tough talk

Daniel Gordis’ blunt message at AIPAC’s confab

The writer addressed the tensions between Israel and Diaspora Jewry at AIPAC’s Political Leadership Conference in Washington last week

Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Author Daniel Gordis speaks at Albright College's Memorial Chapel Wednesday evening as part of the Leo Camp Memorial Lecture series.

Author Daniel Gordis, the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, made waves in his closing address at AIPAC’s Political Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., last week. As the last speaker to address attendees at the two-day closed-press convening, Gordis spoke about the challenges facing Israelis and those abroad who support the U.S.-Israel relationship in light of Israel’s new right-wing government that, some argue, will change the fabric of Israeli society. Gordis, whose latest book, Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams?, comes out in April to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding, spoke to Jewish Insider about his speech to the AIPAC crowd and what he hoped attendees would walk away with.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

JI: You closed out the conference. And it feels like it was almost a sort of a departure from what you’ve said in the past, like it shifted the tone of the room. I wasn’t in the room. Most of our readers were also not in the room. For those of us who weren’t there, in sum, what did you convey or want to convey?

DG: OK, so first of all, what AIPAC has always been outstanding at is working on Capitol Hill’s support for Israel: legislatively, diplomatically, etc. I think that makes them an unbelievably important institution, and I’ve worked with them for years and I think that they’re still very important in that regard. When we began to talk about this speech, in the weeks running up to it — we being me and them — their concern was that this is a very tough time to be a kind of, I don’t mean liberal in the sense of left-wing, but liberal in the sense of somebody committed to liberal values: human rights, individual rights, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, religious equality, and all of that. It’s a tough time to be somebody who’s committed to all of that, and at the same time to go out there and do the ‘rah rah try to sell Israel on Capitol Hill thing’ because people are feeling very conflicted inside. It’s not that one undermines the other. I mean, Israel needs support no matter what. But at the same time, it’s just harder, it would be harder for you or for me to go to talk to our friends about why we’re in love with this place than it would have been a month ago. I mean, that’s just the reality of the world… My understanding from them explicitly was [that] what they wanted was for me to talk to people about how important their work is at this particular moment, even when things are tough for those of us who love Israel. And that’s what I did…

I think when you say that I changed the tone of the room, I think I changed the tone to be sure from what people expected. Very typically, I’m sort of the ‘rah rah,’ you know, I try to be intellectually sophisticated and I try to teach some history perhaps that people didn’t know and I try to put a spin on it that makes it, you know, they walk out and learned something. It’s important for me always, whether it’s a political thing or it’s a synagogue event, or it’s a JCC or it’s a federation or whatever, I want people to walk out having learned something…But I think people expected that I was going to do the typical kind of ‘Gordis thing,’ which was to leave them on a very big high, and they gotta go out there and do that. And I definitely left them with a very clear message that you need to do this work, that this work is no less critical at any moment now than it’s ever been… 

But there was this elephant in the room that when they open up The New York Times or they open up the Washington Post or they read whatever they’re reading; they’re seeing a lot of smart people who they may agree or disagree with saying something about Israel’s democracy ending. And even if you think that person X or person Y is being a little bit over the top — and I even disagreed publicly with [New York Times opinion columnist] Tom Friedman. You know, he wrote a thing, and then I wrote a thing back. I didn’t say everything is fine, that Bibi is Thomas Jefferson, right? I mean, I just said it’s going to be OK. And I really still do hope and believe and pray that it’s going to be OK. But I think it’s going to be a tough slog. And what I wanted them to hear was, from an Israeli, this is serious. This is hard. This is scary. Some of us are worried and some of us are panicked. And, by the way, it’s not only left or right. I mean, there’s Israeli Likud voters who are very unhappy with what’s going on… In other words, it’s falling to a certain extent on political lines, but it’s not falling entirely on political lines. I wanted them to understand that it’s OK to be very concerned about what’s going on in Israel. It’s OK to talk about what’s going on in Israel, and in a way of concern and worry, maybe even disappointment, and at the same moment to go out there and do the critically important work that has to be done on Capitol Hill and beyond to make sure that when there are critical issues that face Israel in Congress, that Congress votes the way that those of us who care about Israel would want it to vote. But I think that it was definitely not the usual tone. These are not the usual times.

