Tribal (Response to Daniel Gordis)

(the writing on the wall of rightwing Zionism at a Jaffa mosque)

I have no intention to defend Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, but if you haven’t read Daniel Gordis’ appalling critique  you should probably read it. It’s a very sad index of where things stand. Once again, its Zionism, the most important project of the Jewish people in modern times, and Judaism, the religious heritage of the Jewish people, both transformed into a crude ideological cudgel to beat up  in defense of rightwing Zionism the critical voice of American liberal Jews.

Gordis used to be a liberal, I think, when he lived in LA. Maybe he wasn’t. I don’t know. Now he is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at the über rightwing Shalem Center in Jerusalem, bankrolled almost entirely by the American neoconservative Tikvah Fund. At this post, Gordis has taken it upon himself to attack in high dudgeon “the crisis of American Judaism. You’ve heard it all before. It’s the crisis of assimilation, the attenuated Jewishness and Judaism, the confusion and self-hatred.

What’s new here is to accuse liberal American Jews of inadequate “tribalism.” I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean.

As a rule, American rabbis trained at the liberal seminaries learn how to balance “particularism” and “universalism,” combining genuine Jewish and human commitments. This does not appear to be on the agenda at the Shalem Center.

Very often (almost always?) in conservative and rightwing political thought and cultural politics, a false choice is forced between particularism and universalism, commitments to a collective or individualism. In this case, it’s the choice between Zionism and liberalism. In trashing Enlightenment universalism, Gordis rips up the roots of Zionism, which at its origin was a liberal project. The tribalism reflects more the dystopian worldview of Meir Kahane, not the utopian values of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am.

Is it liberal Judaism that has lost its way of late? Maybe Gordis and the post-Zionists and ant-Zionists are right. Perhaps indeed the tribalism of Gordis constitutes the true and inevitable terminus of the Zionist project from the very start. I’m not inclined to make these kinds of teleological or essentialist assertions about the history and ideology of Zionism. But at this late juncture, one should be permitted one’s doubts about this. Reasonable people should disagree.

No doubt there continues to be a crisis of American liberal Judaism. I don’t think it’s going to get resolved by Gordis at the Shalem Center. Gordis is just making stuff up. “Why,” he asks about Beinart, “this relentless hatred for Israel?” His own essay might be a good place to start to consider the sad state of affairs that today besets discourse about Zionism.

Gordis cites political philosopher Michael Sandel to claim that liberal American Jews feel no attachment to Jewishness and Judaism. I daresay that this is a cliche. The young American Jews whom I meet at Syracuse University don’t seem to carry the sense of stigma which Gordis attributes to them. I don’t think, though, that the Judaism they want is one defined by the rhetorical violence served up by with such gusto by Gordis.

All this tribalism smells too much like Carl Schmitt and fascism, the pathos and bathos, this obsession with enemies and defining borders, the sacrifice of children to the State, the livid anxieties, and the “winning wars that may never end” (whatever that means).

Gordis and the Zionist right want to coral Israel and discourse about Israel into a very bad place. Has he forgotten how unhappy the tribal system ends in the book of Judges? Gordis doesn’t seem to understand that a “people” is not a “tribe.” That’s what makes his response to Beinart technically reactionary.

I really don’t know what Gordis means by “tribalism.” Are we going to see the distinguished American born rabbi joining the “death to Arabs” crowd or the hill-toppers or price-taggers? I don’t know. I know I’m being unfair. But this is one possible endpoint to which this logic of tribalism leads, and Gordis’ readers deserve a bit more clarity as to what distinguishes him from these more odious expressions of Jewish tribalism in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

I’m certainly not sure how the miasma of anger and self-pity reflected in the review by Gordis is going to serve as a gateway to more Jewishness and Judaism and to more support for Israel from the American Jews and other liberals whom the author so clearly reviles.

