The Deeply Superficial Counter-attack: Myers vs. Gordis

David N. Myers is history department chairman at UCLA where he teaches Jewish History. His response to Daniel Gordis’ critique of Rabbi Sharon Brous is an eloquent testimony to the dearth of critical thinking that has occurred in the university community over the past decades. He is the chairman of a major History department, and he cannot even fairly summarize another writer’s argument, something historians normally require of first year undergraduates.

In what follows, I defend the position that Daniel Gordis laid out, but the way I do it should not be attributed to Gordis, who, I’m sure, has his own ways of defending himself.

Response to Gordis: a simplistic misreading of history

David Myers, The Times of Israel, November 19, 2012

Rabbi Daniel Gordis’s critique of Rabbi Sharon Brous induces in the reader a certain fatigued response. On more than a few occasions, he has seen fit to anoint himself as the guardian of a fixed moral boundary line, insisting that one either stands with him – or against the Jews. In his latest pronouncement, he issues his own “J’accuse” against one of the most promising leaders to be found in American Judaism (who, in the name of full disclosure, happens to be a friend), Rabbi Sharon Brous. The crime? Nothing less than betrayal of the Jewish people. That the accused has inculcated a love of Judaism, Jews, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel in thousands of young people is of little moment to Rabbi Gordis.

What’s the heart of his brief? Plain and simple: universalism. How could a Jew, no less a Jewish leader, have the temerity and heartlessness to assert that Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security?

This does not even remotely allude to the argument Gordis actually makes, one which touches on a particularly important paradox. The problem is not “universalism” per se, it’s that kind of universalism that doesn’t allow one to “take one’s own side,” even in a crisis. It’s the kind of universalism that cannot take one’s own side even when one is right, lest it be “bad form.” This is a serious problem, part of a larger sickness of our (western) age (it sure as hell isn’t a sickness of the Arab world), in which we feel morally obliged to give our enemies the benefit of far too many doubts. It’s a form of auto-immune deficiency in which we cannot allow ourselves to even realize we have enemies. For Myers to reduce it to a silly caricature says much about his estimation of discernment among his readership.

Even more outrageous is Rabbi Brous’s assertion that “Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.” Such expressions reveal to Rabbi Gordis an utterly universalized Judaism” that is treasonous and full of self-loathing.

I’m sorry. I didn’t notice any reference to self-loathing, self-hate, or self-debasement in Gordis’ essay. It would be out of place. We reserve that for the grotesque cases where it’s appropriate – Ilan Pappe, Norman Finkelstein, Gilad Atzmon. To drag it in here suggests that Myers has no concern for the issues, merely a campaign to ridicule a caricature.

As for treason, Gordis spoke only once, of betrayal. There’s no formal and central accusation of deliberate treason. On the contrary, Gordis feel bereft because someone as fine as Brous can’t bring herself to side with her own – us – at such a critical juncture. He is not accusing her of stabbing her own people in the back, but of leaving them on the lurch. She has internalized a Christian principle that most Christians cite with great pride even as they fail to live up to it – “love thine enemy.” As a Jew this “ideal” strikes me as an unnatural form of turning oneself inside out, as a historian, it strikes me as the kind of extreme and unsustainable moral demand that only makes sense in the context of imminent apocalypse. Between Jesus’ “love thine enemy,” and Hillel’s “If I am not for me who is?, but if I am only for me, who am I,” I’ll go with Hillel.

In matters as significant as those that Gordis raises, for Myers to depict this kind of “straw man” suggests either a lack of intellectual integrity (I don’t want you to hear what he’s really saying), or an impressive inability to hear what Gordis is saying (I can’t hear what he’s saying).

I’ve often asked myself when reading his postings – and all the more so today: In what world does Daniel Gordis live? All I can summon up is a certain milieu of American Zionists huddled around a campfire circa 1958, just after the appearance of the Urtext of Zionist moral virtue, Leon Uris’ Exodus. To Rabbi Gordis’s credit, he is very effective at channeling this hyper-sentimentalized, heroic model of Zionism into a form avidly consumed by hundreds, perhaps thousands of American Jews (though with barely a trace of resonance, it would seem, in Israel).

