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Why Daniel Gordis thinks American Jews need to be ‘morally clear’ about situation in Israel

The centrist commentator is no longer urging U.S. Jewish groups to stay out of Israel’s domestic politics

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.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last fall that he had established a coalition government with several far-right ministers who had espoused anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ views, Jerusalem-based author Daniel Gordis wasn’t pleased. 

But the American-born rabbi and scholar did not think it was the end of Israeli democracy; not even close. And he said so publicly. When New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote in November that “the Israel we knew is gone,” Gordis responded with an impassioned argument that such a view is short-sighted. “That’s what happens in a democracy when you lose an election,” Gordis conceded, even if he disagreed with many policies from Netanyahu’s Likud party, including his proposed judicial reforms.

Four months later, he is singing a different tune. In an interview with Jewish Insider this week, Gordis called the recent mass protests in Israel and Netanyahu’s decision to stand down — for the moment — on judicial reform an “unbelievable accomplishment.”

“My feelings about the government changed from it being distasteful to it being potentially disastrous for the Jewish state,” said Gordis, whose latest book, Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams? will be released on April 11. The timing is meant to coincide with Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s independence day, which this year falls on April 26. 

In another major about-face, the centrist writer and commentator thinks it isn’t only Israelis who should be speaking out, but Jews in the diaspora, too.

“I think to whatever extent this thing isn’t over, it would reflect well on American Jewish organizations to understand that there do come certain moments when, if Israel has a purpose, its purpose is to save the Jewish people. And Israel can’t save the Jewish people if it’s not a Jewish and democratic state,” said Gordis, the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college.

“If you think that Israel is making a huge mistake, and is sliding in the direction of being either illiberal or non-democratic or something, you owe it to the security of the Jewish people, more than the security of the Jewish state, to say what you believe,” he explained.

Netanyahu has faced widespread protests for his legislation that would make major changes to Israel’s Supreme Court, giving the Knesset more power to choose the court’s judges and defy its decisions. He announced earlier this week that he would table the legislation until at least after Passover, following protests that erupted after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Gallant had called for a halt to the legislation, citing security risks.

Several mainstream Jewish organizations commended Netanyahu for his decision to pause the legislation. 

“We welcome the Israeli government’s suspension of legislative consideration of judicial reform measures,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America wrote in a joint letter. “We encourage all Knesset factions, coalition and opposition alike, to use this time to build a consensus that includes the broad support of Israeli civil society.” 

Absent from the letter was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has largely refrained from weighing in on the protests. 

In January, Gordis spoke at a conference for the lobby’s top lay leaders. He described what he viewed as challenging times ahead for supporters of Israel and the United States, and urged them to see that it’s OK to be concerned about what’s happening in Israel. The response from the audience, he told Jewish Insider in an interview afterward, was crickets — not the applause he’s used to receiving from AIPAC audiences.  

He told his friends who work at AIPAC and serve on its board to be “morally clear” on the issue of judicial reform and the ongoing protests in Israel. “I thought it was a little bit short-sighted,” Gordis, a frequent speaker at AIPAC conferences and events, said of the pro-Israel lobbying group’s approach to the issue. 

“Even though I understand, respect and admire the inclination of these organizations not to get involved in what is domestic Israeli politics, this was, I thought, an exception,” said Gordis. “To be on the right side of history, in this moment, meant to say publicly that Israel’s security cannot be more important than Israel’s soul.”

Gordis’ new book seeks to answer two basic questions: Has Israel succeeded? And what does success even mean for the Jewish state? 

Using Israel’s Declaration of Independence as his guide, Gordis examines Israel’s progress on a range of matters: whether Zionism has succeeded in creating a safe homeland for Jews, what it means that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is ongoing and how Israeli democracy has fared without a constitution. (Gordis finished writing the book before last year’s Israeli elections, and before the recent judicial reform debate that resulted, at least in part, from the fact that Israel has no constitution.)

“There was a purpose to the country, which was to change the existential condition of the Jew. And in that I think we have been far more successful than David Ben-Gurion in his wildest dreams would ever have imagined,” Gordis said. 

For many observers asking the same questions as Gordis about Israel’s success, “they go immediately to the Palestinians,” he noted. “And if they’re Americans, then they go to the status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, at the Kotel.” 

These are real issues, he argued. But Israel should be judged on “the enormity of the project” as a whole. 

“I personally see no solution [to the Palestinian issue] anywhere on the horizon right now, which is very sad, but it is what it is. I’m not sure that I see much of a solution to some of the non-Orthodox stuff, but that’s much easier to fix. It’s just changing some personalities and the law,” said Gordis. “But don’t judge us only on that.” 

Doing so would be akin to looking at America, long considered a bastion of liberal democracy and a safe haven for immigrants, including Gordis’ ancestors, and seeing only its problem with guns and with race, Gordis observed.

“If you talk about America and you say, ‘OK, I’m going to teach you about America. We’re going to talk about race, and  then we’re going to talk about guns.’ Yes, you need to talk about race, and you need to talk about guns, but it’s not a meaningful picture of America. It’s not incorrect, but it’s just not meaningful,” said Gordis. 

Even now, after months of protests have caused disruptions across Israel’s population centers and Netanyahu’s judicial plans have sparked contentious public debate, the goal of the book is to “allow ourselves to celebrate,” said Gordis. But that has become more difficult in recent months. 

“I think if you and I had this conversation exactly six days ago, I would have said to you, ‘I’m actually very scared of Yom Haatzmaut,’” said Gordis, who lives in Jerusalem. “I’m not going to watch Israeli dancing when the whole country’s on fire.”

In his book, Gordis writes that the two other examples of Jewish statehood — the periods of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem — did not last as long as modern-day Israel. So some commentators in Israel have taken to asking in recent months: Will Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, face the same fate? Or will this modern nation survive? 

According to the Bible, the Second Temple fell because of internal Jewish division. It wasn’t an outside attack alone, but an attack that was made possible because of that internal strife: “We split and then they attacked us from the outside. And you could just see the split, and then the pilots aren’t flying, and the Golani guys aren’t going to do this,” Gordis said, referring to the Israeli reservists who did not show up for duty to protest Netanyahu’s actions. Jews have always had the tendency to “rip ourselves asunder,” he added.

In recent weeks, “it felt to me that this desire to have this political win was trumping any sense of cohesiveness of the Jewish people,” Gordis said of Netanyahu’s coalition.

But something changed — people took to the streets, and raised their voices, and stood up for the very idea of Zionism, he said. 

“That’s what makes me feel so unbelievably great about what’s happened in the last two or three weeks. I’m not naive. This is not over,” he said. “But I’m buoyed by a real sense of the Israeli people wanting it to work out and caring about it much more than I thought we did maybe six weeks ago.”

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