JI: How do you feel the reception went?

DG: It was very, very hard to tell. I mean, it was really very hard to tell. I could tell in the middle that they were not getting what they thought they were going to get…It’s always a little bit difficult to know how it’s going because you can’t see their faces, you can’t see their body language. But I could tell, there were a couple of lines that normally I think you would have felt like, a big laugh, and there was a little bit of a chuckle. Or there were lines that were very powerfully pro-Israel, I just had to take a breath because you have to breathe or I had to take a drink from my water. And then in a normal situation somebody would kind of clap because people don’t like silence. So they’ll fill the silence by clapping. And that just didn’t happen. It was dead silence. They were silent. They were very attentive from the little bit that I could see and I could see the outlines of some heads. And people were being very respectful and nobody was walking out and nobody was being in any way inappropriate at all. But I think it was hard for them. My sense was that it was hard for them. But life is hard. It’s filled with moments where we are torn between two loves, and I think we’re torn between two loves right now: a love for the State of Israel and what it does for the Jewish people, and a love for the liberal democratic values that have made democracies great. And right now, if you love the latter, it’s a little bit harder to full-throatedly tell people why you love Israel so much. And my basic point was, ‘Yes, it’s hard and we have to go do it. All of us, every single one of us has to both worry about what’s happening inside Israel and try to change what’s happening inside Israel to whatever direction each of us wants.’ And you know, this is not that justice is all on one side. And certainly, for example, something like the judicial reform, there’s no question that there’s legitimate views on both sides. And there’s lots of intermediate positions between the current reality and, for example, what [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin is proposing that could be. So that wasn’t to suggest that if you don’t want to keep it exactly the same way, then you’re on the wrong side of history. But I do think that if you have let somebody who boasts that he’s a homophobic fascist into the government, you’re on the wrong side of history. And I think that if you boast that you’ve let somebody into the government who says that Jewish law will always trump individual rights, even for those people who do not want to be observant, you’re on the wrong side of history. And that’s hard. It’s hard for all of us. I think those of us who love this place wake up in the morning a little sadder than we did a couple of months ago, or even a month ago, and I wanted them to understand that that’s legitimate. That’s OK… 

I got a lot of lovely, lovely notes from people who were in the audience. And people — some people I know very well and some people I really don’t know very much… And people wrote something like, it was very sobering, and it was needed to be said; it was what had to be said.

JI: Was there anything you didn’t say that you wish you had, anything you thought of after? Or something that you would have said differently or more strongly?