What an astonishingly fatuous thing to say. How morally condescending, how self-satisfied this post-Zionism, itself built on a foundation of contempt for what went before. I, David Myers, have long since left the Neanderthal stage of Zionism. Sniff. Poor Gordis, the eloquent but ignored troglodyte.

What is wrong with this view? Well, in historical terms, just about everything. Time permits only two short examples to demonstrate the problems:

The unbridgeable chasm between Judaism and universalism that Rabbi Gordis proposes is wrong-headed and simple-minded. It’s too large a subject to take on here. Let us retreat to slightly more contested terrain: the opposition between Zionism, of which Rabbi Gordis regards himself as a proud representative, and universalism.

It is not only that the great liberal German Jews who came to Palestine such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Ernst Simon – those whom Rabbi Gordis’s Shalem Center colleague Yoram Hazony unfairly excoriated in The Jewish State – saw Zionist and universal ideals as harmonious. Nor is it that good Labor Zionists such as David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katzelson often spoke of the confluence of Zionist and universal values. Rabbi Gordis would do well to brush up on the writings of Revisionist Zionist icons, Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, both of whom drew amply on non-Jewish thinkers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Tomas Masaryk to make the point that Zionism can and must be nourished on universal values. Or perhaps he can recall the archway in a home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot that belonged to Revisionist-oriented Zionist and Hebrew University professor Joseph Klausner. It was etched with the phrase “Judaism and Humanity.” Would this render Klausner guilty of betrayal in Rabbi Gordis’s book? Incidentally, should Rabbi Gordis have any questions about the importance of concern for civilians caught in conflict on the other side of Israel’s borders – exactly that sin for which he castigates Rabbi Brous – he may want to consult the Israel Defense Forces’ vaunted code of “tohar ha-neshek” (purity of arms), one of whose four principal sources is “universal moral values based on the value and dignity of human life.”

This represents a fairly amazing failure to understand Gordis’ argument, and as a result, a persistant tilting at straw windmills. Gordis is not arguing the moral chasm between Judaism and universalism (the former is a particular contribution to the latter), but a moral chasm between Israel and her neighbors.

Indeed, if anyone is living in some unreconstructed past (say certain strains of Woodstock frozen in amber), it’s Myers. Not one of the items he brings to “refute” Gordis begins to understand the depth and texture of his argument. Gordis is not against universal values and a commitment to humanity (apparently Myers believes his own straw man), he just understands what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called the “dignity of difference,” that the Jews contribution to humanity and universal values is the creation of an “us” that can live peacefully, honorably, and prosperously with “them.”

To imagine (as he apparently does) that citing the commitment to humanity and universal values among Zionists somehow disproves Gordis, suggests that Myers has engaged in a dialogue of the deaf. It reminds me of the rather amazing error Beinart made in misreading a story about Jabotinsky as a racist when it was the opposite. Caricatures everywhere.

A further point here, since this issue also arises with Judith Butler: citing liberal Jews like Buber raises the important question: are we bound to pursue idealistic approaches that have been proven radically inadequate by events. Buber and his friends were convinced that their good will could transform the local population of Muslims (and Christians) into friends. Given their failures among their friendly Christian colleagues in Germany (whose response to the Nazis was to aks their Jewish “dialogue partners” what they expected? They had had the chance to convert), it’s not clear what imaginary universe they lived in.

The point that Gordis is trying to make is that Jews and Israel are committed precisely to the kinds of moral values that make living fairly and sympathetically with one’s neighbors possible – the most precious contribution a nation can make to universalism.  And have been met with behavior that exemplifies everything regressive and inhumane that drives nations to constant war – hatred, libido dominandi, misogyny, scapegoating and brainwashing children for war. In the current conflict, nothing more eloquently describes the difference than the way Israel tries exceptionally hard to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties while Palestinians not only target Israeli civilians, but deliberately endanger and even kill their own civilians with friendly fire.

