Notes from San Francisco on the “Acceptable” Discourse on Israel

February 27, 2014

A swarm of articles, following several incidents, has once again raised the question to which there is really no good answer: “what constitutes an acceptable discourse on Israel?”, as the Forward’s Hody Nemes puts it. Judith Butler was disinvited to a talk she was supposed to give about Kafka because of her kooky views on Israel. Bad decision. John Judis was invited, disinvited, and re-invited to speak about his misinformed book. Bad decision to invite him, bad decision to disinvite, and the re-invitation is understandable if not totally necessary. (Ron Radosh wrote an apt review of Judis’ book – “not a rant but not exactly history”, as Radosh put it – for the Jewish Review of Books. Before wasting your time on hearing Judis or reading the book  (I read about 50 pages of it) make sure you read the Radosh review and you might end up doing something better than attending an event on an unworthy book.)

“The recent cases” which have re-sparked the debate over speakers about Israel, writes Uriel Heilman, “underscore just how much shifting ground there is on the Israel debate – and how much Jewish institutions are looking over their shoulders”. As I visit the Bay area, speaking to Jews about Israel, I can't help but wonder: what is it that has changed? And why has it changed the “conversation” on Israel? I have several possible answers, a mix of five-cent-pop-psychology and cultural theories (there are probably many more and maybe some that are better):

1. It’s all about capitalism and the growing pressure on Jewish institutions to create the type of controversial events that can draw a crowd. I really think this partially explains the new wave of books questioning Israel, speakers denigrating Israel, and “thought provoking” events on Israel – it’s just a commercial niche, the kind of thing that will get you an hour on the radio and an article or two in the paper. “My usual policy on reviews is that any publicity is good publicity as long as the reviewers spell my name correctly”, Judis wrote as he responded to critics. The more he is attacked, the more he can respond, the more his book, worthy or not, is becoming a topic of conversation (case in point: this article). For the hosting institution it is also a way to get some of the attention that all Jewish institutions badly need. So in essence, we can come up with an almost Marxist type of explanation for the recent brouhahas concerning speakers on Israel. On the one hand, market forces making controversial events alluring to institutions. On the other hand, the money of concerned philanthropists shaping the agenda of the institutions – in most cases in the opposite direction. And there you have it – a clash of financial interests.

2. Routine is boring, controversy is exciting. The American Jewish community has routinely defended Israel for too long, being its faithful husband, or wife, and now it is in need of some romance on the side, flirting with new ideas– no matter how flawed and harmful they are to the future.

3. Israel is becoming too successful for its own good. Really. A couple of days ago, writing about Mark Oppenheimer’s NYT piece on devout Jews who aren't too crazy about Israel, I annoyed some readers (thank you for your emails, most of them polite and inquisitive) by stating my view on the current centrality of Israel for the Jewish world. There is no serious Jewish game to be played, I argued, that doesn’t involve Israel. It is where a majority of Jews will soon reside, where Jewish life thrives more than anywhere else, where the Jewish experience is the most intensive. Surely, Israel isn’t the only place where Jewish life is meaningful – and the many Israelis who have read my book on American Jewry would attest to my strong belief that American Jews have many strengths and advantages over Israelis. Yet it is Israel that is a unifying cause for Jews, it is Israel that is expected to attend to Jews in need, it is Israel where young Jews from all over the world are sent to strengthen their Jewish identity. Israel is Judaism’s big project of the day, and its overwhelming dominance in the Jewish sphere is understandably annoying to some people – every dominant force is somewhat annoying. With the decline or disappearance of most other features of Jewish life against which people can meaningfully rebel – there’s really not much of a point in rebelling against Jewish practice, which has long ago become an every-man-for-himself kind of world – sticking needles into the Israeli balloon is to be expected.

4. Adding to the previous point, let's also remember that a permanent feature of Jewish life is the search for contrarianism. Jews like to think about themselves, and about their culture, as a counter-culture, especially so when they reside as a minority in a place like the United States. So it was easy for them to come around to supporting Zionism when Zionism was young and an emerging force for change, and it now feels natural to many of them to look for the next edgy trend. In other words: kicking Israel makes them feel young, and it makes them feel Jewish.

5. Last but not least – Israel’s own contribution to the trendy dissent against it. Yes, Israel does contribute to it, even though I believe this isn’t the overriding factor governing this trend (this is, I suppose, the point of contention where harsher critics of Israel would want to differ by attributing most of the blame to Israel). It can do better by being more attuned to Jewish sensitivities where possible (can we post such an article without mentioning Women of the Wall at least once?). It can do better by setting a better example for manners and civil debate. It can do better by learning from Jews around the world, and not just trying to teach them. And it can possibly do better – I can also do better – by tolerantly humoring those actively dissenting Jews rather than getting too angry with them.

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