chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left brand cancel-circle search youtube-icon facebook-icon twitter-icon


No More Racist than You or Me

December 17, 2010

When our kids want to tell us that we’re totally out of touch, they stare at us with a look of complete exasperation, and then say, with utter derision, “You’re so American.”

They don’t mean that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with America or with Americans. They simply mean that the categories that we grew up with as the products of liberal, democratic-voting, civilrights- engaged, suburban American Jews cannot always apply to life here.

This past Shabbat, I asked our son, Avi, about someone with whom I was thinking of doing some work, but about whom I was also worried. I knew that Avi knew him, and so I asked, “Is he a racist?”

Avi looked at me, surprised, and thought for a moment. “No, not any more than you or me,” he said.

I was stunned. “Just what is that supposed to mean?”I asked.

Look, he said, with that tone that meant he knew I wouldn’t like what was to follow, even though he was right. This guy you’re asking about believes in Israel being a Jewish state. He knows that that’s not going to happen by accident. If by racist, you mean that he thinks that some possibly unpopular things need to be done to keep this country Jewish, then yes, he’s a racist. And so are you. And so am I. But if you mean, Does he hate Arabs or anything like that, then, no, he’s not at all a racist.

He was right, of course. Those categories that work in America, and that actually make America great, are not always applicable here. Here, a different kind of calculus and a different sort nuance are necessary.

THIS WEEK, real wisdom hid between the extreme positions so commonly staked out in this country. There was the fatwa against Israelis who would dare rent or sell their homes to Arabs. Dozens of rabbis have signed the letter forbidding such sale, while a smaller number have also had the courage to reject it outright. But virtually no one has pointed out that the choice isn’t a simply one between racism and human rights. It’s more complicated.

Obviously, it is mortifying to live in a country where religious leaders speak about Arabs the way that the enemies of the Jews spoke about us for centuries in Europe. And yes, as some observers have noted, it is virtually impossible to imagine a rabbi in the US saying anything remotely similar.

But the US isn’t Israel, and America does not need to struggle to guarantee its Christian nature. Our society, though largely Jewish now, could easily become something very different with time. If that is what these rabbis meant to say, they were right.

Apply the ethnicity-blind standards of American life here, and in a generation or two, Israel’s Jewish quality might be gone.

Why, after all, are most Israelis and American Zionists opposed to the Palestinian right of return? Isn’t that also a human rights issue? The answer, of course, is that on that issue, people recognize that the country’s Jewish character is at stake. Allow the refugees to return, and Jews become a minority almost overnight. (That is precisely why the Palestinians insist on it.)

Obviously, wanton discrimination in housing ought to have no place here. But if we had rabbinic leadership that had been educated differently, that had read more widely, that knew how to think and write with nuance, these rabbis (if they are not outright racists) might have served an important social cause by expressing an important warning in a more palatable, less hateful way.

SO, TOO, with the recent voluntary repatriation of some 150 Sudanese refugees who were quietly ushered out of the country.

There’s much we still don’t know about that story, but on the surface, it stings. After all, we’ve taken great pride in our having given modern meaning to do not oppress the stranger, for you, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt.

These strangers literally came via the land of Egypt. For a long time, we took them in not perfectly, but in large numbers. And we were justifiably proud.

But there are many hundreds of thousands of such people desperately seeking a better life. We might like to be their refuge, but can we? We’ve had no national conversation about that. Our government, like our rabbis, has failed to engender real conversation about issues critical to the future of the state.

The outcry about the Sudanese repatriation will be vicious. We’ll be accused of not living up to our biblical mandate, and of racism. But whether that accusation will be fair depends on what one means by racism. If the standard is to be the American standard, by which every decision about security, housing and immigration must be ethnicity- blind, then yes, there are things that Israel does that are racist.

But if the goal is to be not American, but Israeli, to be as humane as possible while doing the sometimes difficult things that are necessary to guarantee a long-term Jewish quality of this country, we’re going to have to learn to remind both our supporters and our detractors why this country exists in the first place.

One of the most fascinating stories in the aftermath of the Carmel Forest catastrophe was that after the death of a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter, there’s been a significant upsurge in the number of high school kids who want to volunteer. Young people here still want to believe in this country.

Thousands of other people protested the fatwa in Tel Aviv. There’s still a deep reservoir of commitment, and goodness, on which to draw here.

Imagine a national conversation in which we acknowledged the difficult choices that lie ahead, and struggled together with how to make decisions that are Jewish, humane and strategically smart. Imagine an Israel wrestling once again with the question of what kind of society it wanted to be. Imagine a prime minister who saw his role as engendering such a conversation. Imagine.

Sign up to receive
Daniel Gordis' email dispatches