I've received a few hundred e-mails on the Allison Benedikt essay, and my response to it, and several dozen of these e-mails were arguments, some made at great length, about how Allison Benedikt isn't important, and why would I waste my time on her essay? I do think she is important, as a symptom of something happening in certain corners of the Jewish community, and I think it is important to grapple with her feelings. That said, I promise to return to even more important matters soon, such as Iran's ballistic missile program, and Benjamin Netanyahu's strategic short-sightedness vis-a-vis the West Bank.
I promise that his will be last post on Allison Benedikt, unless God orders me, via Twitter, to write more. But the mail about Benedikt and her various emotions re: Israel is quite astonishing, and I promised I would share some of it in this space. First, a couple of bloggers and their understanding of Benedikt's essay. Marc Tracy:
Though The Awl occasionally publishes short fiction, this piece was clearly intended to make a polemical point. And as if the mere existence of a long essay about becoming dissatisfied with Israel weren't enough proof that it was designed to persuade, Benedikt finally does leave her own personal, idiosyncratic experience behind in the concluding paragraph, and writes: "Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel. It seems my trajectory is not at all unique."
No serious person can take this persuasively. Her Jewish friends don't like Israel? Okay, so her Jewish friends also don't like Israel (it shouldn't be shocking, given whom she chose for a husband). Her trajectory isn't unique? Well, there are millions of American Jews, so it would be weird if her trajectory were unlike any other. What Benedikt utterly fails to do is show why her experience--which she has just spent thousands of words laying out with utmost specificity--should be applicable to any other person. She has written a short story, but wants it to be treated like an op-ed.
Her argument against Israel is fundamentally irrational: It depends on that fallacy that people who aren't her should be persuaded by her story in the absence of any larger logical claim. And it is offensive, and it offended all the people it did because who is Benedikt to tell us who "most of" us are and to tell us that she is "not at all unique"?
In truth, so dishonest is Benedikt's essay that it is not what it pretends to be and not at all what she claims it to be, neither a mere record of experience nor non-political. It is not written in some neutral, observant voice aspiring to Flaubertian objectivity. And it is not unconcerned with politics. Even as the essay fails to consider politics in any open, intellectual, or honest way, even as it pretends to be just one Jewish woman's sad and disgusted record of her alienation from Jewish nationalism, the essay is manifestly, manipulatively political right from its lead-in photo. The essay is offered as a kind of public Jewish coming out: this is my experience as a Jew. How best, then, to head that statement of Jewish experience - from all the images of Jewishness and Israel that might be chosen to begin - than with a photo of Israeli soldiers on the ground in their fatigues taking target practice. This is Israel.
On the matter of whether she represents a post- or anti-Zionist trend in the American Jewish community, I received this challenging e-mail, from a Goldblog reader who didn't want me to use her name:
I think you're making way too much of Allison Benedikt and what she represents. She represents very few people. Remember, hundreds of thousands of young Jews go to Israel on BIrthright, and most of them, surveys have shown, have a very positive experience, in which their Judaism is deepened and their relationship to Israel is solidified. Tens of thousands of Jewish kids go to Jewish camp every year, and most of this camps are passively or actively Zionist, and most of the kids come out of the experience happy with Israel. Millions of American Jews belong to synagogues, the huge majority of which are actively pro-Israel. And the list can go on. There are a few bloggers, and a few organizations like Code Pink, where Jews who reject Israel can go to play their anti-Zionist game, but it's nothing in comparison to what's happening in the mainstream Jewish world.I received several interesting letters from leftist J Street supporters criticizing her Benedikt for abdicating her responsibilities as a Jewish person:The writer of the article doesn't really care about Israel. She's made uncomfortable by it, so she has pulled away from it, in part because she is conforming to her husband's wishes. What she should do instead is what a lot of people have done, which is to join J Street or other organizations that are fighting for a vision of Israel that is more progressive and more fair to the Palestinians. Just because I think Israel is imperfect doesn't mean I get to abandon it. We're Jews and we're responsible for it. This is a person we're dealing with who is governed by aesthetics, not morality. Aesthetically it is hard for her to associate with Israel, so she's just giving up.Here's a letter from Goldblog reader Oren German, who writes about Benedikt's utopianism:As an Israeli that happens to be rather liberal, I couldn't help but note just how detached current ultra-liberal thinking among "disillusioned" Jewish Americans such as Benedikt, can be juvenile. From my perspective, Ms. Bendeikt is basically saying this -- "in our liberal Jewish enlightened minds Israel should be a utopic Jewish Liberal state. If not, it has no right to exist, Zionism is BS, and the Palestinians are right in any claim they make by default; oh, and Bauhaus architecture sucks."This one from someone who went to that infamous Zionist camp that filled Allison Benedikt will dangerous myths:
I consider myself to be a liberal Israeli Jew (two state solution, much more equality for minorities etc). However, I have come to terms with the fact that Israeli will never be completely liberal, and will probably lean towards conservatism (national, religious etc.) for the foreseeable future. I will always fight for my liberal values but I also understand that it is a balancing act, and no side will get what it wants.There's politics, conflicting values etc. same as any other country.