In the grand cosmic divide between good and evil that Rabbi Gordis proposes – and indeed, this kind of absolutism seems at least as dangerous as the moral equivalence of which he accuses Rabbi Brous –

Important aside here. Myers has identified the antichrist of his grand narrative: the kind of Manichean dualism in which “we” are good and “they” are evil. And I’d agree that it’s a worthy enemy to fight for the sake forming civil polities and contributing to a peaceful and prosperous and responsible global community at the dawn of the third millennium. Just not his way… (see below).

he maintains that “it is the Jewish State that for seventy years has sued for peace and the Arabs-Palestinians who have always refused.” One can’t and shouldn’t dispute that the Arab side has, sadly and all too frequently, evinced little interest in a peace agreement with Israel. But it is simply not true that Zionists and Israel have only been peace-seekers for 70 years. In the midst of a war they did not start, Zionist and later Israeli leaders saw an opportunity in 1948 to rid the land of non-Jewish undesirables – native Palestinian Arabs – the overwhelming majority of whom would in fact be displaced. The notion that they then aggressively sought peace with the displaced Palestinians or their Arab neighbors has been seriously challenged by archivally based scholars such as Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim. Moreover, the recent book by Avi Raz, another archivally based researcher, The Bride and the Dowry, calls into question the claim that Israel was intent on suing for peace after the Six-Day War. (I might recommend that Rabbi Gordis catch up on recent scholarship on the infamous Khartoum Summit that he mentions; scholars such Avi Raz and Yoram Meital suggest that the summit was less a story of Arab rejectionism and more of a new Arab realism.)  

That last paragraph was something of an own-goal for Myers. He basically affirmed Gordis’ point.

For Gordis, it is precisely in the name of universal values that Israel is morally superior to the Palestinians and their Arab and Muslim allies who try to destroy her. In every sense, Israelis at both an individual and national level, try to contribute to decent relations: reluctant to go to war, never using its full force, eager to interact in positive-sum ways with their neighbors when given a chance (in ’94, when “dialogue groups” sprung up it was sad if not at times pathetic to see the gap between Israeli eagerness and Palestinian reluctance). Israel’s history is full of well-meaning people and politicians who tried every possible move (short of suicidal ones, et encore!) to get along with their neighbors and their minorities. Indeed, the very historiography which Myers cites is testimony to Israel’s eagerness to be self-critical, willing to take their fair share of the blame for the conflict. Gordis’ critique is that a peculiar strain of Jewish commitment to humanism has made it impossible for those so engaged, to pass even the most basic moral judgments on the behavior of the Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims, even as they make the most exceptional demands of the Jews. (It’s the “of course I condemn x, y, and z, but….” meme.) Nothing I know of compares for ferocity with the Muslim “us-thme” formulation of Wala wa Bara.

From the point of view of progressive moral values, the Jews are overwhelmingly in the right compared to the Arab supersessionist, prime divider, patriarchal, zero-sum, economically impoverishing,  political culture that this crossroads of imperial conquests has known. Indeed, in post-modern terms, few imperialist culture have exercised more pervasive hegemony than that of Arab Muslims. This is something of a no-brainer, and in order to deny it, you literally have to deny empirical reality.

Myers response is to cite historians who represent precisely the kind of moral and intellectual failures inherent in this approach that Gordis is trying to problematize. The “new” “post-zionist” historians that Myers invokes here with the repeated allusion to their “archivally-based” approach, especially Avi Shlaim, represent not a dispassionate approach to the archival evidence, but a “therapeutic” one that shapes their reading according to advocacy-driven agenda (even to the point of deliberate misrepresentation): “if only we apologize enough,” they tell themselves, “if we only acknowledge our faults, then we can contribute to the grand project of reconciliation with our neighbors.” It’s an approach takes liberal cognitive egocentrism, via the prophetic rhetoric of rebuke, into the territory of masochistic omnipotence: it’s all our fault, therefore by fixing ourselves we can fix everything.

Shlaim’s Iron Wall was a masterpiece of agenda driven analysis. Every time that Israel offered peace, they didn’t really mean it; every time the Arabs offered peace, they did mean it, but the Israelis managed to sabotage the peace process. A monument to post-modern, tendentious, masochistic, historiography. Not my side right or wrong, but their side, right or wrong.

