E-mail Spat Shines Light On Volatile Israel Debates After the Fire

By Daniel Treiman

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
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With his anguished e-mail dispatches from strife-torn Israel, American-born Rabbi Daniel Gordis has become something of a mini-celebrity in the Jewish community. But some critics are crying foul over a recent posting in which he took aim at a left-wing rabbinical student.

In a March 16 e-mail, titled “Take Off That Mask,” Gordis slammed Jill Jacobs, who herself had a fleeting moment in the limelight when the campus newsletter at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary refused to publish a Torah commentary she penned that was critical of Israel. Jacobs wrote that she “could not, in good conscience, agree to preach unconditional support of a government that has long oppressed another people.”

The school’s refusal to print her commentary prompted the newsletter’s student editor to resign, and led to articles in the Forward, and then The New York Times.

Gordis’s e-mail called her criticisms of Israel “myopic” and “dangerous” and questioned her love for the Jewish state. Sent initially to his mailing list of some 3,000, the e-mail was widely circulated and quickly found its way onto several Jewish listservs — including one for his fellow Conservative rabbis — as well as the Web page of United Jewish Communities, the roof body for North America’s Jewish community federations.

“Be honest, Jill: You say it, but you don’t mean that you love Israel,” wrote Gordis, whose previous e-mail dispatches served first as the basis for a New York Times Magazine article, and then a new book, “If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State.”

“You might wish you loved Israel, or you might believe that you’re supposed to love Israel, or you might love the myth of Israel on which so many of us were raised,” added Gordis, director of the Jerusalem Fellows program at the Mandell School in Israel. “But you don’t love the real Israel.”

Jacobs fired back, arguing that certain comments in Gordis’s dispatch could be “read as personal attacks, and not as critiques of my political views.” Their exchange ricocheted around the Internet — prompting flurries of e-mails from others, weighing in on various sides of the debate.

The exchange seemed to tap into deep fissures within the Jewish community. Gordis said that whereas he will normally receive between 50 and 75 responses to a dispatch, this time he received some 600. The “vast majority,” Gordis said, were “very positive” and “thanked me for having finally stuck up for a position that they felt has become almost politically incorrect in a way that they find very frustrating.”

Meanwhile, Jacobs said that she also received overwhelmingly positive feedback from approximately 100 people who e-mailed her, many of whom she said thanked her for saying the things they felt uncomfortable saying in their synagogues and workplaces.

The exchange, and subsequent e-mail debates, did indeed, touch on hot-button issues in Jewish life: What constitutes fair criticism of Israel? What balance should American Jews strike between criticism and solidarity? And how can these debates be conducted civilly?

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, suggested that the exchange attracted such interest because in this time of crisis people on each side of the debate were looking for “someone else to affirm their views.”

Kula added that it was important for impassioned debates to revolve around issues. “When you begin to attack people’s motivations, when you begin to attack what’s in their heart, as opposed to their arguments, you lower the level of discourse,” he said.

In a dispatch responding to Jacobs’s e-mail, Gordis did offer an apology of sorts, while maintaining that he did not feel his previous letter was inappropriate. “I never intended to embarrass you personally, and if I did, I regret that and I apologize,” Gordis wrote.

Jacobs told the Forward that she appreciated Gordis’s second letter, and that the two have exchanged several e-mails. As for Gordis, he told the Forward, “I definitely believe that she loves Israel.”






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