Who are “we”? Gordis critiques Brous on Universal Humanity

The Times of Israel has an interesting and revealing exchange between Daniel Gordis and David Myers over a statement about Operation Pillar of Defense which grapples with what I call the “us-them” problem. In what follows, I comment on Gordis’ post, which includes the message sent out by Rabbi Sharon Brous. In a subsequent post, I fisk Myers unfortunate response.

When Balance Becomes Betrayal

Daniel Gordis, Times of Israel, November 18, 2012

Universalism, Cynthia Ozick once noted, has become the particularism of the Jews. Increasingly, our most fundamental belief about ourselves is that we dare not care about ourselves any more than we can about others. Noble Jews have moved beyond difference.

This inability to distinguish ourselves from the mass of humanity, this inability to celebrate our own origins, our own People and our own homeland, I argue in my latest book, The Promise of Israel, is dysfunctional.

Do we not care about our own children more than we care about other people’s children? And shouldn’t we? Are our own parents not our responsibility in a way that other people’s parents are not? The same is true of nations and ethnicities. The French care about the French more than they do about others. So do the Italians. So do the Spanish.

It’s only this new, re-imagined Jew who is constantly seeking to transcend origins which actually make us who we are and enable us to leave our distinct fingerprints on the world.

That ­- an utterly universalized Judaism is almost entirely divorced from the richness of Jewish heritage and the worldview of our classic texts is bad enough.

Try Judith Butler, whose idea of Judaism consists of a universalist reading of Martin Buber.

But on weeks like this, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis sleeping in bomb shelters and many millions more unspeakably frightened, it’s become clear that this universalized Judaism has rendered not only platitudinous Jews, but something worse. It bequeaths us a new Jew utterly incapable of feeling loyalty. The need for balance is so pervasive that even an expression of gut-level love for Israelis more than for their enemies is impossible. Balance has now bequeathed betrayal.

This sheds some interesting light on the marriage of pre-modern sadism and post-modern masochism. Enjoined by a (messianic) notion of transcending self and embracing totality to practice it in a reality where the most ferocious us-them hostility demands – in the name of human rights – that we (Jews) embrace a balance (and a vulnerability) that our enemies (yes, we have enemies) reject categorically.

For me, the most devastating representation of this ethical and emotional confusion this week came from the pen of someone for whom I have great admiration, respect and affection. Rabbi Sharon Brous is, to my mind, one of the most intelligent and creative minds in the American Jewish community. A perpetual fixture among the Forward 50, she is almost universally recognized for her path-breaking vision of what a synagogue can be, and her combination of deep intelligence and authentic soulfulness have reached many Jews who would otherwise not be attached to the Jewish world.

Because I hold Rabbi Brous in such high esteem and consider her a friend, I was especially devastated to read her message to her community this week, which I quote in full:

It has been a devastating couple of days in Israel and Gaza.I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives. And I happen to agree with the editors of the New York Times that the best way for Israel to diminish the potency of Hamas – which poses a genuine threat to Israel – is to engage earnestly and immediately in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

This is classic liberal cognitive egocentrism: faced with incontrovertible evidence that Hamas plays by a set of rules that makes it impossible to make peace with them (something many are still in denial about), she retreats to a half measure. The way to undermine Hamas is to work it out with the PA (asserted with an assurance that belies the fact that there’s no concrete evidence of such an “effect”). The possibility, amply demonstrable, that the PA and Hamas have the same agenda of destruction of the humiliating state of free dhimmis, and that concessions to one will radicalize both, cannot get in the way of her rush for a (way to a) peaceful negotiated settlement. This is, indeed, typical NYT thinking, and part of the reason we’re in such bad shape.

But most critically at this hour, I believe that there is a real and profound need for all of us to witness with empathy and grace. Take a breath. We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator – and we are scared. Over one million Israelis will sleep in bomb shelters tonight and rockets have nearly reached Tel Aviv. So it’s tempting to dig in our heels, to diminish the loss on the other side of the border, even to gloat. This is not the Jewish way. However you feel about the wisdom and timing of Israel’s response to the Hamas threat, the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting 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.

