True Zionist confessions: As a campus Hillel director and later a JCC professional, I was professionally (and frequently fanatically) committed to telling Israel’s story, as I then understood it. Somehow, across the years I managed to retain my optimism that Israel would be the great success story of the Jews who would now go about showing the world what a truly enlightened liberal universalistic nation they could build. Perhaps I was naïve, but that’s how life goes. It’s not easy undoing generations of family commitment and nearly ceaseless indoctrination into such a powerful idea.
Since 2013 I’ve been out of the Jewish communal service and education fields—with their roots in the world of Jewish Federations—working full time as a Secular Humanistic rabbi. Freed from my self-imposed constraints as a professional Zionist educator and activist, I’ve allowed my mind to run free. My openly Humanistic commitment to rational, evidence-based reasoning led me to one clear and unequivocal realization: If Israel had ever been what I thought it was—or even could be—this certainly was no longer the case. To echo the title of Peter Beinart’s book (see illustration) I had entered into my crisis with Zionism.
At first I grasped at straws. If solving the international conflict was too much, at least Israel could more fully integrate its own minorities and build a more inclusive state for all of its citizens. I fantasized that Israel could somehow thin out and defuse its oppressively ethnocentric Jewish exclusivity (which also privileges Orthodox Judaism over other interpretations). Maybe this could take place along the lines of a 2013 proposal by sociologist Eva Illouz in the pages of Haaretz (it’s worth the price of a subscription to read the whole piece):
If Israel does not want to become a politically improved and militarily more powerful version of dark ethnocratic regimes, it must not only insure that the rights of minorities are protected, but also become forcefully universalist, go back to the universalist strands of Jewish tradition and align itself with the neutrality of liberal states. Israel can and should have a national Jewish culture, but this culture should be, like its Western liberal counterparts, far thinner and more neutral. This would imply treating Jews and non-Jews equally in more domains than is practiced today; dismantling the state rabbinate…; encouraging religious pluralism and treating all Jewish denominations equally; making religious symbols into universal ones; teaching the history of other traditions; creating a canon of Arab and Jewish literary classics; making it easier for non-Jews to become citizens. All these measures would maintain Israel’s Jewishness. Israel would still have the same calendar, symbols, and language. It would become non-neutral in the same way as liberal countries are, because various groups would be organized in a broader and more inclusive framework.
This did not seem impossible to me. England managed to retain some old ethno-religious trappings while essentially neutralizing their power over citizens’ lives. What Englander really feels alienated by the optics of its symbolic monarchy? I’m sure that there are those who would like it eliminated in the same way that I’d love “In God We Trust” trashed. But at the end of the day neither the English monarchy nor that stupid motto really affect anyone’s liberty or—more to the point—their sense of feeling fully English or American.
In any case, my gripes with Israel now transcend its domestic policies. At the real heart of my frustration, anger, and alienation lies the utter lack of progress toward any solution for the interminable, nearly half-century-long occupation. I have reached my limit with the perpetual growth of settlements and the clearly messianic inspiration behind it. (And please do not bombard me with all the ways that the settlements can be parsed into those that will be retained and those that will not in some future peace agreement that the current government is bound and determined to confine to the realm of fantasy.)
When I worked for a JCC, with responsibilities for Israel education, I participated in a years-long fellowship with a Zionist emphasis. One of the program’s scholars was Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who today is associated with some of the most intolerable justifications of Israel’s excesses, frequently defending its rejection of universalist and liberal values on the grounds that Israel has a special mission to preserve Jewish peoplehood, whatever that means (see his excruciatingly bad book, The Promise of Israel, for a great example of this).
Another Rabbi Gords—David Gordis (no relationship)—sees things differently.
Today he published an extraordinary piece on the website of Tikkun magazine. It is shocking in its frankness. He states, “The Israel of today is very far from anything I dreamed of and worked for throughout my career.”
Suddenly, I feel depressingly validated.
Present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary. These values have been subordinated to a cruel and oppressive occupation, an emphatic materialism, severe inequalities rivaling the worst in the western world and distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behaviors rather than the best.
And most depressing of all for me, is that I see no way out, no way forward which will reverse the current reality. Right wing control in Israel is stronger and more entrenched than ever. The establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel out of this quagmire. So, sadly, after a life and career devoted to Jewish community and Israel, I conclude that in every important way Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure. [emphasis in the original]
That last sentence is nearly identical to the one that has haunted me many a night.
It is not up to me or Rabbi David Gordis to figure a way out or forward. Israel’s mess is too large for facile solutions, especially when the polarization about what to do is so vast on so many levels (just ask President Obama).
Like Eva Illouz I’ve imagined a different Israel, one that could have been a great success. I’ve also imagined living on the Starship Enterprise. It appears that my fantasies about the latter were no more realistic than those that I harbored for Israel.
I have finally and utterly re-aligned myself when it comes to Israel; a re-alignment symbolized by my shift from one Rabbi Gordis to the other.
“A noble experiment, but a failure.”
Sadness overwhelms me.
NOTE: A previous version of this post identified David Gordis and Daniel Gordis as brothers. According to my best information David is Daniel’s uncle. If anyone has better information than this, please let me know.