Daniel Gordis has yichus. He comes from the American Jewish élite. He is a scion of the Gordis family which produced the seminal scholars, David and Robert Gordis, both major figures in Conservative Judaism (David was my Talmud teacher at Jewish Theological Seminary and someone I respected a great deal). Daniel eventually made aliya and has gone from a centrist political outlook to Likudist over the years. He is now a senior vice president at the Shelly Adelson-financed, Bibiphile, Shalem Center, where his colleagues are Natan Sharansky and (until he was named Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.) Michael Oren. It is safe to say that Daniel has politically gone off the family reservation. He is now a full-fledged Likudist apparatchik with a rabbinical degree.
Because of his Conservative pedigree he has a ready-made American Jewish audience and is a regular on the Jewish speaker circuit at synagogues, Jewish federations and the like. His writing plays on a reputation for centrism and moderation by making it appear that his views are the height of reason and common sense. Not so fast.
My friend Jerry Haber has written a critique of Gordis’ latest book, Saving Israel. The book flirts with the notion that forced transfer of Israel’s Palestinian citizens may be necessary to preserve its Jewish majority and the notion of Jewish self-determination.
Jerry notes that Gordis begins chapter six of his book with this quotation:
Israel cannot be defined as a democratic state. The only way to make Israel a democratic state is to eliminate its Jewish character.
—The Future Vision of Palestinian Arabs in Israel, National Committee of the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel
There is only one problem. While the first sentence is in the document (page 9), the second isn’t. I’ve both browsed through the entire paper and done searches on every phrase in the second sentence and it isn’t there. So either Gordis confused his sources and has misattributed this quotation or else he’s fabricated it.
I would never claim there are no Palestinians who believe Israel must eliminate its Jewish character to become a democratic state. But the point is that the document and organization behind this document didn’t publish the words that Gordis put in their mouth. And in fact, if he’d actually read the entire document he’d realize that considering other arguments that are in the document which call on Israel to recognize the religious rights of the minority, that it would make no sense for them to demand the elimination of the religious rights of the Jewish majority.
What this document does demand is that Israel deny superior rights to Jews in the state it envisions. There is a huge difference between this and eliminating Israel’s Jewish character entirely. Only the farthest of the far-left anti-Zionist movement demands this and Gordis has done a deep disservice to Adalah in claiming what he has. He owes it an explanation and an apology unless he can explain what he did and why.
Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University argues in his new book, The Shift, that efforts like Gordis’ are part and parcel of an:
Expansion of the conflict to include also the Israeli Palestinians [along with] the misreading of their vision documents by the current Jewish majority.
So what Gordis has possibly done is to engage in a political and intellectual fraud, but it is one that isn’t his alone. But rather it is part of a deliberate distortion of the actual views of Israeli Palestinian nationalists. The Shabak, in its campaigns to persecute Israeli Palestinian leaders like Ameer Makhoul, also fabricates a nationalist position that calls for the destruction of Israel, which is not at all what Adalah or Balad believe.
The sixth chapter of Gordis’ book also recounts in that way that ideologues have of tailoring their memories to suit their political agendas, his two years of study at Baltimore’s Episcopalian Gilman School. He was irked as a Jewish student that the entire student body said the Lord’s Prayer every morning. He uses this as an allegory for contemporary Israel in which he compares Palestinian Israelis to the well-tolerated Jewish students at Gilman. His point is that no Jew should’ve expected to be fully accepted or integrated into Gilman because it was a school based in a religious tradition (much as Israel is allegedly). Any Jew who chafed at this situation had a right to leave (as Gordis did after two years). In other words, you can’t change a religious institution from within if you’re of a different religious tradition than the founders. If you don’t like it you should leave.
Jerry Haber, who was a student at Gilman earlier, also notes that Jews were compelled to attend religious instruction an even more onerous requirement that Gordis doesn’t even mention. But unlike Gordis, Haber stayed in touch with friends at Gilman and the School itself and watched its remarkable progress in ridding itself of some of the more offensive Christo-centric customs. It did this because it genuinely wanted to welcome Jews as equal partners in the School. You won’t see any of this in Gordis’ book because it is distinctly “off message.”
Gordis wants to posit an Israel that has a right to be Judeo-centric and a right to accord superior rights to Jewish citizens. That is how he even flirts with the Kahanist transferist program advocated by Avigdor Lieberman and the Israeli far-right. That a mainstream American Jewish rabbi should be speaking about transfer as if it is an unfortunate, but necessary concept that may be necessary to preserve Israel as a Jewish state indicates how far to the right Israel discourse has gone both in the U.S. and Israel. This rabbi, who speaks favorably of the notion of forcibly expelling hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from their homeland, is toying with Jewish fascism. But you wouldn’t know it by the generous accolades on his book cover from the likes of Cynthia Ozick and Natan Sharansky.