With this kind of talk, there’s no need for a BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). Israel will simply isolate itself. This to me was the radical core of Beinart’s original article, not the redundant call to boycott settlements, which people like Beinart and me in the U.S. (and in Israel?) already shun. And once we agree to that, that the rightwing in Israel will do the actual and effective work of isolating Israel, then we in the United States can all save ourselves the energy and finally stop arguing about or against Israel.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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7 Responses to Tribal (Response to Daniel Gordis)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    he writes “Does Beinart’s Haggada not contain the line “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations”? And does that phrase mean nothing?” – I think you have it right there.

    i can understand the frustration he is clearly expressing: israel is already isolated and it is constantly being scrutinized and criticized to a degree that few other countries are. it is very difficult to cede any rhetorical ground at all when there is fear that this will immediately be used as a platform for further attack (this is reminiscent of the territorial dispute on the ground as well!).

    however, that it is difficult does not mean that it cannot be done and is not required. if the zionism which israel has and does adopt is one in which the diaspora plays a critical role then we, as jews in the diaspora, are as much citizens in spirit, as those who are baaretz. it is just as necessary for us to engage in the sort of self-critical activity as other citizens of a functioning democracy.

    I often question whether i can consider myself a zionist or not – i dont know that nationalism is the saving grace of judaism… in fact i think it isnt. but i offer myself response i would give many of the haredim in israel: whether i personally identify or not, i am implicated, i am a citizen whether i like it or not, and cannot escape an honest engagement.

    on the one hand, this cannot mean the careless and thoughtless treachery that the neturei karta and their ilk commit…. or, i would add, the one-sided discussion about middle-east politics that happens on many college campuses. on the other hand, to equate reasoned and balanced critique with treachery helps nobody, and certainly not israel

  2. Menachem Feuer says:

    Good comment, Hayyim. I agree with you on many points. And I also can understand the frustration. I share it, too.

    I am looking for a more balanced and nuanced perspective on Israel. But I don’t think it helps to say that Gordis is with the Shalem Center and is associated with the Tikva Foundation. This sounds like an ad hominem argument. I don’t think we need to turn academia into another MSNBC or Fox Network.

    As for your points about the universal and particular, I would like to hear more. But I don’t think that we’re understanding his position. To be sure, I have spoken to several Israelis who have been following Beinart and they are floored by how he can dictate how Israel run their affairs. He doesn’t live in the day-by-day there. He’s projecting a plan that isn’t grounded in daily life. (Even though people like Jean-Luc Nancy want us to get words like “grounding” – understandably so – the point remains. Who lives there? Who decides?)

    But there is more to the problem, which I will write about in the future: what happens when people in philosophy or comparative literature become overnight political theorists?

    I understand what’s mean in Continental Thought by the ‘political turn’ but I’m troubled by it as well. I must say that I am irked when philosophy or comparative literature people like Judith Butler, Zizek, or Badiou all of a sudden become political authorities and tack their name on to BDS. They have no idea as to what they are doing politically. Even Karl Schmitt recognized this early on with the Romantic thinkers, who, it must be noted, are the models for Nancy,Zizek et al. The obsession with “action,” and with forcing an ‘experiment’ is troubling.

    Politics is not a philosophical laboratory. And, in particular, neither is Israel. Real people live there. Lives are at stake. Why should they or we subject them to our philosophical parlour games. As Schmitt noted with the Romantics, their activism was in journals; today, it is on campus, in blogs, on OWS, etc. Sites like Electronic Intifada are co-signed to the Forwards, etc in this battle.

    What is at stake, here? Shouldn’t we, as Jewish philosophers, do more self reflection than name calling?

    I have been noticing this name calling more and more within our community, and it is troubling.

    • zjb says:

      Menachem, I mention Shalem and Tikvah because I think it’s important to underscore that the article by Gordis is as much an American phenomenon and about American Judaism as it is Israeli. What I wanted to underscore were the claims to “tribalism.” I think it says something sad about rightwing Zionism. But ok. I’m actually coming to agree with you and many others that American Jews don’t have the right to say anything about the future of Israel. This means that American Jews the right to “divest” themselves emotionally and politically from Israel, which was the orginal point made by Beinart which most of his critics ignore. I’m going to say this again in a later, but this is the “divestment” of indifference that should make Israeli policy makers and advocates truly nervous.

  3. wildjew says:

    I do not agree with some of Gordis’ references on tribalism from the Talmud but his essential point is right, is it not? We Jews are a tribal people. Aren’t we?

