American Jewry’s Relationship to Israel: Expanding Dialogue

I was fortunate to still be living in Jerusalem when the debate between Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart took place, as I was able to take advantage of the vibrant, young, thoughtful community at Pardes to dissect the debate and the issues raised in it.

Here I do not want to re-hash the arguments in great detail, though I found the debate to be engaging and thought provoking, but rather to look at a broader point.  Daniel Gordis makes the argument a number of times that there are things that no (self-respecting) Zionist can say, and that there are those who are outside of his tent whom he will not enter into dialogue with.  While I agree that dialogue should not be universal — I would support Gordis in not debating anyone whose stated position was to wipe Israel off the map as a homeland for the Jewish people — I harbour the (naively optimistic?) view that one ought to challenge oneself with regards to the scope of dialogue one engages in.

It is with this thought in the back of my head that I watched a recent Democracy Now clip, where Amy Goodman interviewed Norman Finkelstein.

It was quite interesting for me to reflect on where I have come from in relation to this particular figure, and the vitriol with which he was totally expunged from any legitimate conversation about the State of Israel when I was growing up.  While I would probably place myself — if forced — somewhere between Gordis and Finkelstein (and some would argue that most of the Jewish world could be placed between the two, a point I will try to counter below), I find it disturbing that one of those figures can be championed as a liberal Jew, while the other has to fend off labels of self-hating Jew.

What, exactly, are the criteria being used to judge whether someone can be a ‘card-carrying Zionist’?  Finkelstein is only now (since I became aware of his politics) voicing public opinions more in support of Israel (e.g. distancing himself from the BDS movement for fear that their ultimate motive is to demonize the State of Israel, and not to gain equal rights for the Palestinian people), and I have yet to hear him state openly that Jews have the right to live — side-by-side and in peace — with the Palestinians, which I would welcome.  However, I would never consider placing an American Jew, both of whose parents were sole survivors of the Holocaust, outside the pale of conversation about Israel.  Norman Finkelstein engaged himself personally and professionally in trying to affect Israel’s policies to more adequately adhere to the liberal values he espoused in the rest of his life, doing so before such a sentiment became popular in the Jewish world.  I would like to have such a voice present in conversations about Israel.

I am saying this with a heavy dose of confidence that Norman Finkelstein is a figure who Daniel Gordis would not debate publicly, and the point I wish to make is that that reality is a shame.  I think that this reluctance is based more on the reputation Finkelstein has in the Jewish world than on his current views — he himself says (see the continuation of Amy Goodman’s interview) that he shares 80% of Peter Beinart’s views, which makes me think that such a debate between he and Gordis would be beneficial for both of them and their audiences.  I think there are significant — but not irreconcilable — differences between these two figures, and that they are both quite respected by different constituencies who see themselves bound up in the fate of Israel and American Jewry’s relationship to her.  I would welcome an in-depth conversation — if doing so publicly would be too hard for either, so be it — between Gordis and Finkelstein, not just on the big picture issues, but on the details (or ‘facts’), where I see there being significant disagreements.  In the Democracy Now piece, Finkelstein brushes off the notion that the details are as important as the main thrust of one’s political convictions, and I want to call him on that.  The fact of the matter is that, depending on where one gets her trusted information about the Middle East conflict, one gets jarringly different pictures of what is going on now, and what has transpired since 1948 (or earlier).  This must be addressed, and it is only through welcoming a conversation partner who might otherwise be demonized and not invited into the dialogue that such progress might be made.

I am not asking for a polite debate, though civility should be enforced.  One of the things that bugged me was just how nice Gordis and Beinart were.  This is a topic that tugs at the heartstrings of both of these speakers, and their audiences, and I want to see that in their debates just as it is so clear in their writing.  There must be ground rules, but arguing that anyone who criticizes Israel principally is outside the pale smacks of limiting the conversation so radically that all we hear are those voices who already agree with us.  The hyper-connectedness of our times can be used both ways — to control the information we receive so that we only hear what we want to, or to expand our sources of information so that we can, arguably for the first time in human history, give ourselves the ability to really listen to those we know we disagree with.  I choose the latter.

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