While in the context of Oslo, such a therapeutic approach to truth and historical accuracy, however dangerous for useful knowledge, is understandable. But its persistence after the intifada came out of the Oslo Trojan Horse, reflects a dogmatic commitment to a failed – a backfired – therapeutic approach. Benny Morris’ transformation, rather than triggering a broader range of intelligent observation and reflection, merely led to his exclusion from the “good people’s” discussions, producing the kind of lack of real communication of which Prof. Meyrs so wearies even as he contributes to them.

 suggest that the summit was less a story of Arab rejectionism and more of a new Arab realism.)

I smell a “false dichotomy” fallacy, as if these two were mutually exclusive. Can’t wait to find out what “Arab realism” means, and how it addresses the issue of “Arab dream palaces.”

I haven’t read these historians, although I will read Avi Raz and Yoram Meital on the Khartoum Summit. While I expect to find interesting material, I suspect that the argument will resonate with the same combination of post-colonial underdogma and political “science” reasoning that has rendered so much current academic work on the Middle East so tragically useless in understanding phenomena like the “Arab Spring” and the Israeli-Islamist conflict. The trope, “not x, but y” when x and y are aspects of the same phenomenon, is a common feature of much advocacy post-Orientalism (and shared by historians in many other fields like those working on the fall of Rome).

And part of the contribution of that sterile and counter-indicated approach is to make us incapable of seeing (or, if we see, acknowledging) that the current expressions of Islamic “awakening” globally present themselves as open and determined enemies of universal values. As a result of this almost principled denial, we can’t recognize who is really a friend and who an enemy, can’t distinguish between hostile “otherness” and friendly “otherness”, and, tragically, we end up embracing the former and heaping criticism on the latter.

Gordis, if I may paraphrase him, or his argument, is saying: “y’all. There’s a nasty war going on between the most benighted tendencies in human societies and the most progressive. You progressives, who believe in non-coerced, fair, and mutually beneficial relations, who seek to make friends rather than conquer enemies, who avoid Schadenfreude (well mostly) and seek to empathize with the other, we’re your friends in this, and we’re trying harder than anyone on the planet to deal fairly with the most implacable enemy anyone on the planet can have. So it’s kind of mind-boggling to us that you can jump on us as the bad guy and, in the name of human rights (!!), take the side of a movement that shows sheer contempt for those values.

And when our best and brightest Jews can’t make that case on our behalf to their fellow progressives, but instead feel they fulfill their commitment “humanity” by not taking sides, and preaching to us with deeply superficial pablum about how all of us are “deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator” as if Jewish and Israeli culture were not among the most developed in challenging their “entrenched narratives”, something that can hardly be said about our neighbors, as if our concerns were somehow in the same ballpark with those who openly express a genocidal hatred towards us completely out of proportion to what we’ve done to them (especially in contrast to what they do to each other).

When that happens, it hurts. It feels like we have been abandoned, by our own, at a time of war, indeed, at a time when few invoke notions of “humanity” and “universalism” and “human rights” in rebukes against the most grievous violators, our neighbors, but rather used to heap opprobrium on us, which only leads to greater belligerence on the part of sworn foes of progressive values.

When we Israelis read the foreign press in time of war, it’s like a being in some kind of gladiatorial pit, with the crowd howling for blood, and the media, as picadors, trying to enrage the Arabs into an attack. Other than prove that people don’t care about Arabs unless Israelis have killed them, what’s Jon Donnison doing when he knowingly tweets a picture of a dead Syrian child as that of a Gazan. Each dead baby picture is a gash in the hide of the bull.

What possesses otherwise very smart and caring people to act in so destructive a manner for everything they hold dear?

 Mentioning these examples is not intended to bring joy, but rather a dose of humility in making sweeping claims of our own moral virtue – and a measure of caution before brandishing the claim of betrayal against a fellow Jew. These are extremely tense and scary times.

