Dr. Gordis's Jewish Problems

In his latest column for the Jerusalem Post, Daniel Gordis -- a rightly admired Jewish thinker of the conservative ilk -- wades into the war of words between the left-leaning New Israel Fund and the right-leaning campus organization Im Tirzu. He takes as his jumping off point the inflammatory translation of Isaiah 49:17 (promising the Israelites that "your destroyers and despoilers shall leave you") rendering it as "Those who destroy and despoil you will come from amongst you." It's a mistranslation, Gordis, observes, but he also notes that it rings true.

His argument is best summed up when he states emphatically, "The Jewish People is at war" and that in war, people must sacrifice certain liberties, like free speech, for survival.

He writes:

The issue is what a people at war for its very survival can allow itself. The issue is whether as the world's noose tightens around the very notion of Israel's legitimacy, Jews can allow themselves the liberties we might otherwise permit ourselves were we not fighting for our very existence. As the fate of Isaiah's prophecy reminds us, it takes only a few words to move from a vision of a secure future to one in which those who could destroy us come from our very own midst.

I have some serious objections to his argument.

In my experience around the world, the Jewish people are not at war. There are Bosnian Jews building institutions in cooperation with their Muslim and Christian neighbors; there are Ugandan Jews who are at war with Malaria, HIV, and poverty, but not with some eternal anti-Jewish enemy. There are Iranian Jews struggling alongside Sunni, Shiite, Christian, and Baha'i for the very "liberties" their government denies all Iranians. There are Israeli Jews who are trying to build democratic institutions, multi-ethnic schools, and interfaith understanding, all of whom should take serious umbrage at his characterization of the Jews as a people at war. We have challenges, both internal and external. How do we mainstream the concerns and perspectives of non-European Jews? How do we engage a new generation in Jewish life or get younger Jews to care about what happens in Israel? How do we calm the ferocious anger between the Jewish left and the Jewish right? How do we secure ourselves in the face of violent extremism? How do we promote Israel as a legitimate state?

The language of militarism won't do it. Suggesting that criticism will lead to the end of the Jewish people not only sows paranoia and division, it also shares a totalitarian logic with a wide array of past dictators, including Ayatollah Khamenei's critiques of Iran's Green movement. This is not company I imagine Dr. Gordis would want to keep.

More disturbing than this martial rallying cry, however, is his idea that a society at war must curtail its democratic institutions, that the values we hold dear as essential to a good life and a free society can be so easily annihilated by violence or by criticism. This is the Dick Cheney argument in a nutshell, the one that justifies torture and illegal wiretaps and the assassination of citizens without oversight and indefinite detention. As Retired General Donald Edwards has noted in an op-ed "Cheney's Terrorists", these tactics create more terrorists and make people less safe. If you take the Gordis premise as true, and the Jewish people are a people at war, then these tactics are not a way to win.

Even more disturbing about Gordis's argument, however, from a Jewish point of view, is that seeing important societal values as things that can be sacrificed in the face of threats, undermines the spiritual survival of Judaism for the material survival of a nation-state. As Rich Cohen observed in his loving and irreverent ode to Zion, "Israel is Real," the land has been turned into the Temple by contemporary Zionism. Dr. Gordis's fear, like those of the Hebrews of old, is that that the physical Temple, beset by enemies, will be sacked. This would be a tragedy, but it would be worse if Jewish ideals were also toppled in the process.

Having a homeland is vital to a people. Gordis makes an important point when he compares the fate of Tibetans in the 20th century to the fate of Jews in the 20th century, but one thing the Tibetans have mastered, and that I fear that arguments like Gordis's war without end and war that values cannot endure undermines is the spiritual genius of our culture. Jews have not survived for 2500 years because of nation-states, nor because they were not willing to risk life and limb for higher values. They have not survived merely to survive.

I once heard Dr. Gordis speak about the armed conflict in Israel and his children's service in the IDF. He told the audience that he always advised his children to go out and be moral in doing their duty, but not so moral that they end up dead. It's good, realistic advice for a soldier.

"If they are firing at you from a hospital," he advised. "Fire back!" The San Diego audience erupted in cheers when he said this (which demonstrated to me an audience that did not know they were at war either...in war you don't cheer this kind of thing, as I'm sure any IDF soldier could tell you). But he seems to have the same advice for the Jewish people as a whole that he does for a soldier in combat: no value is more important than your safety.

That is a sure way to win a battle and lose a war.