Giving Up on the Zionist Dream

The Awl has just posted a piece by Village Voice film editor Allison Benedikt called "Life After Zionist Summer Camp," which interested me, because I went to Zionist summer camp (not the bourgeois Zionist camp she went to, but a whacked-out socialist Zionist commune) and because I'm name-checked toward the end of the piece. I'm not exactly sure why I'm name-checked, but apparently I have helped open the mind of Benedikt's mother to the moral complexity of the Middle East (or something). Essentially, the essay is about Benedikt falling out of love with the Zionist dream, which happens as she marries a non-Jew named John, who, by her description, spends a fair amount of time passing judgment on Israel. 

In any case, you should read the essay for yourself. It is, essentially, the story of Benedikt's Zionist brainwashing at the hands of the perfidious Hadassah (the movement, not the Lieberman) and how she un-brainwashed herself. It is the sort of piece that passes for brave in progressive circles. Here is an excerpt, about a trip she made to Israel as an adult:

It is a horrible visit. At JFK, Israeli security asks him more questions than they ask me. I squirm and stammer something about it being their job. Once in Tel Aviv, John confronts my sister and her husband on their "morally bankrupt decision" to live in Israel. I spend the whole week trying to explain him to her and her to him, even though they mostly agree. (She's become Israeli, which is a lot different from being an American Jew.) He thinks the Bauhaus architecture is ugly ("this city looks like a war zone") and is unimpressed by the Wailing Wall ("it's small"), but at least concedes that the food is delicious and the women are hot. He's legitimately scared of an attack, which seems absurd to me, even though we walk by a bombed-out disco only a few minutes from my sister's apartment. We take a trip to the West Bank and pass through a checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers who --so friendly!-- tell us they are from Jersey. I feel sick. This is a different Israel than I remember. Or I am different? The trip finally ends and wow it is good to be home.

The whole piece is written in a kind of faux-naive, I'm-so-lost voice that I found a bit grating. What I found substantially more grating was Benedikt's conformism, and her stunning lack of curiousity. Is Benedikt curious about anything? Is she curious about who bombed that disco? Is she curious about why those Israeli soldiers are guarding a checkpoint? Is she curious about why airline security officers might be interested in asking questions of passengers flying to Israel? When her husband acts like a self-righteous shit toward her sister, does she get a spine? Does she wonder why her husband hates Israel with such ferocity? Does she ever try to answer for herself why Israel exists? Or is she happy to subcontract out her thinking about the most important questions facing Jews first to her camp counselors, and then to her husband? 

And then there is a whole set of other questions:  Does she ask herself whether she has a responsibility to make Israel a better, more humane, place? Does she question herself about the consequences of abandoning Israel? Does she think about the sin of the wicked son in the Passover story, and how that sin might echo in her own life? 

This is actually a very sad little essay that says more about the writer, who seems to have exchanged one simplistic narrative for another, than it does about Zionism or Israel.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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