An essay published by the web-zine, The Awl, has gotten a lot of attention in our little corner of the blogosphere. It’s called, “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” and the author is Allison Benedikt, film editor at the Village Voice. I should say before I go any further that Allison is a friend and the purpose of this short post is to add perhaps some more context as to why she wrote the piece since she herself has come under attack.
About three-quarters of the essay is a description, written in an almost childlike voice, of Allison’s developing love for Israel, fostered mostly at what she calls Zionist summer camps. It’s a very effecting chronicle and tells a story that many, many American Jews will relate to — of David Broza and teenaged summers spent in an IDF T-shirt and flip-flops on the Tel Aviv beach. But then Allison grows up and eventually starts dating (and marrying) a man with fiercely critical views of Israel, and her love, her Zionism, dies.
There were those readers who immediately identified with this disillusionment and Allison’s articulation of it was described by them as another Peter Beinart moment. But some thought the transformation too dramatic and extreme, from unquestioning love to unquestioning hate. Jeffrey Goldberg, for one, found it jarring, and unloaded on Allison in a post yesterday, describing her as incurious for not asking more questions during this switching of allegiances and essentially exchanging “one simplistic narrative for another.”
I tend to share Goldberg’s assessment if not his vehemence. The tone that worked so well for Allison in describing how she fell in love with Zionism does not allow her to do justice to all the thorny and complex issues involved with deciding to turn away from Israel.
I asked her about this and she answered me in an email that she’s given me permission to quote: “I wrote the piece to record what I experienced, not to analyze it, and definitely not to talk policy or really even politics. It’s a personal essay about growing up in a bubble, not questioning because you don’t even realize there is anything to question, and then slowly coming into contact with a wider world, and range of opinions, until you must face that you’ve been fed — and accepted — an incomplete or even false narrative about an issue that is more than just an issue but also a huge part of your identity.”
For me, this went a long way towards explaining the disconnect I felt at the end of the piece. Allison set out to write about how Zionist summer camp in particular obscured her picture of Israel, presenting it uncritically and without nuance, kept her in the bubble. One can debate what to do once this bubble bursts as it did for her. That seemed to be the question Goldberg had hoped Allison would engage with. But the point of her essay seems to have been more to describe the bubble and the dishonesty and stupidity of American Jews in setting up the situation she — and many others, to read the many positive responses to her piece — found herself in. Her takeaway in the end is not that she has completely ceased to care about what happens to Israel, but that she will never send her own children to the same camps that she went to, that she refuses to have them also live in that bubble.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman