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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

What Can Gentiles Say? How (Not?) to Contribute to a Painful Debate

I’m only now beginning to catch up on the latest round of self questioning launched by Allison Benedikt’s reflective piece in The Awl about being a Jewish American growing up in Ohio, attending Zionist summer camp, visiting Israel, watching her sister move there, then dating and marrying a Non Jewish American.

There’s little doubt this piece has stirred the debate, intensified by Peter Beinart in his essay last year ‘The Failure of the Jewish American Establishment’ to another level, but that’s too big a topic to be covered here. And besides, what can I, as a non-American, non-Jew, say about it?

And herein lies the problem….

Part of Allison Benedikt’s disillusion about Israel was due to the angry questioning of her gentile husband, John Cook. In a response to Benedikt’s piece, Jeffrey Goldberg reserves most of his anger for him:

Essentially, the essay is about Benedikt falling out of love with the Zionist dream, which happens as she marries a non-Jew named John, who, by her description, spends a fair amount of time passing judgment on Israel…

The whole piece is written in a kind of faux-naive, I’m-so-lost voice that I found a bit grating….. When her husband acts like a self-righteous shit toward her sister, does she get a spine? Does she wonder why her husband hates Israel with such ferocity? Does she ever try to answer for herself why Israel exists? Or is she happy to subcontract out her thinking about the most important questions facing Jews first to her camp counselors, and then to her husband….

This is actually a very sad little essay that says more about the writer, who seems to have exchanged one simplistic narrative for another, than it does about Zionism or Israel.

(In a subsequent tweet exchange, the anger towards John Cook continues as Goldberg calls him a “bully and a jackass”.)

So my question is: how do Non Jews respond to this painful debate? Is it just an internal one, that should be left to Jews of all persuasions to sort out for themselves? Or is it incumbent – given the democratic progressive values which dominated Zionism from its inception – for Non-Jews to speak up for those values?

My attitude for years was to keep a discreet silence on these matters as a Non-Jew. From a part Armenian background, I’ve often been mistaken as Jewish since I was a kid (it still happens to this day – and I think I even confused Peter Beinart when we met ten years ago). I first visited Israel in 1970, and worked there in the 90s before Rabin’s assassination. As those who’ve followed any of my diaries know I have many British and American Jewish colleagues and friends (and several I’m proud to call friends on this blog). Sadly, I lost two to illness in the last year – two heroes of mine – Paul Miller and Tony Judt.

Both these men taught me so much – especially about silence and self censorship.


Paul Steven Miller‘s stupendous resume as civil rights leader, commissioner to the EEOC and a special adviser on political appointments to President Obama is evident for all to see, but let me just pass on one treasured memory which shows not only his amazing life force, humour and generosity of spirit, but how he dealt with the subject of silence and who should speak about what.

It was the last time I saw him in London. He’d just had an arm amputated because of the cancer which would eventually kill him, but he was irrepressible as ever, trying to juggle a new phone (he’d just lost one in a cab) and a bourbon only stopping to say: “Peter. Say something. It pisses me off. Haven’t you noticed I’ve lost an arm?”

He challenged my politically correct awkward silence, and we talked about what he’d been through. It wasn’t morose. It was occasionally painful. But it was a conversation about the unsayable which he feared having less than me. That was Paul’s way – he knew when to say things, and how to confront issues with honesty, clarity, and usually with life affirming humour.

An example of the latter, and Paul’s irreverence and sense of mischief. That night in London’s Soho was just after he’d met some senior British High Court judges, including one who is transsexual. He was impressed, but admitted he only just stopped himself saying:

So you’re a transsexual judge. Well, I’m a one-armed Jewish dwarf. Beat that!

While Paul wouldn’t let many things go unsaid, I knew Tony Judt for longer, and he constantly stressed that discussions about Israel and its connections to Jewish identity couldn’t just be had by Jews alone. In one of his last interviews before his untimely death last year he complained to me about the way the debate had been narrowed:

Being Jewish is not enough. Being an ex-Zionist is not enough. But being an ex-Zionist who wore the Israeli army uniform (and has a pic of himself complete with cutie and sub-machine gun): that helped. And in this case the end justified the means. No one can shut me up on this subject, so they are forced to resort to clich├ęs about self-hating Jews and the like: evidence of failure.

All the same, it does irritate me when I am described as a controversialist and commentator on Israel. I see myself as first and above all a teacher of history; next a writer of European history; next a commentator on European affairs; next a public intellectual voice within the American Left; and only then an occasional, opportunistic participant in the pained American discussion of the Jewish matter…

Tony found it limiting that his (self hating!) Jewishness became one of the defining things about his public persona in the last ten years. As a corollary to that prison of identity, he often insisted, at meetings and conferences, that people come out of their boxes, both to discuss things they didn’t know about (the whole essence of conversation surely) and so that we could all throw into relief our particular viewpoints. In the same interview he went on to say….