With love and empathy for all. This is fine upstanding stuff, even if relentlessly superficial. In search of not claiming the moral high ground – how childish to posture – Brous stakes out a suicidally morally “superior” position. We Jews don’t gloat, we don’t dig in our heals. We rise above and empathize even with our enemies.

Let’s not talk about this ridiculous moral chasm that separates us empathic and loving and self-transcending Jews from these moral monstrosities who have declared us their mortal enemy, who gloat, who celebrate the death of our children, whose public sphere rings with genocidal rage and paranoid hysteria. If we did, it might be embarrassing to them, and we could be accused of being racist and acting like the chosen people. Let us just perform to the highest standards and pray, and I’m sure we can achieve peace.

Okay (not really). But how do you get from performing like that invisible bodhisattva to treating the PLO as if they were part of our empathic, positive-sum political culture rather than the slightly more moderate edge of a relentlessly hostile, zero-sum political culture, seems like folly?

Let us pray that this conflict comes to an end quickly, and that we soon see a return to negotiations and a real, viable and sustainable peace.

It’s hard to fit the failed (messianic) paradigm of Oslo into fewer words: “if only we could stop the violence,” then negotiations will lead to “real, viable and sustainable peace.” But… it’s precisely those negotiations, founded on a radically baseless paradigm that “both sides” shared a commitment to positive-sum negotiations in which “both sides” would win, that got us deeper into the conflict. It’s precisely the gap between the spiritual and moral and political level at which Rabbi Brous is performing, and that of the Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims (where their most pacific, spiritual traditions have no influence on their politics) that lies the rub.

Forbidden by her high standards to make invidious comparisons, Brous embraces a fiction in which everyone else shares her elevated goals. Thus she invokes the “right” of the Palestinians to “live full and dignified lives,” as if that culture shared with her the same notion of what a full and dignified life consisted of. The layers of Wilber-like spiral evolution that separate her from the patriarchal misogynist culture that has produced both Hamas and the PLO mean that she, filled with the most sincere benevolence for the Palestinians, doesn’t understand the fanatic hatred that she arouses among those who dominate that political culture.

She thinks she is helping Palestinian Muslims whereas their alpha males think she is castrating them. She thinks she’s the solution when, from their perspective, she’s precisely the problem. And rather than see a problem with her own approach, she’d rather see the problem as hostilities caused by failures “on both sides.” On the contrary, it’s the humiliating moral gap between Israel and the Arabs that makes acknowledging it impossible, and strengthens the worst tendencies in Palestinian culture (who can exploit our moral inhibitions).

It is, on the surface, a lovely and innocuous message. But what’s deeply troubling about it is that every single expression of sympathy for Israelis immediately coupled to a similar sentiment about the Palestinians. Absolute balance, even on a week like this, has become the supreme commandment. “Thou shall love thy neighbor who attacks thee as yourself.”

What do we have? Israelis have a right and obligation to defend themselves, but in the very next sentence, Palestinians have a right to lives of dignity. Nothing wrong with that. Israelis are scared, but so are Palestinians, and it is not our place to gloat. Fair enough. And even more balance: “the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting 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.”

Unobjectionable, sort of. For the clincher is this: “We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator – and we are scared.”

Yes, we are all deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil. But why does Rabbi Brous not feel that it’s her place as a rabbi to tell her community (I know that I sound like a dinosaur to her community in saying this) which side is good and which side is evil?

Of course Israel is far from perfect, and yes, much of life in Gaza is miserable. Yet why can we not actually say what we know to be true? Why cannot a leader of the American Jewish community say that the only reason that Israel and Hamas are at war is that Hamas wants to destroy Israel? Does anyone really imagine that even a return to the 1967 borders would mollify Hamas?