But when someone like Benedikt looks at Israel she see something else - Israel should be the achievement of all her fantasies - anything less, and she no longer has any connection to it (in fact she is disgusted by it).I wonder - should the USA have been dissolved due to the presidency of one George W. Bush? Benedikt would probably(?) say no. Even though the core values of those who reigned were opposite to those she holds, she probably would not question the USA's right to exist, or the sheer morality of its existence. But Israel? May it be damned if it doesn't abide with all of her core values, and to hell with any of the consequences. Benedikt was disillusioned. I have no illusions regarding her support -- it apparently was always very childish, and mainly cheap support - one of convenience.I didn't know Allison Benedikt, and we were at the camp at slightly different times, but I can say that you would have to be pretty isolated and incurious not to know about the Palestinians. We talked about this all the time. We talked about many of the hard issues, especially as we got older. But let's say we didn't. By the time she got to college, shouldn't she have figured out that the world is complicated? Just so you know, she doesn't represent what my friends and I think about Israel. We think about it the way we think about America, our home country, as a place we love very much that has a lot of flaws.This is from Goldblog reader Jim Milstein, who addresses the infamous double-standard:Please do not think that I am in favor of the commission of crimes against humanity. I think, however, that those who get so worked up in the Western Democracies about the misdeeds of Israel should pause to remember the founding and continuing misdeeds of their own precious democracies. The American Indians, for example, would have been much better off had they been treated for the first several hundred years as the Israelis treat the Palestinians....From reader Max Socol:
Why the apparently exaggerated passion over Israel's misdeeds? Is it because Jews are supposed to be a Light unto the Nations? Who believes that, really? I'm mystified, . . . but maybe I'm not. By pointing the finger of blame at another, we are distracted from contemplating and correcting our own misbehavior.I was also bothered by her piece, and was trying to put my finger on why. Your initial thoughts got close, especially with regard to tone, but her response has crystallized it for me. I don't want to comment on the politics (they're her own, and not the exact problem anyway in my view) or on her husband (it almost seems like lashon harah (malicious gossip) to me to do so, not sure why), but as I am in Jewish education I do want to comment on her view that "If I come off as conformist, well, there again, I was--and to think that's anything but the norm for a kid growing up is to not be honest about adolescence.".From a reader who argues that Benedikt, and like-minded writers, mistake Israel for a fascist state, when in fact it is the most liberal country in its neighborhood:
It's true that the middle and high schoolers I work with feel the pressures of conformity. But I don't believe they are as thoughtless as Benedikt portrays herself to have been, and in fact I don't really believe that Benedikt herself was so thoughtless. I think it's a lot more likely that her politics today are giving her a confirmation bias about her internal life as an adolescent. I know that it doesn't take much to stimulate my students' critical thinking skills, and they have a wide variety of opinions on Israel, which I encourage.
One of the reasons Benedikt's piece bothered me is that it's so relentlessly negative. I can somewhat understand her rejection of the story of the four sons (a shame, as it might be the most beautiful parable that we lay claim to) when her Judaism seems to have been such a heavy and joyless burden.
Benedikt's story is a good reminder to us that Jewish education needs to be pluralistic, critical, and open if it is going to speak to adolescents. If we insist on conformity, our kids will all too easily fall into Benedikt's mold - nominally Jewish, but alienated and confused because they were never given the opportunity to give voice to their confusion. They will, in other words, conform, because they accurately perceive that this is our unspoken wish. I can't countenance that and don't see the use of it in Jewish education, as it produces people who feel as alienated as Benedikt. That's the positive message I'm taking away from her essay.Allison Benedikt portrays support for Israel as an illogical aberration among otherwise right-thinking liberals. How could someone who is ostensibly progressive support this oppressive vestige of the colonial era? But this couldn't be more wrong. Here's a list of liberal touchstones.Goldblog reader Noah Kulwin:
1) You support the rights of gay and lesbian men and women. Check.
Therefore you must support Israel, one of the few countries in the region where homosexuals aren't persecuted and even murdered, by state sanction.
2) You support the rights of women. Check.
Therefore you must support Israel, one of the few countries in region where women enjoy all the rights men do, and aren't required to drape every part of their body in the anonymity of the burqa or veil, and are allowed to drive, and may serve on the hight court, and are even the top general in the military.
3) You support the rights of minorities. Check.
Therefore you must support Israel, where a substantial number of cabinet members are Arab, where the quality of life for Israeli Arabs is higher than in neighboring states, where there is no tradition of legalized slavery as there was in the Arab states until the 1960s, when it was abolished under European pressure, but still continues in a form of servitude for migrant workers from abroad.