“Scary.” There’s that word again. Brous used it. It’s the “let’s not get too alarmed and paranoid here.” Fear itself is the enemy (when he’s not “us”). As Spielberg and Dreyfuss told us in Close Encounters, we don’t have to be afraid of those monsters in our closet. We can deconstruct those fear-driven, reptile-brain impulses.

At its worst, this therapeutic voice of calm can lead to the argument (not uncommon in “progressive” Jewish circles, that the Holocaust has made Jews too fixated on potential victimhood, and therefore too reluctant to trust “them.” As if, in less than two generations, it was time to get over the trauma and open up… as if, somehow it was so wonderful for Jews to act more trusting and generous towards the motives of others (some of whom openly admire the Nazis), that it justified “overcoming” both the searing memory of the Holocaust, and ignoring a current reality. Of course, if ignoring all this allows us to posture as caring, universal, enlightened beings who have renounced our primitive “us-them” dichotomies, maybe it’s worth it to bathe daily in denial?

Of course, our thoughts and prayers should be – and for many of us, naturally are – with our own. But one needn’t and shouldn’t attack others simply because their sense of compassion and ethical propriety extends beyond the tribe.

It’s the time, place, and manner that’s being criticized here, not grandma’s apple pie. We have all had, and given the rebuke of God to the angels at the Red Sea as they rejoiced over the drowning of Pharaoh’s. Of all us-them identities, the one chosen for the Jews (by “God”? by themselves?) is exceptionally attuned to the experience of the other, and reluctant to indulge in the kind of Schadenfreude characteristic of the zero-sum, invidious, us-them identity formation. Heck, didn’t Brous describe her “both sides” generalization about “us-them” narratives: “So it’s tempting to dig in our heels, to diminish the loss on the other side of the border, even to gloat.” But what of a situation where “our” folks are preaching to us that “gloating” is not good, even as our enemies turn Schadenfreude into a cultural icon.

On the contrary, we should be applauding just that capacity to manifest empathy beyond one’s own without surrendering a sense of love and belonging to the Jewish people.

Excuse me if this makes me feel a bit queasy (sort of the way Myers feels as he reads his ‘50s version of Zionism in Gordis’ argument).

Really? “Manifest empathy”? (What’s that? Show-off empathy? Applause?) You think you’ve tried to understand these people? You don’t even know why they hate you. Perhaps you confused empathy with sympathy? Is that why you can’t take sides when, by your very own values, you need to? Why is it so hard to say, “this time, my side is in the right?” It’s a no brainer. If you can’t see it, you’re in an emperor’s new clothes parade.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis is a smart, talented, and admirably committed Jew, but for too long he has been hectoring us about adhering to his brand of Zionism which rests on a rigid moral absolutism, a troubling set of false dichotomies, and a highly imperfect reading of the past. Our times demand better. Let us pray for shalom `al Yisrael ve-`al kol yoshve tevel (peace upon Israel and people the world over).

OILI [okay I lost it]. Let’s try that again:

David Myers is a smart, talented, and admirably committed Jew, but for too long he and his colleagues have been hectoring us about adhering to a model of self-sacrifice for the sake of “humanity” (compassion and ethical obligation to the “other”) which rests on a rigid moral equivalence, a troubling tendency to see dichotomies where they are not and assert non-dichotomies where they exist, and, hence, a highly imperfect reading of the past.

Our times demand better.

I wonder if Myers will have the tolerance for dissent to invite Gordis or me to talk at UCLA…

6 Responses to The Deeply Superficial Counter-attack: Myers vs. Gordis

  1. […] post, which includes the message sent out by Rabbi Sharon Brous. In a subsequent post, I fisk Myers unfortunate response. When Balance Becomes […]

  2. mika says:

    Traitors need to be identified as such, called as such, and treated as such. If you don’t identify with “your” people, their national rights and aspirations, than really you are not part of “your” people. It’s that simple. These people are not Jews. They are American, they are Arab, but they are not Jews. They should not be identified as Jews, and they should not be allowed to self-identify as Jews.

