Not yet a Failure
by Dr. Debbie Weissman
[Editor’s note: Debbie Weissman came on Aliyah in 1972, has had a long career in Jewish education, and is the Immediate Past President of the International Council of Christians and Jews.]
I am responding to the “Reflections on Israel 2016” by David M. Gordis. In some things, I agree with him, and in some others, my criticism is even sharper. However, I take great exception to his conclusions. Let me begin with the term “failure.” There are a number of failed states in our region – most notably, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Israel is certainly not in that category.
Gordis writes that “in every important way Israel has failedto realize its promise for me.” Are the following unimportant: Hebrew language and culture; Shabbatot and Chagim; Kashrut; experiments in community living; widespread study of Jewish texts; religious, cultural and educational alternatives; Jewish scholarship in a variety of fields; the creation of a refuge for all kinds of Jews and the absorption of Holocaust survivors, Ethiopians, Jews from the FSU, etc.; many wonderful Tzedakah and Hessed projects; and the only Jewish community in the world with a positive birth rate?
We now have a former President and a former Prime Minister sitting in jail. I suppose that many people might see that as an indictment of this country; it actually makes me proud–no one is above the law. Most countries in the world have both political corruption and the abuse of women by powerful men. The question is: what do they do about it? We have growing representation by women and Arabs in the Knesset, and progressive legislation in the field of sexual harassment, as we do in women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, the environment, health care and many other areas.
I agree that the Occupation is a serious blot on the record – I would say not only of the State of Israel, but of the Jewish people. For many years, I have said that the best fulfillment of Zionism will not come until we have a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. We have also not yet succeeded in working out what it means to be a Jewish and democratic state, especially vis-a-vis our Arab citizens. We’re not worse than many other countries with regard to the migrant crisis, but I would have expected us to be better – to be at the forefront of absorbing refugees and asylum-seekers. Perhaps the roots of these problems lie deeper than just within the State of Israel.
Professor Moshe Greenberg, the great Bible scholar and teacher at the Hebrew University, in a number of seminal works, pointed out the tremendous challenges we have today, in dealing with these questions. Greenberg z”l was a member of an interfaith dialogue group in Jerusalem known as the Rainbow. About twenty years ago, the theme for the group’s discussions was “Embarrassing Texts in our Respective Religious Traditions.” Greenberg opened the year’s discussions with a presentation on the embarrassing texts in the Jewish tradition that relate to non- Jews in a negative light. His views appeared in a Hebrew book published in 1984, Al HaMikra v’Al HaYahadut  and an English article published in 1996,” A Problematic Heritage: The Attitude towards the Gentile in the Jewish Tradition – An Israel Perspective.”
In the latter, Greenberg indicated that he had, in Israel, been made aware “that the main stream of Jewish thought is permeated by notions of the genetic spiritual superiority of Jews over gentiles.” To this, he responded:
“I am more than ever convinced that the hold that Judaism will have on this and future generations will be gravely impaired unless these notions are neutralized by an internal reordering of traditional values – a reordering by which the cherished value of the universality and oneness of God is matched by an equally cherished value of the universality and oneness of humanity.”
It’s reported that Chairman Mao, when asked for his take on the French Revolution, said, “It’s too early to tell.” Israel is still very much a work-in-progress. If a few tens of thousands of more open-minded and more liberal-minded Jews made Aliyah (they wouldn’t necessarily even have to live here year- round – they could become citizens and vote), the whole political picture would change. So, when Gordis calls us a failure, what exactly have he and his students done to prevent that? Is the American Jewish community a failure, because it has serious problems of assimilation and inter-marriage?
And, having declared Israel a failure, what implications does that have? Are we to return to the status quo ante? Gordis is a religious Jew – how will this conclusion affect his prayers, celebrations, and so on – will he stop celebrating Israel Independence Day? Will he no longer pray for the welfare of the State and its citizens? Will he no longer drink a 5th cup of wine at the Seder, as suggested by his own movement’s Haggadah? Will he try to find alternative homes for the over-six million Jews who live here? What about the 2 million non-Jews, most of whom are Muslim and therefore unwanted by many Americans?
Now, I’d like to relate to his three assertions about Israel discarding “the rational, the universal and the visionary. “These are blanket assertions that ignore the complexities of the reality here. Certainly, some – perhaps many – are guided by fears and anxieties (sometimes I think that fear is actually a more rational response to what goes on here than my own response, which is what I have called “hopeful pessimism.”) I’m not sure that we’re any more materialistic than any other modern Western country. There are many visionary individuals, groups, organizations and projects. It may be that Gordis isn’t familiar with them. Where I do agree with him is that for too many Jews here – but also abroad, especially in the US – there is some kind of contradiction between the particular and the universal. I believe that universal values are realized in particular contexts. We have to do much more educational, cultural and pastoral work on this issue, in the light of Moshe Greenberg’s insights.
