A Dose of Nuance: Prophets and guardians

Genuinely loving this country means that there will be moments when we defend it and others in which we bemoan its shortcomings.

By
January 6, 2012 21:57
An Israeli family having dinner.

generic family dinner 311. (photo credit: Jonathan Bloom)

 
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There is, it seems, a bit of an occupational hazard to this column-writing business. It probably holds for all sorts of topics, but it’s undoubtedly true when thinking aloud about Israel. Here’s the choice: You can either plant yourself firmly on one side of the political divide, being predictably “right wing” or “left wing,” or you can, depending on the issue, say what you think but appear a bit less consistent.

The advantages of the first option are clear.

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Once you are tagged as a “right winger” or “left winger,” people assume that they know what you’re going to say. If you’re “on their side,” they read and nod approvingly, feeling ever so validated by yet another column that says precisely what they already thought. And if they assume they’ll disagree, or worse, that the column will annoy them, they can just skip it altogether or sharpen their proverbial pencils and bang out the inevitably dismissive talkback. Either way, though, we know what we’ll think of an argument – and of a writer – before we’ve even read a word. Ah, the eternal quest for a predictable and comfortable life.

But I’ve never thought that thinking, or citizenship – or love – work that way. If we love our children, do we validate them or criticize them? This is the wrong question, obviously, for the answer should depend on the context.

Parents who never have a kind or defending word to say about their child probably don’t love them enough. But parents who never critique their children are incompetent.

It’s true of marriage, too. None of us would want to be married to someone who never had a kind word to say about us or to us, or who never made clear that they were proud of us.

But if all we want is that validation, we’re probably better off buying an iPhone 4S and talking to Siri than being in a real relationship.



A functioning relationship is one in which our partner wants us to be better than the person we now are and can lovingly suggest, pretty regularly, how we might get there.

It’s an anemic conception of love that would describe our role as parents, spouses, lovers, friends – or citizens, no less – as assuming a position of constant validation or of relentless criticism.

That’s why some of us who write about Israel take a different approach. We don’t care about being neatly classifiable as “left” or “right”; because to love a country is not that different from loving a person. It means defending but also critiquing. It means loving unconditionally but knowing that love does not mean overlooking serious flaws. To love Israel, I believe, is to know that the Jewish state is not just a flag or an army or some holy place. To love Israel is to love the real Israel, with all its many warts and imperfections. And to love Israel is to know that there is a difference between a wart and a serious disease; when an imperfection is so serious as to threaten the entire enterprise, then the most loyal thing that one can do is to insist that Israel be better.

But this approach makes life complicated for readers because they don’t know, up front, precisely what they’re going to get. They will have to read, and then think.

Not everyone responds so well to that sort of challenge. In recent weeks and months when I’ve defended the very legitimacy of the idea of a Jewish state, or pointed to the Palestinians’ obvious disinterest in peace, or stated my abiding belief that none of us (tragically) are going to see this conflict resolved in our own lifetimes, then one entire set of readers trots out the “he’s a peace-talk-pessimist” line. He must be in Bibi’s pocket. He doesn’t care about peace.

But the opposite is also true – critique this government’s entirely unimaginative mishandling of the so-called peace process, or point a spotlight at the medieval religious leadership that has Netanyahu wrapped around its pinky, and the opposite camp goes berserk. One regular reader wrote to say that he used to like my columns, but now I’m “beginning to sound a bit like a Meretznik, or even worse – like Thomas Friedman!” (Except for those three elusive Pulitzers, I guess.) Meretz is mostly gone, of course, but the derisive label seems likely to outlive the party. If you ever sound like them then you obviously don’t care about Israel. You’re hostile to Judaism. Or you’re blind to the dangers of our enemies. And if you ever sound like Likud then you don’t care about peace. And if you occasionally sound like both then you don’t know how to think. Eventually Leonard Fein will write a column in The Forward (June 23, 2011) called “Will the Real Daniel Gordis Please Stand Up?” Because you either seek peace (or care about social justice) or you defend Israel.

But you obviously can’t do both. Right? At a recent conference of the American Jewish Committee in New York one participant noted that she prefers, instead of “left” and “right,” the labels “prophets” and “guardians” – for those labels each cast the “other” in the best possible light. This nomenclature reminds us that “prophets” are more than mere leftwing social critics – they reflect a critical dimension of the Jewish tradition, Judaism’s classic vision of social justice. And “guardians” is better than “hate-mongers” or “peace-pessimists,” or “Bibi-supporters,” apparently, because every people needs “guardians,” as does every state. To be a guardian is not to be a dinosaur, but rather to recognize that the State we’re discussing is sacred, in desperate need of protection.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that “prophets versus guardians” still isn’t good enough. For the distinction nonetheless implies that either you’re a “prophet” or a “guardian.” You choose one. And then you write, vote, agree or disagree.

But life doesn’t work that way. We dare not force people to pick a camp, no matter how elegant the terminology. The Hebrew prophets railed against the injustices of ancient Israelite society but they were desperately concerned about the survival of Jewish sovereignty. And guardians need to protect against not only the obvious threats from the outside but also against the cancers that threaten to devour us from within. Will the Jewish people be any better off if Israel falls because of Jews than if it is undermined by the Palestinians? Either way, we’d be done for.

Genuinely loving this country means that there will be moments when we defend it and other occasions on which we bemoan its grievous shortcomings. Is that muddled thinking? Does that merit the cynical demand that our “real” self “please stand up”? I think not. It reflects, I think, the real messiness of life, of love and of hope. Imagine our world, and our discourse, if every one of us found the renewed courage to read, to think and to recognize that those with whom we instinctively tend to disagree might still have something to teach us.

Daniel Gordis is president of the Shalem Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. His next book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, will be published this August.

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