‘Zero interest’ and a huge payoff

‘Zero interest’ and a huge payoff

A self-described “deeply secular Jew” admits that “he had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting” Israel, regarding it “less like a country than a politically iffy burden.”

Nevertheless, he takes a friend’s advice and spends six days in Jerusalem. There, amid the winding streets and spiritual redoubts of the Old City and the hip bars and restaurants of west Jerusalem, he finds “exactly the kind of place where I feel comfortable.”

It sounds like the testimony of a kid on a Birthright Israel trip, right? Instead, it is a travel article in The New York Times by Matt Gross.

So of course Jewish readers, including one prominent Jewish leader, reacted with their typical restraint and generosity of spirit.

“This is the only travel article I have ever read anywhere by anybody that left me angry,” reads one comment at the Times site. “Mr. Gross protests way too much about his flight from Judaism.”

“Such a sad cliche — the Jew who will run off into the arms of every other culture except his own and swears — swears! — that he has not internalized anti-Semitism and turned it into self-hate,” reads another.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote that he was disappointed but not surprised that the Times “would find a travel writer on Jerusalem who brings some heavy-duty baggage to the topic.” And he insists (or at least pretends) that he doesn’t understand why a certain type of Jew would be conflicted about visiting Israel.

“In this case,” writes Harris, the writer “turns out to be a person whose self-declared curiosity extends to every country — remember that Iraq and Afghanistan are off-limits only because of [Gross’s] jittery wife — except one, Israel.” Adds Harris: “Funny how no other country awakens in him such feelings.”

Is it really so “funny” that a deeply secular Jew would be conflicted about visiting a country that places on its Jewish visitors so many demands of history and identity? As I wrote a few years back in response to a similarly ambivalent essay, some Jewish liberals have a hard time thinking about Israel not because they are lazy or self-hating, but precisely (davka, as the Israelis say) because the subject is so fraught. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you that the things you have the most trouble dealing with are those that hit closest to home.

Harris wasn’t alone in his criticism of the Gross piece or its ambivalence toward the Jewish state. Sala Levin, a blogger for Moment magazine, calls Gross’s “hands-off attitude toward Israel” an “irresponsible position, one unbefitting a man whose job it is to travel, a task that demands curiosity and openness — even to our own history, even when we would rather avoid it.”

Some of this pique is owed to what many Jewish activists believe is an anti-Israel bias at The New York Times — a strained relationship explored by Neil A. Lewis in the current Columbia Journalism Review. The back-and-forth arguments about objectivity and double standards are less relevant to the Gross article than what Lewis has to say about the Times’ historic attitude toward Judaism. Yes, the Ochs and Sulzberger clans were deeply ambivalent about their Jewishness. Yes, they sought, according to one history of the paper, “not to have The Times ever appear to be a ‘Jewish newspaper.’” Nevertheless, writes Lewis, the Times has become “the hometown paper of American Jewry.”

The tone of this hometown paper is proudly Jewish but largely secular in practice and liberal in outlook. Its coverage of Israel and Jewish affairs is shaped in part by its staffers’ distance from organized Jewry, which has become more parochial, less liberal, less universal, and more inward-focused.

Organized Jewry may be tempted to dismiss the Times’ brand of Judaism as deracinated or self-loathing, but remember: When we talk about outreach, engagement, or continuity, we are talking about Matt Gross and similarly “disaffected” Jews.

The first rule of outreach to disengaged or unaffiliated Jews is this: Start where they are. Gross may have had “zero interest” in visiting Israel, but after only six (!) days there he comes away with mostly positive impressions (and remember, Gross was also criticized on anti-Israel blogs for being too soft on Israel and ignoring the Palestinian conflict). Gross speaks to the kind of traveler who considers Israel a land of blood and conflict or a New Jersey-sized synagogue. For these readers, the article offers an alternative image of Israel as a fascinating historical destination and a place of “frozen-yogurt parlors and focaccerias,” “underground” bars, and restaurants where you can have your “mind blown by a platter of seared veal sweetbreads with artichokes, cherry tomatoes, and cauliflower cream.”

Isn’t this exactly the kind of article Israeli officials envisioned when they launched their “Brand Israel” p.r. campaign — marketing an Israel “beyond the conflict”? And isn’t Gross’s testimony more powerful because it came from someone with “heavy-duty baggage”?

Yes, Gross’s lack of curiosity about the Jewish state annoyed me. But he went, and he enjoyed it — enough to tell other people about it and recommend that they go too. That’s the kind of Jewish journey we should be encouraging.

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