  3. w.w.wygart says:

    Richard wrote:

    “His response to Daniel Gordis’ critique of Rabbi Sharon Brous is an eloquent testimony to the massive collapse of critical thinking that has taken place at the university over the past decades. He is the chairman of a major History department, and he cannot even fairly summarize another man’s thought, something historians normally require of first year undergraduates.”

    That may be true, critical thinking if it were a species would be on the WWF’s list of “Endangered” [or at least “Threatened”], but I would add that the problem may be even deeper than that. We seem be faced with a situation where it may not just be that the supposedly well educated ‘cannot’ “fairly summarize another man’s thoughts”, it’s that they WILL NOT ‘fairly’ summarize another man’s thought because they cannot stand to allow the possibility of an opinion other than their own being voiced fairly. The real tragedy of higher education, in my opinion, is that to ‘fairly’ summarize another man’s thoughts in many places no longer seems to be demanded – because they themselves cannot stand to have a dissenting opinion fairly summarized.

    This seems to be a matter of mature adult character as much as critical thinking skills. This must seem particularly incongruous to a culture, Jewish, where civil debate seems to be so central.

    The origin of the problem as I see it is that in the post post-modern west we have a sizable group of people who have more loyalty to their sociopolitical narratives than to their neighbors – the people who will actually be the ones to dig them out of the rubble if a Grad missile happens to land on their house. Hard to have a civil society with attitudes like that running rampant.

    It’s very funny, or ironic, the Scientologists have the concept of the ‘Suppressive Person’, basically anyone who’s bad for Scientology, and who themselves must be suppressed or removed from the group at all costs in order to protect Scientology. How like Scientlologists the post post-modern mind seems to be.

    Perhaps the real danger of this ‘other sort of universalism’ [to paraphrase] isn’t so much that these new sort of ‘universalists’ cannot see who their enemies are, it’s that they have abstracted ‘we’ to such an extent that they can no longer see who their allies are.


  4. Norman I. Gelman says:

    Like Daniel Gordis, Richard Landes makes entirely too much of an expression of sympathy for the people of Gaza. I read Gordis’s critique of Rabbi Sharon Brous’s remarks. Where he saw moral equivalency and therefore the elevation of universalism as a greater value than solidarity with fellow Jews, I saw a recognition — which I believe is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY — that there are “rights” on both sides. Raining missiles on Israel is not any kind of right. Ordinary Palestinians should, however, ejoy the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (in our peculiarly American formulation). Both the people of Israel and the ordinary Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank deserve to live and to seek to prosper under their own flag. Hamas is the enemy, not the people who become collateral damage when Israel retaliates.

    There will never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians until each side tries to understand the narrative of the other. Israel’s independence WAS a Nakba for many Palestinians, and the UNWRA has perpetuated that tragedy with the cynical collaboration of the Arab world for these 60-plus years. What’s so difficult about accepting the truth of Palestinian suffering? The Jews, after more than 2000 years of suffering, needed a home where they could become a nation among nations. After the Holocaust, why should it be impossible for Palestinians to understand the aspirations of the Israeli people?

    I am committed to Israel. Nothing I’ve said implies that I excuse terrorism. But neither does it imply that I endorse settlements on land that I do personally regard as “occupied,” nor will I excuse the retreat from democratic values and the discriminatory policies that will ultimately be required if Israel continues to rule over a fecund Palestinian population and is unwilling to negotiate a two-state solution.

    Yes, it is true that the Palestinians have refused to negotiate. But that ought not blind us to the fact that the present government of Israel is in no hurry to negotiate, preferring the status quo. And the next government of Israel may very well wish to go far beyond the status quo to actively seeking a Greater Israel. Both Gordis and Landes regard themselves as clear-sighted. I regard them as blind to the larger realities that underlie the conflict. Yes, as a supporter of Israel, I approve the carefully targeted attacks that were made on Gaza in response to the indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel. My sympathies and my prayers are with family and friends in Israel. However, I can spare a part of my heart for people on the other side who also suffer as a result of the conflict.

  5. Richard Landes says:

    thank you for this long and considered comment. i will respond in a separate post.

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