Here is some of Gordis’ writing on transfer:
Therefore, despite the great pain, these potentially agonizing solutions to an undeniable problem have to be raised… Those who seek to restore purpose to Israeli life will have to decide how to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority. For it is that majority that enables Israel to serve as such a beacon of hope for Jews. That, in turn, invariably will entail more than rhetoric. It will require abandoning the pretense that Israel is just like other countries, the charade that claims that Israel can deal with its minorities precisely as other democracies do…If Israelis genuinely believe in that purpose, they will then have to be willing to discuss what they are actually willing to do to protect the existence of the state that has saved the Jewish people.
First, it should be noted that Israel has not lost its Jewish majority and if it completes the negotiation of a Palestinian state soon, this eventuality may not happen for decades. Second, where is it written that the only way in which Israel can be a beacon of hope to Jews is if there is a Jewish majority there? Why can’t Israel be a beacon of hope to Jews no matter how many Jews live there as long as there is a strong, protected, vibrant Jewish life there?
Most important here is Gordis riding willingly down that slippery slope from democracy to ethnocracy and worse. In Gordis’ view Israelis and Jews are naïve if they believe that country can be a democracy as other western nations are. The Likudist rabbi does seem to believe that somehow Israel will still be a democracy, just one that is “different” that others democracies like the U.S. which treat their minorities on an egalitarian basis.
So, Gordis asks, what ARE you willing to do to protect the superior rights of Jews in Israel? Transfer? Not out of the question according to Gordis. Though Daniel Gordis was never as far left as Benny Morris once was, it seems to me that you’re watching in Gordis the gradual transformation of a plain vanilla American Zionist into a politicized Likudist hack. One with great yichus and a rabbinical degree to boot. What a great catch for Shalem!
In all of Gordis’s discussions of Israeli Palestinians there is one glaring omission that topples his whole argument like a house of cards. Israeli Palestinians are indigenous to Israel. As Haber notes in his own critique, they preceded Gordis and Haber who are both immigrants. The Palestinians were there before the ancestors of most current Israeli Jews arrived. So their tie to the land is deep and inalienable. Gordis writes about Palestinian citizens of Israel as if they are a nuisance to be tolerated or dealt with. Read this sample:
The differences between the plights of Israeli Arabs and Palestinian refugees is more an accident of history in 1948 than anything else [!]. Some fled, some stayed, but those who stayed did not do so out of Zionist convictions [!]. They either hoped that Arab forces would derail the newly formed Zionist state, or thought they could better protect their property by staying.
You will read nothing in that passage or anything Gordis has written about Israeli Palestinians that acknowledges their indigenous rights. For Gordis, there seems to be no such right at least as far as the territory on which Israel is situated stands. I suppose he believes that Jews maintain some sort of historical bond with Israel that precedes even the relatively recent Palestinian bond. But the truth is that I can’t trace my lineage back to ancient Israel in any way that is meaningful to me especially in the sense of feeling an ownership of the land of Israel.
Haber eloquently summarizes the Israeli Palestinian claim to being an equal partner with the nation’s Jewish citizens:
What is particularly striking about [Gordis’] account…is the utter failure to understand why most Israeli Arabs refuse to leave Israel: Their motivation is crystal clear from their writings and their statements: This land, and this state, are their homes in three ways: As natives, it is their home in a way never can be for Rabbi Gordis and myself, who were born and lived much of our lives outside of Israel. As members of the Palestinian people, with the consciousness of having a common history and identity, this land is their homeland. And finally as Israeli citizens, it is most assuredly their homeland. For despite the best efforts of ethnic nationalists on both sides, there has evolved an Israeli identity shared by native-born Israelis, whether Jew, Arab, and immigrant children of foreign workers.
With all due respect to Rabbi Gordis, neither he nor I can ever be as Israeli as Ahmed Tibi, Emile Habibi, or Azmi Bishara. We are immigrants; they are not. Because it is their home, they want, like ethnic minorities everywhere, to participate in the governance of the state. And the more Israel defines itself as a Jewish ethnic state, the greater and more legitimate their claim for national rights and power-sharing, like ethnic minorities in multi-ethnic societies everywhere.
If Daniel Gordis wants to argue that the only way of saving Israel as he envisions it is to rid the nation of its Palestinian minority that’s a position he’s entitled to. But he’s no longer entitled to call himself a centrist or mainstream Zionist. He is a far right nationalist like all of his new friends at Shalem and in the Likud. Let no American Jewish institution that books his make the mistake that they will hear from an eminently reasonable, common-sensical Israeli-American Zionist. They will hear from someone wants his audience to think of him that way. But he’s long gone from the liberal Zionist center where his uncles David and Robert would doubtless would feel much more comfortable.