Marjorie Ingall, parenting columnist for Tablet, caused a stir last year when she wrote about her ambivalence towards Israel and her reluctance to teach her kids about it. I was among the many who responded, calling her “intellectually lazy” and wondering why many liberal American Jews “seem able to assimilate every complex historical narrative except Israel’s.”
One year later and guess what? Marjorie is sending her kid to a Zionist summer camp. As she explains in an essay this week, she picked the camp because she wanted her daughter to have a positive Jewish experience and because it offered a down-to-earth alternative to the ritzy sleep-away camps for “unnervingly sophisticated, spoiled kids with Shabbat dresses more expensive than my entire family’s wardrobe.”
Ingall admits that she’d be uncomfortable if the camp “was advocating dehumanizing Palestinians and supporting tikkun olam only if it applied to Jews.” What she finds instead is a camp that embraces social action and Hebrew culture, and what she calls “geekery.” Most of all, the camp fosters a “particularly American sort of Zionism, one that says that Jews are a people defined by both religion and ethnicity. It isn’t boosterish. It allows for nuance. Even an 8-year-old can understand nuance.”
She hasn’t exactly fully come to terms with Israel (“I hesitate to talk about Israel with my children, and I feel a visceral anxiety upon seeing an Israeli flag,” she writes). But her choices are admirable in that they reject the either/or thinking of an Allison Benedikt.
Benedikt is the Village Voice film critic whose recent essay “Life After Zionist Summer Camp” launched a thousand blog posts. In it, Benedikt describes her upbringing in the pro-Israel “bubble” of a Jewish sleep-away camp and her eventual disillusionment with Zionism. Like “most” of her Jewish friends, she is “disgusted” with Israel.
Benedikt’s essay offers only two alternatives for a liberal American Jew: Either buy into the myth of Israeli infallibility and park your conscience at the door, or acknowledge the harsh reality of occupation and walk away entirely. What’s missing is the notion that you can love Israel, and wish it well, and still be disappointed in its policies. Or that you can genuinely support an independent Palestinian state, while also recognizing the very real risks and deeply felt anxieties that keep so many Israelis from working toward it.
A mature grasp of nuance is also nonexistent in novelist Alice Walker’s essay explaining why she is joining the latest Gaza flotilla. It is a strangely detached essay. The closest she comes to articulating the political aims of the flotilla is when she writes, “We must do everything in our power to cease the behavior that makes children everywhere feel afraid.” I’m not surprised that she doesn’t acknowledge Israeli kids’ fears of Kassam rockets, or Israel’s genuine concerns about a Palestinian leadership pledged to its destruction, or the IDF’s reluctance to allow in goods and materials that could be used to rebuild Hamas’s military infrastructure. What’s weird is that she doesn’t even take a stab at articulating in what ways Palestinian children feel afraid, or why.
Instead, she plugs into a few handy and mostly archetypal narratives about Oppressors and the Oppressed. She was inspired, she writes, by her Jewish ex-husband’s tales of being attacked on his way home from yeshiva and the “black boys” who came to his rescue, and by the Jewish freedom riders who fought for civil rights in the South. Of course she invokes Gandhi’s passive resistance to British rule, but it’s telling the way she mentions it: by making reference to a scene from the movie about Gandhi.
But that’s Walker’s agenda: She doesn’t just simplify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; she abstracts it. Like Benedikt and too many of Zionism’s critics, she treats Israel as an Idea, not a Country of seven million. They’ve soured on the Idea, and now wish that it would disappear, like a once fashionable diet plan or a teenage infatuation with Goth. Benedikt’s solution is to walk away; Walker crafts a parable out of facile analogies and takes up residence in it.
In thinking about Israel, it is possible to advocate the changes we would like to see while acknowledging, as mature and thinking adults, the real-life challenges that make those changes so difficult to bring about. The Middle East analysts I admire — including Jeffrey Goldberg, David Makovsky, Tom Friedman, and J.J. Goldberg — manage to do both.
The inability to regard Israel with anything resembling nuance is not just the fault of its critics. Here’s the liberal Zionist’s dilemma: Voice your doubts about Israeli security policy, and the Right calls you self-hating and worse. But acknowledge support for Zionism as an Idea and Israel as a Fact, and the Left calls you a sell-out and a collaborator.
Ingall’s essay celebrates the place in between, one that admits discomfort but allows for nuance. It’s a Zionist camp that understands the “values of diversity and pluralism” and where people hold “perspectives on Palestinian statehood [that] vary from hard left to hard right, just like actual Israelis do.”