Home > Books, Gaza, Israel, Palestinian Authority, Rabbi Philip Graubart > Has the influential Rabbi Daniel Gordis lost his way?

Has the influential Rabbi Daniel Gordis lost his way?

By Rabbi Philip Graubart

LA JOLLA, California–Who is the most influential writer for American Jews?  To my mind, it’s Daniel Gordis, the American-born rabbi, writing from Israel.  Gordis grabs his readers with passionate, cogent arguments, but also through his chosen medium: emails, which fly through cyberspace, landing in tens of thousands (or more) inboxes, provoking instant debate, or fervent agreement, or consternation, or even tears. 

Gordis has written several fine, popular books, and you can read much of his work on his website, but it’s the regular emails – started simply as letters to friends – which have “gone viral,” zooming through email address books at the speed of light, provoking conversations in countless homes and havurot. Every week several folks forward me Gordis’ latest writing (stop, please, I already subscribe!).

He writes about Israel – what it’s like to move there, with a young family; to live there, as an immigrant, coping with missiles, suicide bombs, children in the army; he writes about Israeli culture, politics, business.  It’s always compelling, and deeply personal.  When I reviewed his first Israel book – the first collection of emails called If a Place Can Make You Cry – I wrote that it was one of the best books I’d read that decade. 

Lately, though, a darker tone has crept into his missives.  Actually, he’s never shied away from describing Israel’s saddest struggles, and the challenges these traumas have posed for his family, or his own emotional health.  In his first book – on the back jacket cover – he candidly admits that he’s not sure he can handle another round of suicide bombings.  And he poignantly describes his inner torment over sending his young children to fight and possibly die in an endless war. These painfully honest passages – as difficult as they are for Gordis – teach his American readers about commitment, about how loving a place means that the place “can make you cry.” 

But more recently, an edgy defensiveness has accompanied the darkness.  He skewered a rabbinical student who wrote a senior sermon critical of Israel’s Lebanon campaign (he later apologized).  And he lashed out – with great condescension and withering sarcasm – at Forward reporter Jay Michaelson for suggesting that some American Jews are growing “fatigued” with Israel. 

And in his most recent book Saving Israel, he seems on the verge of despair. Ostensibly, the book is about the serious challenges Israel faces – both external and internal – and some suggestions for meeting these challenges.  But the bulk of the writing harps on the intractability of many of these problems.  Gordis is now convinced that there’s no possibility for peace – that the Palestinians are hopelessly set on Israel’s destruction, and there’s literally nothing any Israeli government can do to reach an agreement ( the book’s subtitle is “How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.” [my italics]). Of greater concern, Gordis is not sure Israeli society can survive a never-ending war.  He sees a number of internal enemies – post-Zionist academics, who questions Israel’s most important narratives; apathetic, secular Israelis, who yearn for a “normal state,” or a “Hebrew speaking America;”  the “withering of Zionist passion” among the bulk of the population.

And, not surprisingly, Israeli Arabs, with no loyalty whatsoever to the notion of a Jewish state; in the book’s most disturbing chapter, Gordis actually flirts with the idea of expelling the Arab minority.

So, my first question in evaluating the book: is the despairing tone warranted? Are things really this bad?  I can’t really speak to his views on the Palestinians, which, of course, are shared by many.  It is however, important to point out that Israel’s largest political party, as well as its most important newspaper, don’t embrace Gordis’ view that “nothing can be done” on the diplomatic front. And even the current Likud government hasn’t given up entirely on diplomacy. 

As to internal forces rotting away Israel’s resolve, there’s important evidence that Gordis is simply overreacting.  A more persuasive, well-researched recent book – Start Up Nation by Dan Senor – shows how Israel’s economy continues to boom, despite the endless conflict, despite the world-wide recession. And neither the army nor Israel’s civil society came close to collapsing during the Gaza war, despite Gordis’ gloomy assessment.  Frankly, it’s hard to see how kooky academics will ever bring down any culture; we have them here also in America, and they haven’t yet destroyed the republic.  No serious political movement in Israel has adopted post-Zionist ideas. And even Israel’s Arab minority has stayed relatively peaceful since the 2000 riots, more peaceful, in fact, than Muslim minorities in much of Western Europe. 

But the larger problem in Gordis’ recent writings has been this near obsession with Israel’s internal enemies.  In the book, he admits that his argument for expelling Israel’s Arab citizens was the most depressing thing he ever had to write.  Well, it’s also one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read: a greatly respected Jewish intellectual (and fellow Conservative rabbi) tossing aside moral conventions, and embracing a human rights disaster. 

