Major American Jewish Leader Changes His Mind About Israel

An Amazing Turn for a Major Leader of the American Jewish mainstream: David Gordis Rethinking Israel

David Gordis  has served as vice-president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles (now American Jewish University). He also served as Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Committee and was the founding director of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel. He founded and directed the Wilstein Institute for Jewish Policy Studies which became the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies.

David Gordis is President Emeritus of Hebrew College where he served as President and Professor of Rabbinics for fifteen years. He is currently Visiting Senior Scholar at the University at Albany of the State University of New York.  Here is the article he submitted to Tikkun. We publish it with the same sadness that Gordis expresses at the end of this article, because many of us at Tikkun magazine shared the same hopes he expresses below for an Israel that would make Jews proud by becoming an embodiment of what is best in Jewish tradition, history, and ethics, rather than a manifestation of all the psychological and spiritual damage that has been done to our people, which now acts as an oppressor to the Palestinian people. For those of us who continue to love Judaism and the wisdom of our Jewish culture and traditions, pointing out Israel’s current distortions gives us no pleasure, but only makes saddens us deeply.

–Rabbi Michael Lerner


Reflections on Israel 2016

David M. Gordis

While reading Ethan Bronner’s review of a new biography of Abba Eban, I was reminded of a time when in a rare moment I had the better of a verbal encounter with Eban. It happened about thirty years ago  at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which brought together leaders of American Jewish organizations, sometimes to hear from a visiting dignitary, in this case Eban, Israel’s eloquent voice for many years. I was attending as Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Committee. Eban had a sharp wit as well as a sharp tongue. He began his remarks with a mildly cynical remark: “I’m pleased, as always, to meet with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, though I wonder where the presidents of minor American Jewish organizations might be.”  I piped up from the audience: “They are busy meeting with minor Israeli government officials.” A mild amused reaction followed and Eban proceeded with his remarks.

Looking back on Israel oriented meetings from those days, I attended a monthly meeting, alternating between Washington and New York, with my counterparts at the Anti-Defamation League, Nathan Perlmutter and the American Jewish Congress, Henry Siegman, along with Tom Dine of the America Israel Public Affairs Commission (AIPAC). Though the atmosphere was cordial, a clear fault line separated Perlmutter and Dine from Siegman and me. AIPAC and ADL were on the ideological and political right, particularly when it came to Israel, the American Jewish Congress was on the left and the American Jewish Committee straddled a centrist position, with its lay leadership tending center-right and its professional staff clearly center left. A policy adopted by all four public policy organization was honored inconsistently. The policy was: support whatever government was in power in Israel, right or left, and avoid criticism of its policies. This was honored when a right wing government was in power. However, the agreement dissolved when a left wing Labor government was in control because neither ADL nor AIPAC hesitated to criticize Labor government policies. At our meetings Dine and Perlmutter agreed that a Labor government in control in Israel was a problem for them. So it was Perlmutter and Dine on one side of the divide, and Siegman and me on the other.

Things have moved a long way since those days. The American Jewish Congress has disappeared from the stage. The current executive of the American Jewish Committee appears to aspire to fill the role of the retired ADL executive Abe Foxman as a leading spokesman for the ideological and political right. AIPAC’s support of the right wing in Israel and its alliance with the right wing in the United States is more palpable than ever. And of course, there has been no significant opposition to the entrenched Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is nearing a half century in duration. Netanyahu’s “facts on the ground” steps to make a two-state solution impossible are bearing fruit, and there still appears to be no significant opposition to these policies in Israel itself. A number of smaller organizations supporting a two-state solution have emerged, notably J-Street and Americans for Peace Now, but recent steps by the Israeli government to delegitimize these groups are proceeding. The bottom line as I see it: The right has triumphed; the left has been defeated.

The Israel of today is very far from anything I dreamed of and worked for throughout my career. I can clearly remember the day in 1948 when the State of Israel was established. I was in the fourth grade at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn. The entire school was summoned to the schoolyard in celebration of the momentous occasion. It was announced that from that day on the school would adopt the Sephardic (Israeli) Hebrew pronunciation and abandon the older European Ashkenazic.  I well remember driving out with my parents to Idyllwild Airport, now JFK, to see the first airliner with the Israeli flag adorning its tail. This was a transformative moment. Jews had returned to the stage of history after the devastation of the Holocaust. Israel was to be the great laboratory for the rebirth of an ancient tradition in a new land and in a country committed to being a model of democracy and freedom for the world.