4) You support democratic government. Check.
Therefore you must support Israel, a fact that really speaks for itself, in these times in particular, where tyrants around Israel are slaughtering their citizens in droves as they hold on desperately to power, and where the people have always been disenfranchised.
5) You support a free press. Check.
Therefore you must support Israel, where an opposition thrives in the media. Has she read Haaretz?
You could go on and on and on, ad nauseum, but the truth is supporting Israel is consistent with liberalism. Not support Israel is consistent with totalitarianism.Allison Benedikt makes a lot of really good points. I use the word good here because of its indisputably positive, yet vague nature - in contrast to saying something like "insightful." The problem in Benedikt's piece (and in her response to you) is that she chooses to associate the bubble she grew up in with something that is inherently bad - that because Israel doesn't exactly live up to her standards of what constitutes a modern Western democracy, those who sheltered her from this epiphany must have close-minded bigots.Goldblog reader Diane Arieff bemoans the polarization Benedikt, and AIPAC, represent:
Introducing the non-Jewish boyfriend (and future spouse) only further characterizes negatives of the American Jewish bubble. But Benedikt falls apart and misses a valuable opportunity to appraise the origins, legitimacy and faults of the American Jewish bubble. If anything, by her own admission, Benedikt's lack of intellectual curiosity seems to be of her own making. As a Zionist summer camper she feels that she was brainwashed, and didn't question anything. As a college student, she was too in love with Israel to focus on her life outside of it. As a student in Israel, she was blinded by nothing but her own ignorance - no matter how snarky she sounds.
If she had chosen to question the nature of blind allegiance to Israel, that would have been one thing - but as a student of neither history nor current events, she accepts passivity and self-righteous introspection as the only means through which she can absolve her perceived (and maybe actual) sins. Had she merely chosen to say at some point "perhaps an immigrant's attitude that pervades much of the Jewish community could explain this bubble," or even "because of my parents' rejection of my choice for marriage, it can be reasonably said that I am not an impartial observer regarding this matter."
No, Benedikt chooses not to do that.The Benedikt piece, to me, represents my worst fears about how the relationship between Israel and American Jews will play out in the decades to come. These days, I find myself feeling frustrated, exasperated and trapped between two unsatisfying positions: on one side, an army of pro-Bibi, pro-settlement AIPAC types and on the other, this amorphous, vaguely affiliated (or not) group of young, liberal and secular Jews who regard Israel to be, at best, embarrassing or irrelevant, and at worst - a ripe target for activist hostility.Jennifer Cowan gets to the heart of one of problems with Benedikt's essay, which is that she seems unaware that AIPAC isn't the only organization in the Jewish world:
Benedikt's response to the questions you raised does nothing to alleviate my exasperation at the dippy self-indulgence and dilettante-ish politics of those who "think" like her. I can't help but think that for too many American Jews like her, Israel is not a Jewish homeland - imperfect but evolving and necessary - but more of a retro and disposable accessory to be cast off because it doesn't jibe with the other fashionable political accessories one adopts in college - like a red string Kabbalah bracelet or a checkered keffiyeh bought at Whole Foods.
I know I'm being bitchy, but the narcissism, and lack of rigor or seriousness in both of her pieces was SO unbearable. The subtext of her deeply unsatisfying and shallow response seems to be - "here I was recording a self-absorbed diary of my Very Important Feelings about Israel, and then Jeffrey Goldberg got all mean and unaccountably hostile about it."Thanks for responding to her essay, since you managed to say everything I had been thinking disjointedly about it. Reading the aftermath, I'm struck by one constant, which is that she only sees things in black and white. Not just Israel is perfect/Israel is evil and camp counselors were gods/camp counselors were propagandists. But also, in describing her move to New York, she couldn't see a way to both go to B'nai Jeshurun and go to dance clubs. It was either one or the other, when actually, New York is a *great* place to do both. When someone criticized her "haggadah," she called him a motherfucker.
Has she never heard of the New Israel Fund? Of Hazon? Of Rabbis for Human Rights? Has she ever read Abraham Joshua Heschel? Did she even bother to think about a way to integrate her concern for human rights and civil rights and a Jewish identity? It's not like the commitment of Jews to human rights is a secret. She needed to pretend to be struggling with the question of Israel and Judaism because otherwise, there's no hook for her essay, but it seems pretty clear that she never even tried to bridge the gap. She just rejected her parents' ideology for her husband's without, as you pointed out, really ever thinking for herself. And that's fine. As my husband likes to say, "religion is voluntary." But you should only get to criticize if you're actually engaging. Saying fuck you to Israel and Judaism and claiming that as analysis doesn't add anything to the conversation.
Pre-Internet, she would have written the essay for the Village Voice, everyone who read it would have nodded and agreed with her and that would have been the end of it. Now, unfortunately, she gets held up as the voice of a new Jewish generation.