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At Least a Few Shades of Grey

July 12, 2012

There are moments, I confess, when reactions to this column leave me stunned.  Responses to my column on Alice Walker’s refusal to permit a new translation of her book, The Color Purple, into Hebrew have afforded some of the juicier of those moments, and sadly, what they say about contemporary discourse on Israel isn’t at all pretty.

Alice Walker does not just criticize Israel. She once boarded a flotilla that had been scheduled to set sail from Greece (and we know what these flotillas are really about). She endorses the BDS movement (which calls for a return of all refugees to Israel, thus ending it as a Jewish state), and calls Israel an apartheid state and the “greatest terrorist” of the Middle East. Those are pretty harsh words.

Hebrew, alas, is the only language into which Walker has refused to permit translation. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy exiled Gypsies who had nowhere to go, but would Walker refuse a French translation? She wouldn’t, and it’s clear why: This is not about politics – it’s about the Jews and about Walker’s problem with the Jewish state.

The real focus of my article, though, was about how Jews need to think differently about how to react when talented artists spew venom at the Jews. In passing, I mentioned Richard Wagner, alluding to the ongoing debate in Israel and elsewhere as to whether or not his music should be played. But all it took was a mention of Wagner (and a brief comment at the end of the column noting that prewar Germany had also begun its attacks on the Jews with boycotts), for the following to emerge on Open Zion, Peter Beinart’s Zionist blog.
Beinart’s assistant, an Ivy League university graduate, began her response with the sentence: “Daniel Gordis… has accused Alice Walker of Nazi-grade anti-Semitism….”

Well, no, not really. In fact, not at all. Nowhere in my column did I say anything remotely like “Nazi-grade anti-Semitism.” Almost as soon as the Open Zion response was posted, a friend and editor of a prestigious publication in New York wrote me to say her comment was “dangerously stupid.” Perhaps. Yet the real problem was not stupidity, but intellectual dishonesty. There is no way to read my column as having accused Walker of genocide, which is, of course, precisely what Nazi-grade anti-Semitism is.

It is commonly said that the Israeli Right too often invokes the Nazi metaphor (Thomas Friedman, in what was not his finest moment, has a passage in From Beirut to Jerusalem in which he accuses Menachem Begin of turning Israel into “Yad Vashem with an air force”).
But today, mention Alice Walker and anti-Semitism, and it’s Beinart’s blog and staff who raise the specter of Nazism, intentionally misreading an unambiguous column to suggest that any critique of a critic of Israel is, almost by definition, histrionic.

Is this what we want discourse about Israel to be? Must every mention of Germany or Wagner mean that we are accusing someone of “Nazigrade anti-Semitism”? Is that what discourse among the people who produced the Babylonian Talmud has now come to? It’s a sad thing, not only for what it says about the ability of Jews to think, but because it will, almost inevitably, turn off a younger generation that seeks nuance and the shades of grey it associates with its most exciting intellectual moments.

INTERESTINGLY, MY column also got the other end of the spectrum more than a bit exercised. My noting that Israel “could do better” deeply annoyed more than a handful of people. The editor of a blog called Truth Provider (the name itself speaks volumes), had this to say: “I have tremendous issue with your unnecessary apologetic attitude: ‘Yes, there is a lot to criticize about Israel, but….’ Jews must stand 100% proud, not even 99%…. It is high time you begin working on your pride of being Jewish.”

Really? I’d kind of thought that I had the Jewish pride thing down. But my blemished Jewish pride notwithstanding, the truly significant issue is our collective sense of what it means to defend Israel. Even on my own blog, the comments were fascinating. One reader wrote to say that my article “would be far better if you didn’t feel that you have to make certain you’ve shown moral equivalency whenever you write about Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians. … [w]e don’t have to apologize in our writing about how the Palestinians are treated by us.”

Another, in a similar vein, wrote, “I must take issue with your constantly saying, ‘Israel can do better.’ Israel is doing better than any other country in the entire Middle East. It is not an apartheid state…. Name one country that treats women as well as Israelis do.” Yet another (and there were many more) asked why I pointed out that Israel could do better: “Is this mantra recited to show how objective you are?”

Well, objectivity is not a badge of shame, but I had other reasons. I believe that there ought to be a dramatic difference between being a Zionist advocate and an apologist. Yes, of course Israel has a good record. But is that enough? On those occasions when Israeli border guards mistreat Palestinians, do we not think that a Jewish state could and should do better? Does wanting our moral tradition to color even more of what we do make us less Zionist or less proud of being Jewish? If Israeli Arabs move into Jewish neighborhoods near Nazareth and are essentially forced out by the Jewish residents, do certain parallels to white neighborhoods in the US not alarm us? Does being alarmed make us inadequate Zionists? When (a very few) young settlers torch mosques, does Zionist passion mean we should pretend we don’t know? Or does our choosing to live here matter precisely so we can make this country better? 

I wonder: Do those readers who wrote that I should cease all critique of Israel hesitate to criticize the US or Canada or whatever country they live in? I hope not. For what else is the purpose of democracy? In the 21st century, when Jews are more (secularly) educated than they have ever been in the past, are we really living up to our potential when Zionism becomes a bumper-sticker-like “My country, right or wrong”? “My country,” yes, without question. But because it’s my country, when it’s wrong, I want it to be right.

MENTION RICHARD Wagner, and you’re told you’ve accused someone of Nazi-grade anti-Semitism. Say that Israel could do better, and you’re told that you’re pandering, or guilty of moral equivalence. Or you’ve got blemished Jewish pride. These are sad days for Jewish intellectual discourse.

If we Jews and lovers of Israel want to win this battle over Israel’s legitimacy, we’re going to have to recall the very definite line between advocacy and apologetics. The latter will turn people off, but the former will win, so long as we tease out truth with great care and thought.

The publishing world these days is all atwitter with Fifty Shades of Grey. We may not need 50, but we sure need a few more than we’re currently mustering.


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