I must say that for me, what Michael Lerner wrote was much more compelling: that the situation makes us or ought to make us “re-energized to support peace and reconciliation in the Middle East and around the world.” Now isn’t the time for despair; recently, the liberal movements and the Women of the Wall have scored some minor victories which, while very partial, point to the importance of hard work and concerted efforts. We need to break through our paralyzing hopelessness and, as Israelis and concerned Diaspora Jews, work together to put Israel back on track.
(Dr.) Debbie Weissman, Jerusalem
David Gordis has the right to his own despondency but he does no service to Jews, Israel, and those who seek to strengthen Israeli democracy, social justice, and human rights by conflating his personal hopelessness about Israeli society, politics and culture with the reality of Israel now and in the future. Negativity does not unleash creativity, solidarity, energy, generosity, compassion and inspiration – it stifles them.
Fatalism creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and it is radically at odds with the Jewish prophetic tradition which faced extreme moral and spiritual failures but which always maintained the possibility of moral autonomy individually and collectively, transformation, healing, improvement, and greater realization of hesed and tzedek as fundamental Jewish values and aspirations.
Israel is more complex, diverse, dynamic, and indeed, hopeful than Gordis describes. Yes, it has its profound failures of ethics and empathy, politics and policy – as do all countries and all liberal democracies – including the United States. But it simultaneously is a democratic country and society where freedom of expression and assembly thrive and a respected and formidable independent judiciary safeguards the rule of law and democratic rights and freedoms. Israel respects and fulfills social and economic rights in the form of healthcare provision, labor unions, and social services for the economically and socially disadvantaged. The arts in Israel are creative, flourishing, and simultaneously challenge and nurture the human conscience and spirit. Israeli civil society including grassroots NGOs and social change movements have made great strides in the areas of education, healthcare provision, women’s rights and welfare, the rights and welfare of gays and lesbians, religious freedom, environmental preservation, and protection of the rights and welfare of the disabled and of other disadvantaged minorities.
Yes, there is much work to be done, many of the challenges are daunting, and extremism in various forms must be confronted in religion, politics, and society. But whether one visits organizations like the Yemin-Orde Youth Village in Haifa, its sister Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, community development projects in the Negev run by Bedouin educators and youth leaders, Israeli hospitals such as the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and the new Sederot Rehabilitation Center – extraordinary acts of justice, compassion, healing, and transformation are taking place across the country and far beyond its borders.
The work of organizations like Tevel-BTzedek in Nepal with survivors of the earthquake there and in Burundi with communities that have suffered from mass violence and extreme poverty, of Israid in Jordan with Syrian refugees and around the world where human conflict and natural disaster endanger human lives, of Yad Vashem training Rwandan and other genocide survivors in genocide and human rights education pedagogy, and Latet, addressing poverty in Israel and promoting youth development, food security, and assistance to Holocaust survivors – all of these demonstrate powerfully and passionately that there is a world of good being done in Israel on a daily basis and infinite reasons for hope in and faithfulness towards the values and mission of Israel as expressed in its Declaration of Independence:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
To this promise and this vision I – and millions of others – Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and friends of Israel and its inhabitants in all their diversity and of Israel’s neighbors, pledge themselves everyday in the understanding that, as Pirkei Avot states, “It is not your duty to complete the work, nor to finish it. But you must not desist from it.”
None of us has the luxury of feeling overwhelmed and rejecting the possibility of change precisely because there remains a large gap between the values and ideals set forth in Israel’s Declaration and Israel’s current reality. We have a responsibility to move ever closer to closing this gap.
Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, is appropriately titled in that without hope and the love, sacrifice, solidarity, generosity, resilience, and perseverance that it seeds and seeded Israel could never have come into being.
If a member of one generation has grown hopeless he can perhaps take some comfort in knowing that the next generation will proceed with a positive orientation, dedication, humility, and hope that is simultaneously idealistic and realistic. We will continue to advance and realize the values and ideals of our people’s prophets – ancient and modern alike – from Isaiah, Micah, and Amos to David Ben-Gurion, in Israel and beyond.
