Fueled by Zionism, but ‘sobered’ by reality
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
When readers of his articles and books suggest that Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ politics have drifted to the Right, he doesn’t object — but he does clarify. While he still sees no alternative to the two-state solution, his politics have become “more sober” since he moved to Israel in 1998.
“My politics have evolved since I moved to Israel because throughout 40 years in America, no one ever tried to kill me or my children,” he acknowledged. “But the prevailing assumptions of the liberal Jewish suburban environment in Baltimore, where I grew up, are not operating [in Israel]. People really do want to kill your children because they’re Jewish.”
Gordis, a senior vice president and senior fellow at The Shalem Center in Jerusalem spoke to NJJN from Israel ahead of his appearance at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, where he will be scholar-in-residence Oct. 22-23.
In a series of books — most recently Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End — Gordis has interpreted the Israeli reality for American audiences. It’s a reality some American Jews prefer not to recognize, he said.
Gordis has three children and used to worry about them riding on buses that had been the target of suicide bombers. Now, he worries about their army service.
“We are not dealing with a peace partner,” he said. “We are dealing with evil incarnate. People who wear suicide belts are not freedom fighters. They are the embodiment of pure unadulterated evil.”
As a result of his experiences, he said, “my politics are more sober. When I go to the voting booth, I am not voting about abstractions. When I’m in the booth, I’m asking, ‘Who is going to keep my kids safe?’”
Still, despite his deep concerns over security, Gordis considers Zionism wildly successful in terms of providing a haven where Jews in need can flee. Zionism also enabled Jews to create a sovereign state where they can reconceptualize what it means to be Jewish. Security concerns have forced him to temper his enthusiasm, but only somewhat.
“If the goal is to provide a completely safe place to be, not at the mercy of enemies, it’s still a pretty good success,” he said. “But if Iran gets the bomb, I think that will be questionable.”
The founding dean of the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism on the West Coast, Gordis sees looming internal challenges for Israel. He points a finger at the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community because “they are distinctly uninterested in democracy, they do not join the army, they are largely unemployed and live off the beneficence of people like me.”
He worries that the growing Arab minority threatens the idea of a Jewish democracy simply in terms of numbers, since they are having more children than Jewish families. And he worries that young Israelis lack a certain Zionist zeal.
“They have their Kindles and their iPods and they are not interested in the old Zionist issues. But it is critically important to raise them with revolutionary fervor even when the revolution is in the past,” he said.
When it comes to making peace, Gordis takes a realpolitik approach. He thinks peace without giving up land is unrealistic.
“If there is a peace deal with the Palestinians, Israel will be out of the West Bank. Period,” he said.
And what does he say to those Jews who will be furious if Israel gives up even one inch of biblically Jewish land?
“What’s the alternative?” he asked pointedly. “We can’t say, ‘We’ll go to war, we’re happy to be at war. Yes, some people will die but we will eventually win and to hell with them.’ That’s immoral and will ultimately destroy the Jewish state. Most Israelis will not want to be part of a state that could have averted war.”
He is equally critical of those at the opposite end of the spectrum, those who are willing to give up land too soon. Such people, he said, “ought to be more upset. They should feel pretty sad because this is the biblical land of our ancestors. We may have to make a deal, but aren’t you at all upset?”
He won’t offer a timeline for peace, and he was only half-joking when he suggested anything from six months to 250 years.
Most Israelis would vote to give up land if it really meant peace, he said, “but they know we are not there yet….”
“The minute you give up on peace, you’ve signed a death warrant for Israel. But if we make a deal too early, we put our sons and daughters in great danger. That’s a tension that I think America’s left-wing does not understand.”