What happened? We can debate the reasons but the bottom line for me is that it has gone terribly wrong. On the positive side, Israel’s accomplishments have been remarkable.  Israel has created a thriving economy, and has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of the displaced and the needy. Israel has generated a rich and diverse cultural life and its scientific and educational achievements have been exemplary. In spite of these achievements, however, Israel in my view has gone astray. And it in in the area for which Israel was created, as a Jewish state, embodying and enhancing Jewish values that I see this failure. Throughout history, at its best, Jewish life and thought have successfully navigated between three pairs of values that are in tension with one another. First, the Jewish experience has balanced the rational with the affective, the assertion with the question, where often the question emerges as the more important. Second, it has embraced both particularism with universalism, probing Jewish interiorities but looking out to the larger world, recognizing the common humanity of all people. Third, it has shaped positions which looked to the past for sources and inspiration but at the same time projected a vision for a world transformed in the future into something better than its current reality.

Present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary. These values have been subordinated to a cruel and oppressive occupation, an emphatic materialism, severe inequalities rivaling the worst in the western world and distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behaviors rather than the best.

And most depressing of all for me, is that I see no way out, no way forward which will reverse the current reality. Right wing control in Israel is stronger and more entrenched than ever. The establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel out of this quagmire. So, sadly, after a life and career devoted to Jewish community and Israel, I conclude that in every important way Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure.


37 thoughts on “Major American Jewish Leader Changes His Mind About Israel

  1. I would rather be a live failure than a dead success. Jews have tried it the other way for thousands of years. That has not worked out to well.

  2. And therefore, as moral human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike, we should…? We need an action recommendation to make this article truly brave and honest.

  3. David Gordis expresses the heartache, if not outright despair, about the state of the state of Israel today. But the analysis and conclusion are too facile. The dream was much more complicated (see, e.g., Ari Shavit) from the start, and while Netanyahu has led the country into a tragic economic, political and social quagmire, there still are voices crying out in the wilderness against him and the racist government he leads. Where there’s life, there’s…..

  4. Surely, it is time to accept reality:

    Zionism is racism. Zionism is theft.

    Israel: 67 years of trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.

    People around the world, including more and more Americans and righteous Jews everywhere, are increasingly disgusted with and enraged at Israel. The handwriting is on the wall.

  5. All that Israel has failed to do is to subordinate itself to the supercilious visions of arm chair Zionists such as the author. We pursue a different vision. If national identity, historical pride and an unwillingness to fall on the sword of Post-Modern Liberalism makes people like its author uncomfortable, Ita sit,

  6. Agreed that Zionism is racism pure and simple.

    Look at what being “chosen” does to Jewish minds.

    Look at what being “the greatest nation on earth” does to American minds.

    Give up these racist notions that are a prerequisite to the enormous crimes American and Israeli governments commit.

    Give up these racist notions that allow you to be played for a fool – your hard earned tax dollars going to murder and murderers rather than to society, education, health and peace.

    Everyday, every Jew and every American should repeat to themselves “I am no more special or exceptional than any human being on earth.”

    You will find a great weight lifted from you and you will find your humanity.

    • Replace the word Zionism with Arab Nationalism: “wattaniyeh”, and “Jew” with “Palestinian”, and your description of reality becomes much more accurate and demonstrable. Sale of land in “Palestine” to a Jew is punshable by death, under the law of the authority not only the gang rule. In Israel there’s no such limitation.
      How should the Jewish nation deal with sharing its land with a population that preaches, and actively attempts to effect, the Jewish nation’s destruction?

  7. I found the analysis of Israel’s spiritual emptiness illuminating. “Present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary.”
    Hopefully Israel will restore itself and build a just co-existence with the Palestinians…but this is unlikely to happen if US Jews and allies remain ambivalent or passive.

  8. Surely there must be a way out – in order to save the children who are being murdered, maimed, orphaned and displaced by the score and many nations are guilty of this horrendous crime. This is not about anymore strictly about nationhood or religion – this is about saving one child at a time.
    We do not live in the middle ages. We can find a way out in order to save the children.

  9. What an unhelpful piece.

    To be sure: Israel’s right wing government has some serious, even unforgivable problems. And the lack of Palestinian sovereignty and control over their own lives remains unjust. And the use of the political machine against the left is doing a disservice to everyone who has a stake in Israel.

