for them.

    Their choices are dwindeling and time is running out so they lash out.
    OF COURSE JStreeet is pro-Israel. It just isn’t pro-Likud.

  13. Given the stupidity of most of the comments people have made to this intelligent article, it’s really good (1) that no one pays any attention to them and (2) that what they say or think will have no influence at all on the way events play out.

  14. I live in San Francisco and have for over 24 years. This city is a very anti-Israel pro-Palestinian City chock full of many protests against Israel on a weekly basis. Those of us who care about Israel and live here have a huge burden on our hands, namely having to fight on an almost daily basis with the radical left, that Israel is a wonderful and beautiful country in the midst of a very bad neighborhood. It is really hard to love Israel and be surrounded by all these radical left-wing Jews, Palestinians, and Palestinian supporters here. Even though I am very involved in other left wing communities here, the anti-Israel HATRED here is depressing and having Daniel Gordis to inspire me has really helped.

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