Alas, yes. She does. Beinart does. J-Street is based on the notion. Folly is a dime a dozen among moral narcissists.

How do I know that it would not? Because they say so. They say that they will never end the “armed resistance” until the “Zionist entity” is utterly eradicated. Why don’t we believe them? Why this paternalistic, virtually racist, “oh they couldn’t possible mean that – it must be a cultural difference in how we express ourselves”?

I agree: it’s condescending and a form of inverse racism. It’s also liberal cognitive egocentrism, a kind of reverse Orientalism in which they are not – they cannot be – different.

The “we’re all entrenched in our narratives of good and evil” worldview leaves no space for calling evil what it is. Why can we not simply say that at this moment, Israel’s enemies are evil? That they’re wrong? Why cannot someone as insightful and soulful as Rabbi Brous just say, without obfuscation, that whatever fault one finds with Israel, it is the Jewish State that for seventy years has sued for peace and the Arabs/Palestinians who have always refused.

Because she reads people like Avi Shlaim, who expend all their considerable intellectual endowment showing the opposite. Because she’s tempted by that great messianic temptation of masochistic omnipotence: it’s all our fault and if only we could be better we could fix anything.

Does anyone bother pointing out to her community that whatever you think of Israel’s presence on the West Bank (or Judea/Samaria), that when Israel left Gaza, the Palestinians elected Hamas, and that when Mubarak fell, the Egyptians elected the Muslim Brotherhood? Why are these obvious facts utterly unmentionable? Because hope must spring eternal? Yes, Jewish hope must spring eternal.

We are nothing if not hope addicts. Just talk to a J-Streeter. Evidence be damned. If Oscar Wilde called second marriages the triumph of hope over experience, what do we call the “let’s negotiate with the Palestinians” camp? The triumph of stupefied hope.

And in order for it to do so, in order for us to find the strength to continue, to send our children to war and to raise another generation in a place that will tragically not know peace in any of our lifetimes, we need to tell Jews what this is. This is a battle of good versus evil, the battle between those struggling to avoid civilian casualties and those who are intentionally trying to kill civilians, the battle between those who have time and again sought peace, and those who said “no” in Khartoum in 1967 and still say “no.”

As I read Rabbi Brous’s missive, I couldn’t stop thinking about my two sons, both in the army, each doing his share to save the Jewish state from this latest onslaught. What I wanted to hear was that Rabbi Brous cares about my boys (for whom she actually babysat when we were all much younger) more than she cares about the children of terrorists. Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?

Too much to ask someone for whom posturing as a superior human being is more important than being one.

But my friend left me heartbroken. If people as wise and as deeply Jewishly knowledgeable as Rabbi Brous (whom I told that this response was forthcoming) cannot come out and say that at least at this moment, we care about Israel more than we care about its enemies because we care about the future of the Jews more than almost anything else in the world, then her Jewish world and mine simply no longer inhabit overlapping universes.

I knew, even before reading Rabbi Brous’s missive, that we Israelis are surrounded by enemies. When I finished reading her, though, I understood that matters are much worse than that. Yes, we’re surrounded, but increasingly, we are also truly alone, utterly abandoned by those who ought to be unabashedly at our side.

And yet, they are too abashed to do so.

2 Responses to Who are “we”? Gordis critiques Brous on Universal Humanity

  1. Rich Rostrom says:

    It is not necessary for Rabbi Brous to care more about Israeli soldiers than the children of terrorists.

    What is necessary is that she recognize the responsibility of the terrorists for the deaths on both sides.

    It is necessary that she recognize the bad behavior of one side and condemn it.

    There is an old Christian adage: “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

    The blindness of Brous and her ilk is that they will not see the sin.

  2. Alex Goodsmith says:

    How does R Brous know that Palestinians are suffering – because they told her they are or she saw it on the news or read about in the NY Times? And she believed what they said.
    But they also say they want to destroy Israel Why wont she believe or at least acknowledge that assertion? And why won’t the NY Times report it?

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