The influence of extremist Rabbis and the Anti-Defamation League worries me much more as a broader cultural phenomenon of (self-) censorship. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, I don’t lack platforms for my opinions so the problem is not the “silencing” of Judt. It is the closing of the Jewish mind here in America.

Though painful, I celebrate the discussions open up by Beinart, Goldberg and Benedikt as a sign that the Jewish American mind is returning to the tradition of openness, critical debate, self reflection and outward engagement.

Yet my question remains: what can Non Jews say in this context which is neither self-censorship, nor surrender to particularity, nor can be castigated as bullying and self righteous?

Or maybe the whole essence of debate, of conversation, of reaching out, is risking all the above.

(Crossposted to Daily Kos)


  1. Kysen

    Your friend

    I grew up near Charleston, SC (‘heading into town’ meant heading to Charleston). Charleston has a thriving Jewish population…a huge JCC, at least 3 synagogues, and one of the oldest orthodox shuls in the nation. I had near as many Jewish friends growing up as any other ‘group’…my siblings and I spent years playing for the JCC soccer league. We attended the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of our friends without question…and I am of an age where when staying over the night, or eating dinner over…was often at the table with older men and women (usually grandparents) bearing faded tattoos. These men and women, over the years, were the ones that taught me more about the Jewish faith…and Jewish lives…than I, a Gentile, could ever learn from a book or class or tv. One man in particular, the grandfather of my older brother’s best friend…spared no details (which, at the time…at our ages…may or may not have been a good idea…but, it is what it is).

    All that…and I still don’t often enter into an I/P conversation..or, really, into any conversation about Israel.

    The best way I can think of it…at least for ME…I kinda think it akin to the way I am about abortion…or homosexuality. In that..I have VERY well defined opinions on both…but, I am hesitant as a straight male to share those opinions in a discussion with women (on abortion) or with LGBT (on homosexuality). Part of that IS some sort of ‘not my place to say anything’ mentality…part of it is a ‘I’m sure they know better than I…why mess with it’ mentality. Both reasons are more born of an aversion to potentially insulting others with my biases (or, admittedly, my ignorance). I just try to make clear…with the above examples that I am supportive…and don’t see a need to add my ‘buts’ to the conversation.

    Long story short…of course I have thoughts and opinions about Israel…about the Jewish faith and people and history. I just seldom find it to be worth entering into debate on the subjects. Now, I will of course discuss ANYTHING with friends…just not in a public forum or….on a blog.

    I think it needlessly antagonistic. There are, sadly, just too many people who take great offence to it.

    So, I guess on a person to person level…a ‘small group’ level…I do not hold my tongue on any subject. However, in a public forum? On a blog? Yeah, I hold my tongue. Rightly or wrongly…I really don’t know the answer.

    Thanks for making me think on it, Peter (btw..your friend Paul sounds like he was a riot..I’m sorry for your loss).

  2. Whatever they want.

    Yet my question remains: what can Non Jews say in this context which is neither self-censorship, nor surrender to particularity, nor can be castigated as bullying and self righteous?

    Of course, if what is said doesn’t pass the purity tests then they will be castigated, accused of being an anti-Semite or a rabid Zionist by one or both sides. The Israelis and Palestinians don’t own this debate. It affects the whole world. The problem was created by the U.N., which would seem to give the U.N. a voice in this matter, also.

  3. [Great story, both in content and form. Love listening to you think.]

    Or maybe the whole essence of debate, of conversation, of reaching out, is risking all the above…

    That, very much so. This needs to stand alone, caveats come later.

    The caveats you and the others here voice well, both in the specificity of the Israel/Palestine issue and in the general usage. Once we decide to talk it becomes critical to figure out how we talk about things.

    This line we are talking about is one of the most pivotal determinants of our success at communication, and thereby our success at most everything else.

    I fault towards talking too much. It wasn’t yesterday I crawled into the world so I understand the pitfalls that go with that. Life has given me ample opportunity to verify that the benefits, though, are greater than the risks.

    The acute discomfort at being wrong in front of others is as bad as you fear. I experience that awful feeling regularly. However, after that terrible moment you find that you can foray over that ground more comfortably. Less often sinking to the knees in unseen bog.

    If you do not take that first risk you don’t ever get smarter. The value of more minds thinking and sharing on a topic is always valuable when the “how” is kept in mind.

  4. Strummerson

    First off, of course one need not be Jewish to participate in discussions regarding Jews, Israel, Palestine, etc.  But I think we all agree on that in the abstract.  What Peter’s diary engages here, in a helpful manner, is the question of how.  