    But with all due respect, Gordis’s conclusions are childish. Israel is “a failed experiment”? The right wing is more entrenched than ever? There’s “no way forward”?

    Let’s be clear: Israel isn’t some vanity project for the organized American Jewish community: it’s a real country, inhabited by real people, with real concerns.

    Gordis laments the discarding of the rational – but doesn’t say by whom. Israel’s government? The electorate? The American Jewish establishment? His arguments are sweeping, unhelpful generalizations.

    His cry that there is “no way forward” makes it hard to take his argument seriously. If Gordis sees no way forward, it seems hollow to criticize others’ lack of vision.

    I challenge David Gordis to try this again: State the problems, describe a vision for something better, and make some suggestions about how we might get there.

    • I have to agree that Israel is a real nation with poor judgment, extraordinary and dangerous problems unlike anything we in the US have to deal with. It’s gracious to be altruistic to our suffering neighbors and citizens but self sacrifice to an implacable embittered foe bent on murder makes no sense. We are not chosen to do that anymore.

    • He has stated the problems and the vision, but the point of the article is that he sees no way to improve matters in the current political climate. Speaking as an Israeli, neither do I. Do you?

  10. It seems as though Dr. Gordis has a long distinguished career in which every institution he was affiliated with quickly changes names following his departure. It is no doubt that after getting to know him, institutions do everything to disavow having been associated with him. This article clearly shows how there is no fashionable movement to which he won’t flock. I look forward to his embrace of Israel when this becomes cool again.

    • Ah yes let’s pine for the days of Abba Eban and the real Zionists their disdain for observant Israelis and Israelis of color, their shoveling of jobs and money to their cronies and the money pits of the histadrut and kibbutzim while the great American Jewish leaders created the largest most Jewishly illiterate diaspora Jewish community..but kol hakavod he and Michael Lerner and other “Jewish leaders” have the courage to “speak out” about how Israel has “failed them”.

  11. I am a proud Zionist and chose to live in Israel over 40 years ago. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and has played a critical role in saving Jews from many distressed countries around the world. Like any similar political movements it is not perfect and its major achievement of creating the State of Israel has had its challenges. In less than 70 years t has grown from a third-world backwater to a leading center of academic, cultural, medical, commercial and scientific excellence. I am terribly frustrated with the current government’s lack of initiative/vision and for not giving our country a sense of hope that the underlying conflict with the Palestinians can and must be resolved. I am also sharply aware that the Palestinians have much responsibility to focus on building their own nationhood instead of focusing on the ridding of Israel. The comments above about Israel being racist and stealing from others is simplistic and not helpful to moving things forward. There are now over 7 million people within the internationally recognised borders of Israel including 1.4 million Muslims and Christians. No other country in the Mideast treats its minorities as well as Israel. Some 600,000 Jews were thrown out of Arab countries in the 40s and 50s and one never hears of that as being a racist act. Today there are no Jews in any Arab country in the Mideast – surely that is the ultimate form of racism. When Egypt reached out to make a peace agreement with Israel the response was positive and land was given up by Israel.
    It is sad to hear that people like Gordis have given up on Israel and describe it as a failed experiment. I prefer to remain optimistic that realpolitics will prevail and that most people in this land do want to live normal lives. We need strong and visionary leaders like the late Nelson Mandela to resolve the conflict and restore hope for all – including the likes of Gordis.

  12. Tragic conclusion from a diaspora Jew! Israel is the most vital abd crearve Jewish entity in our history. The failure is in the Diaspora which is the most ignorant and self centered Jewish community ever.
    As A B Yehoshua once stared: Israelis live in Jewish skin and diaspora Jews change their Jewish clothing as styles change and in accordance with appearances.

  13. As a left wing Jew living in Israel I identify with the author’s disappointment with the deplorable political environment in Israel today. However the author makes the mistake, as so many American Zionists do, as viewing Israel as an experiment in ideology and politics. If Israel

  14. The analysis is completely wrong and premature by several centuries. After the destruction of the 2nd Temple our Rabbis spent the next 400 years wrestling with the meaning of that event. Only, that’s right only! 80 years ago the Jews of Europe were sent to gas chambers while the world stood idly by.