Dear Rabbi Lerner,
This is to thank Tikkun for publishing David Gordis’ loving but deeply saddening account of his disaffection with Israeli policies and the occupation. He describes perfectly the arc of my own disillusionment. For whatever it’s worth, Israel was my ideal when I was a boy during the 1950s, and I thought the experiments with kibbutzim and socialism were going to be the salvation of the world. A youthful enthusiasm, but a deep one, and it has been a cruel lesson to watch those ideals slowly crumble, confronted with the intransigence of Israeli government policies. Gordissays there is no significant opposition within Israel, by which I assume he means there is no large opposition. But I am aware of refusniks like Tair Kaminer, and of Women in Black, and Gush Shalom, and Nola Chilton’s theatre, and Daniel Barenboim’s East West Divan orchestra – and though these are not large and their participants not numerous, I still have hope that their significance will turn out to be much larger than their number.
Again, thank you,
Christopher Hirschmann Brandt
Michael, this is truly heart-breaking. However, it ignores the Zionist origins of the Israeli project. In 1948 the first thing the new Israeli government did was to level more than 400 Palestinian villages and round up more than 750,000 persons and put them into “camps”. And even before that the terrorist actions of people like Begun, who later became Prime Minister, were ignored and papered over. And the merciless attacks on anyone who questioned any of this by the leaders of the Jewish community in the US?
Why and how did it take until now for such a brilliant person as Gordis to become disillusioned?
Thank you for forwarding this essay, which perfectly encapsulates my own lifetime experience in re Israel.
Stephen A. Kaufman
Professor of Bible Emeritus
Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati
I am a supporter of Tikkun and was part of a medical delegation – as psychiatrist – to Gaza – recently .This is from today’s Des Moines Register – Mental Health Under Blockade
David Gordis writes:”in every important way Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure.”
The rational, the universal and the visionary. I have never read Judaism expressed that way. As a Christian that is my perception of what Judaism should be. As should be Christianity and all other faiths. Truth should transcend denominations. Can I hear an Amen?
Or I could say it’s just another reason why I like Tikkun.
Rabbi Michael – this is the most real acceptance – apologia – for what
the non-Hebraic/Judaic Power of Zionism has been doing to Israel and the world.
It causes me to have more respect and admiration for what you and the other
people of the Jewish faith whom I have known and loved for the last 87 years. May Yahweh and the universe bless you as an exceptional human being, yetnot perhaps God’s Chosen Person!
hi Michael and Tikkun–
Thank you for this– it’s heartbreaking, and such a sad ending. We do not know the causes but we know the cure–love and inclusion.
i thought you might like to see this poem by Darwish, the Palestinian poet. Mahmoud Darwish: Psalm 9 (“O rose beyond the reach of time and the senses”) / Stop Paying for Ethnic Cleansing and Send Your Kids to College for Free: A Modest Billboard Proposal
all my best wishes for your great work,
Thank you for the article. I visited “Israel” in 1974. It was a highly oppressive state then, totally dependent on US money and major armaments; the Palestinians were clearly a second class people, and an increasingly harsh form of Apartheid was in force. Why not the protest then?
Mr. Gordis deplores that Israel has chosen a right wing government, even though the government was democratically elected. Mr. Gordis ignores that Israel’s existence as a Jewish homeland has been and is threatened by the Arab/Muslim world, which shows itself today as in the past to be intolerant and aggressive internally and externally. To take an active part in Israeli politics, it is obviously necessary to live in Israel, the possibility is there for Mr.Gordis and to evaluate the dangerous place.
Mr. Gordis forgets that creating a Jewish state in what was Arab land was opposed by the Arab inhabitants from the very start.For them it was a form of European colonialism.It is necessary for Israel to defend itself against such opposition. It is true that 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.
It is not true that Right wing control in Israel is stronger and more entrenched than ever. Israel is a democracy for Jews who wish to go and live there, it is not a right wing dictatorship, why does Mr. Gordis and his supporters not leave USA and make their voices heard by emigrating to Israel. Look at the Arab/Muslim world today, look at the millions of displaced Muslims from their homes, (before the US/EU invasions of Arab lands,the many fewer displaced Muslims were imprisoned or executed) who have nowhere to go, at least Israel is a home for displaced Jews,that alone does not permit you to say today that it is a failure.
– Henry Meyerhoff, Geneva Switzerland
Rabbi Michael Lerner:
I appreciate your effort to repair this fragmented, disparate, solipsistic, narcissistic, and silo-ed world. With respect and gratitude
Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA
Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association
Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry UNC School of Medicine at Chapel Hill
I’m not any more connected to any religions, but I feel to have a strong link with your magazine. For that, thanks a lot.