 And the issue goes even deeper.  The sad fact is, it’s become very difficult to criticize Daniel Gordis.  Leaving aside his sneering contempt for Jay Michaelson and the rabbinical student (and a recent group of American rabbis who had the temerity to want to visit Ramallah), the climax of two recent Gordis columns was a quote from the biblical book of Joshua “Are you with us, or do you seek our destruction?”   In one, he’s referring to non-Israeli critics of the Gaza operation, but in the other, it’s Jewish and Israeli critics of Israel’s government, and the implication can’t be clearer: if you’re not a supporter, you’re an enemy, so watch what you say.  It’s hard to see how any democracy could survive with that attitude.

 But, of course, Israel’s democracy will survive; it’s endured far worse challenges than Daniel Gordis.  But I am concerned about the conversation among American Jews.  Gordis enjoys tremendous influence here, and he’s writing, in effect, that you’re either for us or against us – the “us” being those who agree with Daniel Gordis.  We are divided enough in America, without Gordis urging us to see other Jews as enemies, who “seek our destruction.” 

The fact is, in our continuing discussions over J Street, and the Goldstone Report, and Israel in general, a disturbing polarization has already seeped in.  In Jewish websites and blogs and discussion groups, we often find words like “traitor,” “self-hating Jew,” and, of course “enemy.”  I can’t blame it all on Gordis, but I do hear echoes of his rhetoric throughout the American-Jewish internet.  In the end, we, who still live here, have to ask ourselves, what kind of Jewish community do we want?  How do we debate each other? How we do stay united despite our differences?  In answering these crucial questions, Daniel Gordis – once so incisive and moving – isn’t helping.  He’s making things worse.

Graubart is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, California

  1. November 18, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Hello Chavare,

    I know David Gordis (rather superficially), and I think there is a realism to what he has to say. The Oslo Accords were often described by Faisel Husseini and Arafat as a “Palestinian Trojan Horse,” and we all know why . . . Abbas recently made a comment about a “Jew-free” Palestine, and I do not believe for a minute that he was referring only to the West Bank.

    As Jews, we want to believe that enemies can become friends, but in this case, such optimism is not warranted. Our enemies have adopted some very cynical methods designed to lull our people asleep, while they utilize every opportunity to eventually destroy Israel–one little piece at a time.

    Abbas is especially dangerous because he wears a suit and looks “civilized,” but he identifies with Arafat’s murderous ideology. Remember: A cannibal is still a cannibal whether he has good table manners or not.

    Ergo, I think Gordis is right on the money.

  2. Sheila Novitz
    June 6, 2011 at 12:38 am

    Wow. I am an Australian Jewish woman who greedily absorbs Daniel Gordis’ writing. He impresses me more than any other writer on Israeli questions, and in his general gentleness and caring about the predicaments of others. “Saving Israel” is a bitter pill to swallow, but I share all his concerns and all his conflicted ideas about solving the multitude of problems.

    I live amongst non-Jews, few of whom know that I am Jewish. Experience has taught me that this is the safest way for me to live in Australia. It also enables me to REALLY hear them and what they think of us. It is not pretty. Nelson Mandela famously said that the only way of getting to know your enemies is to live amongst them, and this is certainly true. If the attitude of the average, ordinary, good, gentile Australian is anything to go by, most of them would watch the destruction of another 6 million Jews without blinking an eyelid. I know what I am talking about.

    I think it understandable that Daniel Gordis is becoming frustrated and angry, that he feels “either you are with us or you seek our destruction,” and that if you are not a supporter, you’re an enemy. Those of my friends who know I am Jewish have always said they are not anti-Jewish, not anti-Israel, and I believe them. At the same time, I know that not one of them would lift a finger or say a word or donate a cent to help the Jewish Israeli struggle. When gently challenged, the attitude I sense is one of cold indifference.

    On a recent Q and A panel programme, two Jewish writers said to the whole of Australia that Israel makes them ashamed of being Jewish. Not a word mentioned about the Hamas Charter and Israel’s need to defend itself, its need to remain a Jewish state. These Jewish writers simply wanted the world to see that “Not all Jews are bad. We are different.”

    I too, as a result of my experiences, feel that if people are not with us, they are at least indifferent to our destruction, if not actively seeking to destroy us – and that too will come with sufficient encouragement, as the past has taught us.

    I do not think that Daniel Gordis has lost his way. I think he is being realistic, as painful as it must be to him and to his family.

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