DG: No, I don’t think so, which is not to say that I think I did a perfect job. I mean, I work hard on these speeches. I don’t ever just go up there and just have a basic idea of what I want to say and work on it. I make outlines, I revise the outlines, I think about it for days and days in advance, and I always go through drafts. So there was nothing off-the-cuff about this. You always feel like that phrase could have been turned a little bit better. I’m going to give you an example. I told a story towards the end about my grandfather and me watching [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat arrive in Tel Aviv in 1977. And the reason that I told the story was that my grandfather started to cry. And he started to cry, I wanted to say, because he just never expected that. He was born in 1908. He was a fully grown adult rabbi of a huge congregation during the Holocaust. He witnessed the war in 1948. There was no way he could know how that was going to end. He witnessed May 1967. There was every reason to believe it was going to be a bloodbath. He had remembered, you know, October ‘73, which started out unbelievably frightening. And from October ‘73 to November ‘77, is like two minutes, right? I mean, in the scheme of things. It’s four years. Here we were, in November 1977, watching the same Sadat who would attack Israel and almost sliced through, standing at attention on the ground, in what was then called Lod for ‘Hatikvah.’ And my grandfather started to weep. And I only saw him cry twice in my life, and that was one of the two times. I wanted to tell that story for the reason of: Things can always work out better than we think. In other words, you think it’s dark and it is dark. But there have been so many dark moments and we’ve always managed somehow or another to pull through and I believe we’re going to pull through here. That was the intent of telling the story. And then I got off the stage and I was walking back to my room and I got in the car to go to the airport and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not what I actually did with that story. I talked about the legitimacy of crying.’ In other words, I said my grandfather was crying because there’s things that words can’t really convey. And when you can’t say what you feel in words, you start to cry. And then I said it’s legitimate to cry, which was actually kind of interesting that I think my emotions sort of got the best of my preparation at that moment. I hadn’t gotten to the point that things are going to work out better than we thought… When I think about my own state of mind, it’s instructive to me that a story that I was going to tell, the point of which was meant to be, ‘Things can always work out better than it seems they’re going to work out’ ended up being a story that I told that said, ‘It’s OK to cry. And it’s OK to be heartbroken at certain kinds of moments.’ That was not what I meant to say with that particular story. That particular story was hardly the focus of the whole talk. But I don’t think it’s a mistake. I don’t think it’s something that I wish I could have done better. It’s just sort of instructive to me, like where was my heart and where was my soul when I was giving the talk. I think it’s hard for all of us. And you know, you sort of get up there when you’re doing a thing and it was towards the end, probably 20-22 minutes in, and you’re definitely at cruising altitude. And all of a sudden, I was talking about the legitimacy of crying as opposed to the legitimacy of thinking that it’s going to end up OK. I think they’re both true. I really do believe it’s going to end up OK here. I don’t know if it’s going to end up OK in five weeks or in five years. And I don’t know if it’s going to end up OK with violence or without violence. And I say that not at all cavalierly. I mean, violence would be horrible. But you know, when America was 75 years old, it was 10 years away from the Civil War still.

JI: I’m excited for your book, but when did you finish writing it? 

DG: I finished writing the book right before Pesach.

JI: Things were very different then.
DG: Very different. And the book is coming out April 11. I mean, it’s done done. The pages are done, the index is done. All the i’s are dotted, all the T’s are crossed, the photographs are in, the cover’s finished. It’s done. And about two weeks ago, I said to my editor, ‘We don’t know how this is going to play out, but April 11, which is [the publication] date, is not that long from now. And we’ve got to do something now.’ We can’t rewrite the book… I wrote a two-page afterword, trying to put it in context, to acknowledge what we don’t know, to acknowledge how disappointing this turn of events is and then what I did actually in the afterword is I pointed to the election of Andrew Jackson, which I know nobody thinks about him anymore… So the notion [said by a U.S. senator in 1829] that ‘the Constitution now lies a heap of ruins.’ And [a Virginia congressman’s 1829 declaration] that ‘The [country] is ruined past redemption.’ No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t and let’s just remember that somebody said about America in 1829: ‘It’s over.’ And it wasn’t over. And people are going say, like Tom Friedman about Israel, that it’s over. It’s not over. We just have a lot of work to do. And to go back to AIPAC, that was the message that I wanted them to feel, like it’s OK to feel the despair that that congressman and that senator felt [about Jackson]. It’s OK to feel that way. But it’s just not true. It’s OK to feel it. But it’s not OK to believe that it’s true. In other words, it’s OK to feel ‘Oh my god, the whole thing is coming apart,’ but we just have to make sure that it doesn’t come apart. It’s OK to feel like I’m a little bit embarrassed about what’s going on in Israel. OK. So suck it up. And we’ll make the case for Israel anyway, because it really does matter for the future of the Jewish people and the Western world, I believe. And then when you come home at night, do whatever work you’re going to do, do whatever philanthropic work you’re going to do and do whatever other stuff you’re going to do, to try to support the forces of good inside Israel.

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