Will the Real Daniel Gordis Please Stand Up?


By Leonard Fein

Published June 23, 2011.
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Rabbi Daniel Gordis, I’m told, is perhaps the single most popular speaker on Israel to American Jewish audiences. He moved to Israel in 1998, after serving as founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and in Jerusalem he serves as senior vice president of the Shalem Center, a think tank. Gordis is thought to be a man of considerable distinction, but I fear we have here a case of a whole that is smaller than the sum of its parts, as a consideration of three of his recent essays will show.

So: Gordis is the author of a lead article in this month’s Commentary magazine, “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” The article, citing some anecdotal evidence — a handful of letters, a number of conversations (“anecdotal evidence” is, of course, an oxymoron) — asserts that pro-Israel students in (non-Orthodox) rabbinical schools in America are “lonely.” In fact, he argues, “the number of vocally anti-Israel students is probably small, but their collective impact is far from marginal. These students are shaping the discourse about Israel in America’s rabbinical schools.”

Gordis then goes on to ask why this is so, why this crop of rabbinical students has such different instincts from his own. He cites four reasons. The first is memory. The Gordis generation remembers Israel imperiled; the current generation is beset with “images of helmeted IDF soldiers with rifles chasing young boys who’d thrown rocks.” Obviously true, since memory is inherently generational. Second? “Despite the ongoing conflict, the fundamental goal of political Zionism…has been so utterly successful that these [current] students cannot imagine that Israel is actually at risk.” False, I think; the sense that Israel is in existential crisis is pervasive, even in rabbinical seminaries. (But my evidence is no better than Gordis’s.) The third reason is that “they will do virtually anything in order to avoid confronting the fact that the Jewish people has intractable enemies. Their universalist worldview does not have a place for enemies.” False again; the current crop is a long way from the kumbaya disposition of yesteryear. And finally, [what] “is lacking in their view and their approach is the sense that no matter how devoted Jews may be to humanity at large, we owe our devotion first and foremost to one particular people — our own people.” That’s the tough one, inherently neither true nor false, worthy of serious discussion and debate.

That’s it. The looming crisis of rabbinical alienation from Israel that Gordis perceives has nothing to do with Israel itself. It is entirely about the students and their values.

Is Gordis right? He is the same Daniel Gordis who wrote in his widely distributed blog last January that “[Israel’s] ossified government, with no opposition to goad it into action, is passively presiding over the demise of much of what we have toiled to build.” And: “Without some serious attempt at making progress…Israel effectively contributes to its own marginalization.” And: “Something ugly and dangerous is bubbling to the surface of society, endangering the very democracy and decency that have rightly been the very source of our pride for decades.” And: “At a moment in which the world (largely hypocritically) seems ever more inclined to decide that the State of Israel is morally corrupt and thus fundamentally illegitimate, elements of our society seem determined to provide them all the evidence that they need.”

Which, then, is the real Gordis? Is it the one who supposes that rabbinical students are not aware of and affected by what is happening in Israel or the one whose own critique of Israel is so devastating? (And, one wonders, which is the version he presents when he speaks on AIPAC’s behalf, which he does frequently?) Or maybe the real Gordis is the one who wrote in an OpEd piece for The New York Times last February that perhaps America’s “best hope for peace in the region is to throw its weight behind Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu…”

No, it cannot be that one, since Gordis also wrote in his January blog that “Our emasculated political leadership — ossified by the unmanageable coalition it created — is endangering the very survival of the values and hope that have long led the Jewish people to live in — or rally around — this country,” and that “an Israel not working publicly to move the peace process forward is one that says to its young people that the Arabs are our enemies, always will be and that, frankly, we don’t care that much…In that suffocating mind-set, instilling commitments to decency, liberalism…and even democracy becomes almost impossible.”

Does Gordis then intend that American Jews, and rabbinical students specifically, are to throw their weight behind the “emasculated” and “ossified” leader of Israel who is “endangering the very survival of the values and hopes that have long led the Jewish people to live in — and rally around — this country [i.e., Israel]?”

Alienation from Israel is a problem, and rabbinical students are not immune. But Gordis’s anecdotes hardly warrant his assertion that it is the alienated students who are shaping the discourse in our rabbinical schools. Maybe the serious discourse is (and should be) about whether Gordis is right in his lament for decency, liberalism and democracy in Israel, and what’s to be done if he is.

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