    As with any historical or cultural topic that does not directly involve a person, all that is required is a bit of knowledge and a certain amount of humility and sensitivity.  I say ‘directly’ here, because these topics affect American, British, and global politics.  Their material realities cannot be divorced from the diplomatic and economic resources that indirectly implicate us all.  Furthermore, there are things that an ‘outsider’ can see and say that may be harder for one who is more directly involved.  

    There is a common line of thought among Israelis, most prominently on the right, that reveals exactly how fraught things are.  It positions “support” for Israel as a moral imperative and at the same time insists on Israeli independence and sovereignty.  It goes: “Give us your sympathy, money, and diplomatic and military protection and don’t you dare interfere with us.”  Quite perverse.  One can easily intuit how history has produced this sociological and ideological disposition, but that doesn’t make it coherent or ethical.  One can also see which ideological and political interests it serves and there is no doubt that people who spout this kind of thing — as frequently at diaspora Jews as non-Jews — both cynically and sincerely.

    And yet, many of us become just a tad uncomfortable when someone raised the question of why Israel is singled out.  How many dinner table conversations are devoted to labor and human rights abuses in China?  How many dinner table conversation are devoted to Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive or vote, and where their very lives depend upon perceptions of their fidelity, and where political prisoners are occasionally decapitated.  The fact that those on the right constantly insist on Israel’s strategic importance, that Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s arguments to the contrary (whatever one thinks of their merits and motivations) suggests a fear that Israel’s policies are scrutinized because it isn’t as unavoidable as China or Saudi Arabia.  The resulting implication is that Israel is the scapegoat, absorbing all of the ethical scrutiny that the US and Britain cannot afford to direct towards more powerful nations.  And I think there is something to this.  Yet I also believe that Israel receives more scrutiny because it demands more scrutiny, because it scrutinizes itself more consistently, that Israel is held to a higher standard because many of its citizens and supporters also hold it to a higher standard.  For me, for instance, I care more about what happens in Israel’s prisons than China’s or Saudi Arabia’s for the same reason that when a Jew spouts racism it bothers me more than when a gentile engages in the same ignorant hate speech.  

    But this attitude is also engendered by political zionism’s cross purposes, precisely at the meeting point between the aspiration to be finally “a nation like all the nations” and the desire to be “a light to the nations.”  When Israel touts its scientific and technological achievements, its artists and thinkers, and also rushes to be the first to airlift medical personnel into disaster zones, it isn’t just a cynical ploy to distract us from the Palestinians, though it may be that as well.  It’s an insistence on demonstrating the degree to which Israel contributes to what Buber called “the common stock of humanity” and justifies its nationhood, even while insisting that it needs no justification.

    Finally, I admit to sharing Judt’s tactic.  When I argue with right wing Jews, I also wield references to my service in a combat unit in the IDF.  In heated moments, I have been known to point out “only one of us here has patrolled refugee camps and taken a bullet in the head for the State of Israel” (it was just a ricochet under the skin, but nonetheless…).  I insist upon my right to speak, and I feel a particular responsibility to speak.

    The other thing to keep in mind, is that the protracted circumstances and emotional complexities of the conflict mean that both Jews and non-Jews alike, even when speaking with knowledge and humility, will always raise hackles when they do.  It’s a hard, sad, complicated history that informs, for better and for worse, the core identities of many of its participants and observers.  There is no safe way to participate.  I may think the South Africa analogies often important, mostly in noting that if Apartheid proved politically and economically unsustainable (not only because of external pressure) then why would one think that the occupation can be sustained indefinitely?  But I have had to walk away from rallies protesting the occupation when I noticed placards equating the Star of David and a swastika.  Gaza is not Warsaw.  On the other hand, the concrete, barbed wire, and towers of the “security barrier” make me nauseous precisely because of what happened in Europe.

    Finally, if anyone thinks this is any easier to engage from “the inside,” let me dispel any such notions.  As a citizen and veteran, I didn’t step foot in Israel for over 15 years.  Couldn’t.  When I met my wife, she basically traded any hopes and desires of making a life there for a life with me.  And yet, I followed the news much much more closely than her, and the music scene there as well.  Only in the past 4 years has that shifted.  We spent the summer there two years ago.  This past Spring, the University of Haifa posted a tenure track position in my field.  I pulled out all of the stops, managed to snag an interview, and it went swimmingly.   But when the department took my file to the dean, he changed (or clarified) the parameters of the appointment so that he’d only approve a senior hire.  But for one administrator, I’d be joining that department next year, teaching Shakespeare and Milton to native Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian speakers.  And the reasons I want that so badly are the same as those that kept me from visiting for nearly 2 decades.  Two summers ago, while on an evening walk in Jerusalem with my incalculably better half, I suddenly found myself telling her: “You know, if we were to live here, you’d probably need to bail me out of jail a few times a year…”

    But that’s for another diary.  Sorry for coming late to this party.  Hope you all get a chance to read this.


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