    The “Israel experiment” is not ending; it has hardly begun. It is way too early to make any judgements about the outcome. I could easily write a companion piece to his article that demonstrates the opposite of each of his three arguments. Yes, it looks a bit bleak right now, but only if you ignore the Shoah, the hostility of the Arab world that stems back to the early 20th century, and the fact that Israel has been surrounded by enemies committed to “no Jews here” from before the founding of the state.

  15. With all the challenges, Jews around the world are far better off today with Israel than the previous 2000 years of ghettos, persecution, bigotry and hate culminating in the Holocaust. The Jewish people deserve better leadership than the weakness and defeat presented in this article.

  16. I appreciate this poignant, heartfelt reflection. However, I think the assertion that there is “no way forward” is a bit alarmist and detracts from powerful points made in the preceding paragraphs.

    Also, an edit in Gordis’ fifth paragraph: “And it is in” versus “And it in in”

  17. A point that seems to elude David Gordis: Israel’s Likud government is not “entrenched,” it has been repeatedly elected by teh citizens of Israel in free and fair elections. So apparently it is actually Israeli democracy that he finds unpalatable. How very progressive!

  18. It is good that Mr. Gordis reconsidered his view but I can’t disagree more with his last comment that Israel was “A noble experiment.” From its inception, Israel was a racist colonial project built on the ethnic cleansing of the native Palestinian. It is sad that Zionists continue to pretend otherwise.

    • Hassan Fouda’s remarks are the sharpest rebuke to Gordis’ flatulent meandering. When those around you are filled with wild-eyed, unbridled Jew hatred, you gravitate to those who say they will defend you. Israel’s voters are doing that. Gordis and Lerner, on the other hand, gravitate to the Jew haters and dismiss the racism that underlies their views. It is the better view that Gordis, Lerner and their values are the abject failure. Their embrace of the Hassan Fouda’s of the world proves it.

  19. A good thing Dr.Gordis doeant take the time to look inward about the state of the American Jewish community he and his fellow “leaders” have shaped over the past decades.

  20. Our societies increasingly discard the rational, the universal and the visionary; subordinate solidarity to cruelty, oppression, emphatic materialism and severe inequalities; and often justify this thru distorted, fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behaviors rather than the best. Don’t ever give up the fight where ever you live. Humanity is at stake.

  21. My G-d, what pretentious nonsense.
    Really, a state of real human beings isn’t magically turning into your version of a utopia? Shocking.

  22. I find Rabbi David Gordis’s turning against Israel baffling. We need some perspective both on the current situation on the West Bank and the relative situations of Israel and the United States.
    After the spectacular success of the Six Day War Israel should perhaps have withdrawn unilaterally. But it seemed sensible to wait for a peace treaty and a two state solution. We should recall that Palestinians were not willing to negotiate. The three famous ‘no’s’ at the Khartoum conference made that painfully clear.
    But let us suppose Israel is as culpable for the present situation as are the Palestinians. Gordis’ critique still lacks perspective. Let us compare the moral stature of Israel (including the occupation) with the United States.
    Income inequalities are significantly worse in the US, in fact among the most egregious in the world. Life expectancy in Israel (including Arabs, including the risk of war) is higher than in the US. Medical care is better. In fact, if you go to the emergency room at Hadassah, you will find that most of the patients are Arabs. Compare this to the dismal situation that prevailed until recently in the US, and I am not sure that even with Obamacare, the access to medical care is better in the U.S. than in Israel.
    The death penalty survives in the US and is indeed used. In defiance of all international trends, the persistently conservative Supreme Court will not declare it to be “a cruel and unusual punishment.” Israel executed Eichmann over massive protest and will clearly never use the death penalty again.
    Most privileged Americans have no idea what actually goes on in our criminal justice system. We have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, and in addition we use the prison system as a way of controlling the ballot box. Felons are still disenfranchised in many states. Bush was able to win the 2000 election in Florida because a half million blacks were unable to vote. Felons are not treated this way this way in Israel. Indeed Areyh Deri, the leader of Shas, ran for election while he was in prison.
    The demise of the left in Israel is a serious problem. And Israelis have become complacent about the situation in the West Bank. It is right for Rabbi Gordis to raise his concerns, but perhaps he should begin the critique at home.

  23. Better late than never, but perhaps Gordis needs to go even further and recognize that Israel didn’t just go wrong in recent times, but the entire project, while psychologically understandable, was linked to ethnic cleansing…the Nabka. This isn’t ancient history, but a history with living victims.

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