  4. hayyim rothman says:

    menachem – “I am irked when philosophy or comparative literature people like Judith Butler, Zizek, or Badiou all of a sudden become political authorities ”

    zack -“American Jews don’t have the right to say anything about the future of Israel. This means that American Jews the right to “divest” themselves emotionally and politically from Israel”

    Although in certain respects it would be easy for me to disengage, it would save me a great deal of heartache, I think that this is a mistake. Yes, a degree of humility is demanded that the likes of Zizek clearly lack. However, the vast majority of those who engage in political processes are not experts, they (hopefully) think about the issues and make decisions accordingly. We don’t need to be experts to have reasonable opinions and to express them. If for no other reason, this becomes a responsibility so as to mediate the forces of the extreme right and the extreme left.

    Beyond that, i genuinely disagree with you that only Israelis should be entitled to participate in Israeli politics. As I said above, we are all implicated in Israel whether we like it or not. Think about the immediate impact that Israeli politics impacts Jews in Europe, for example. The conflict in the middle east is exported globally. This being the case I can think of no reason why those who are impacted by decisions made there should not be entitled to a voice in what goes on.

    • Menachem Feuer says:

      Hayyim and Zach – I think both of you make commendable points. But I’m on the fence with this. I agree that we are impacted, and it is obvious why we, as Jews, would want to – or feel that he have to – respond. I’m in the same camp as you. But I question the power that people give to the insights Beinart, Butler, et al have about Israel.

      We are responding to how Israel is imported to the USA through the media and through intellectual circuits that we are a part. However, what we get is much more mediated than Israelis. There is the distance from the geographical and political epicenter which allows people like Butler and Zizek – who have ‘visited’ (they note this a lot, by the way) and have ‘friends’ over there – to speak more freely. They are doing traveling theory, so to speak. At this, I find it most interesting to compare Butler to Zizek and Badiou who, though not Jews or Palestinians, feel they have every right to comment because of their sympathy for the ‘plight of the Palestinians’. Given globalization, we can say everyone is impacted and everyone has a say.

      But, in the end of the day, who has the last say? And what are the implications? How would you feel if people in other countries, some American ex-patriots some not, were to be deciding your fate and future, when you are living and breathing in America? They can certainly have their say, but will you discount your own experiences because their theoretical insights are balanced, nuanced, etc?

      Perhaps you will, but many Israelis do not.

      What is happening ‘over here’ – I think – is that we are all trying to figure out who we, American Jews, are in relation to Israel. We identify with Jews in Israel – as Ahad Ha’am once dreamed would be the case – but we don’t see Israel as our center. Many Jews are ashamed of Israel and its actions these days. Most of them are in the academy. Beinart is trying to convince us, however, that this sentiment is shared by the ‘youth’ and the general population; that he is speaking for all of us. Is this true? Is he expressing what ‘we’ all think about ourselves as Jews and our obligation to speak and make Israel and ourselves more acceptable to the world? Is this what Butler is trying to do?

      I’m not so sure that Gordis’s advice that diaspora Jews should learn more about what it means to be ‘tribal’ Jews will help. But I don’t think it would hurt. One cannot deny that many Jews, the Jews Beinart and Butler are trying so hard to win over, do have a Jewish identity conflict that spans two continents. This is really nothing new. It spans the pages of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and can be found all over the pages of Partisan Review in the 60s etc etc. Perhaps it all started in the French National Assembly’s discussion of whether not Jews should be citizens? I’m not sure…

      This conflict kind of reminds me of the Jerusalem/Athens conflict that Strauss loves. But here it is America and Israel; particularity and universality. To be sure, I think this is the conflict that Gordis and Beinart are considering openly (while Butler less openly). The same issues seem to come up as they do with Strauss. Can the two be reconciled? Will one always serve the other, etc?

      I hate to reduce the issue, but our speaking about what happens over there are in some way connected to how we, not Israelis (who have their own identity problems), understand what it means to be Jewish. And this has much to do, now, with our relationship to Israel as a ‘group’ and as ‘individuals’. When it comes to this, I’m having a hard part with the ‘group’ identification as I’m a member of an academic community and a larger community.

      For me, it is the negotiation of this group identification of Jewishness that is most troubling since I can’t just get on the bandwagon with Beinart or Butler – let alone Badiou or Zizek. There are too many problems with their response (which this response isn’t mine – I find no ‘solidarity’ with them, not yet at least).

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