"When US Jewish commentators such as Daniel Gordis focus solely on how the world, Palestinians and the UN hate us, offering no vision for peace in Israel’s future, no wonder young Jews turn off,” so my Twitter feed greeted me one bright Jerusalem morning a week or two ago.
That’s quite a cross to bear, knowing that the reason young American Jews are turning away from Israel is, well, me.
Needless to say, I coped. Not only because nothing Haaretz publishes truly surprises me any longer, but also because the writer, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, has demonstrated an uncanny ability in recent months to land on the wrong side of virtually every issue he tackles. Whether the matter is Israel (more on which below), intermarriage (“in North America today, being ‘against’ intermarriage is like being ‘against’ gravity”) or coddling anti-intellectualism even among American Muslim college students (endorsing Brandeis University’s decision to revoke the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali without at least admitting that granting degrees to Desmond Tutu or Tony Kushner – degrees that were not revoked – was equally problematic), Yoffie invariably gets it wrong. The real question is why he is so consistent.
But let us first begin with the facts, a subject that does not seem to interest Rabbi Yoffie very much. I doubt that anyone who watched my debate with Jeremy Ben-Ami could come away with the impression that I “focus solely on how the world, Palestinians and the UN hate us.” But Yoffie, I suspect, never bothered to view the YouTube video (which both Ben-Ami and I posted for his ecumenical convenience), relying, instead, on one sentence in a piece I wrote in this very column. To say that I focus “solely on how the world, Palestinians and the UN hate us” is such a bastardization of my written record it’s astonishing that Rabbi Yoffie wasn’t embarrassed to write it.
But he wasn’t, because fairness isn’t high on Yoffie’s agenda. Instead, our self-appointed Socrates (formerly president of the Union for Reform Judaism) now spends his time with the conscience-afflicted masses, convincing an American generation of Jews, wholly uncomfortable with Jewish particularism of any sort, that their Jewishness can be comfortably rooted in a universalism that refuses to critique anyone, in a universalism that demands inspirational leadership from Israel, but from no one else.
Rabbi Yoffie tells us that the students he meets “desperately want an Israel that appeals to their values and their highest ideals.” So when he speaks to these aching students, does he ask them how many Arab countries would set up field hospitals on Israel’s border to treat wounded Israelis were the situation reversed? “They want an Israel that will stand up to its own extremists,” he says. Israel should absolutely do more to rein in extremists, both in certain radicalized settlements as well as in the rabbinate (and I’ve written about that extensively in this column, however inconveniently for Rabbi Yoffie’s “focus solely” claim).
Let us then, for just a brief uncomfortable moment, be honest. Where is religious extremism a more serious problem? Among Jews on the West Bank (a small number of whom are unquestionably revolting), or in Gaza, Egypt and Syria? Is the approximately $50 billion a year that the United States is spending on Homeland Security necessary because of radicalized Jewish settlers, or because of Muslim fanatics who daily threaten every single one of us, regardless of our politics or where we live? Did Rabbi Yoffie ask his student interlocutors anything like that?
Of course he didn’t – because he lives in a world in which any criticism of the enemies of the West is automatically “dismissive, categorical, uncritical thinking.” A few days after Passover, the holiday on which the Seder insists that the key to cultivating freedom is to think, this moral and intellectual capitulation is beyond depressing. It’s an abdication of leadership by precisely the kind of person we need to defend the Jewish people.
“Especially now with the Kerry initiative on life-support, they desperately want an Israel that appeals to their values and their highest ideals,” writes the good rabbi. But why is the Kerry plan dead? Obviously, Israel drew lines, and some will insist that it should have been more flexible. But Ma’ariv reported this week that recently revealed documents prove that the Palestinians had been planning to seek admission to 15 UN agencies even before the talks collapsed. D
oes Yoffie not care that these talks were a hoax from the very getgo? He knows that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Arab League and virtually every other Arab leader have refused to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Did he tell his students? Did he let them know that Abbas also said that he would not declare an end to the conflict? “Moderation does exist, even in parts of the Arab world,” Rabbi Yoffie assures us. It probably does. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that Rabbi Yoffie enumerates a slew of Israel’s faults (extremism, lack of creativity in negotiations, settlement growth) but never gives us a single example of Arab moderation.
When chatting with his students, does he mention that Sari Nusseibeh (ostensibly the moderate Palestinian par excellence) was recently forced to “retire” after students at east Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University, of which he was president, twice had pro-Hamas rallies? Did Yoffie tell his curious American Jewish students that this great Palestinian moderate refused to criticize a rally at which participants used Nazi salutes? Or that the event was so utterly revolting that Brandeis University then suspended its partnership with Al-Quds? If Sari Nusseibeh is not our Muslim moderate, who is?
Does Rabbi Yoffie point out to his curious charges that when Baruch Goldstein committed his atrocity in Hebron in February 1994, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis all took to their pulpits to express their shame and their outrage, but that during the four endless years of Palestinian terror from 2000 to 2004, American imams were silent, refusing to say to their American communities (and to anyone anywhere with an Internet connection) that blowing up buses filled with innocent civilians is immoral and against everything that Islam stands for? Where are the Muslim versions of Rabbi Yoffie, champing at the bit to critique their own people and their own tradition when necessary? Does he point out to his students that they basically don’t exist?
“And even if I am right that Palestinian refusal to accept Israel is the heart of the problem, what, they ask, does Israel propose to do about it?” Yoffie then asks.
What Rabbi Yoffie doesn’t tell us, of course, is what he would have Israel do.
That’s because it’s easier to say “Israel should do something” than to tell us what. Unilateral withdrawal? That didn’t work too well in Gaza, did it? Move the border closer to our heartland, so Kassam rockets can be launched from there, too? Does Yoffie have another alternative, other than lambasting the Jewish state for essentially having been created in a rotten neighborhood? If he does, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to hear it.
It’s easier, and definitely more fun, to garner favor with young people by joining their hand-wringing than by telling them, nicely, that they ought to read some books cover to cover before they start opining, and that they ought to grow up and recognize that not every problem, no matter how disheartening, has a solution. But leadership isn’t about winning a popularity contest with Jews who can commit to Israel only if it’s wholly unobjectionable. It’s about challenging them, inspiring them. Leadership is about encouraging them to take pride in their people, its moral code and its accomplishments, and then urging them to commit to ensuring that it has a future even greater than its extraordinary past.
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His latest book, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, was just released by NextBook.