Daniel Gordis began his address to supporters of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh last week by announcing that what was about to happen within the walls of Rodef Shalom Congregation was something that has come to be “unusual in the United States.”
“We are going to have a conversation about Israel in a synagogue,” he said.
Gordis, who is senior vice president and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and a regular columnist for both The Jerusalem Post and the Bloomberg View, was the featured speaker at the Federation’s 2016 annual Thank You Event for donors who had contributed a minimum of $1,000 to Federation’s campaign.
Israel, he explained, is a subject that most American rabbis will not discuss from the pulpit anymore because to do so — from any perspective — would risk annoying half the congregation.
And yet, it is a robust conversation about Israel that Jews need to have in order to ensure its vibrancy as a Jewish state when that country celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2048.
That conversation, however, must be “nuanced,” he said, a quality that currently is missing when the wider world discusses the Jewish state.
Israel has a long history of self-criticism and truth-seeking, Gordis said, both of which are essential Jewish values. He cited the example of Natan Alterman, the poet laureate of Israel in 1948, who published a poem called “Al Zot” (“For This”) that described the image of a young man, “a lion cub flexing,” on a jeep. When that young man comes across an Arab couple, they turn to the rear and face a wall.
“No one knows what Alterman was referring to,” Gordis said. “But he was warning the Jewish population of Israel that in every war, people do things that are not OK.”
Poets, Gordis noted, are expected to craft such messages. But what was remarkable, he said, was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s response to the poem.
“Ben-Gurion writes Alterman and says, ‘I hereby request your permission to reprint 100,000 copies of your poem. I want one in the pocket of every Israeli soldier,’” Gordis said.
Likewise, Gordis recalled a 1949 book published in Israel by S. Yizhar called “Khirbet Khizeh” about the destruction of a fictional Arab village. Not only did that book become an Israeli best-seller, but in 1964, it became required reading in all Israeli high schools.
As a final example, Gordis recalled that in 1982, after the Sabra and Shatila massacres in which Christians killed hundreds of Muslims at a refugee camp, “the world went crazy, and so did Israel.”
Even though no Muslim was harmed by an Israeli soldier, Prime Minister Menachem Begin accepted Israel’s “moral obligation to protect the Muslim population with which Israel was at war.”
“The Jewish state has made itself unique in its ability to think critically and self-reflectively about what it is and what it wants to be,” Gordis said.
Even today, he observed, there are reports about the moral code of the Israeli Defense Forces on the front pages of Israeli newspapers.
“These are great conversations to be having,” Gordis said. “To be a great lover of Israel is to love Israel’s quest for truth.”
To say Israel can do no wrong “is missing a lot,” he cautioned. “And to say the occupation is wrong is OK as long as we recognize that’s not the end all and be all of what Israel is about.”
The challenge of the Jewish people in 2016 is to build a conversation based on nuance that in turn will lead to a healthy Jewish state in 2048.
Looking ahead 32 years, the “critical challenge” facing Israel, Gordis said, will not be military or economic, but moral.
He emphasized the imperative of raising a generation of Jewish children who “know their story and are intellectually nimble” in order to effectively combat a narrative of Israel that is pervasive but not true.
“The world in which we live is consumed by a fundamental lie,” Gordis said.
He referenced the hostility to Israel in the world at large as exemplified by the United Nations, citing such examples as the 1975 General Assembly resolution slandering Zionism by equating it with racism and the Durban conferences against racism held in 2001 and 2009, at which copies of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and “Mein Kampf” were distributed.
Between 2003 and 2012, the U.N. issued 314 resolutions against Israel — 40 percent of the total number of resolutions it passed on anything, he said.
It is the idea of Israel, and not Israel as a country, that has engendered such bias, Gordis said, attributing that assessment to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Powers.
“The world has tired of Israel as a Jewish state,” he said.
Gordis emphasized the tough situation in which Israel is finding itself, when, according to a recent Palestinian poll, 72 percent of Palestinians are not in favor of ending the conflict even if Israel returns to the 1967 borders and the Palestinians are given their own state.
“What are we supposed to do? Israel is stuck,” he said. “Israel has no good moves on the chessboard.”
The world needs to be reminded, said Gordis, that the Jews “just want what other peoples have: a place to shape and define our own future.”
Still, Gordis is optimistic about Israel in 2048.
The Jewish state will flourish “if we understand how much is at stake and train our children and not look the other way when the world goes crazy,” he said.
In response to a question following his prepared remarks, Gordis called to task journalist and occasional J Street speaker Peter Beinhart for “never saying anything good about Israel” and J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami for not emphasizing Israel’s virtues to his young Jewish followers.
“If you want to criticize Israel, criticize like a mother, not a mother-in-law,” he said. “That’s what I’m not hearing [from Beinhart and Ben-Ami]: the love.”
Prior to Gordis’ address, Dr. Stanley M. Marks was awarded the PNC Community Builders Award by PNC Bank president and CEO Sy Holzer.
The award is given to “an outstanding individual who has dedicated his life to building community,” Holzer said.
A lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, Marks said in accepting his award that he “lives life by the guiding principle of giving back to the community that has done so much for me.”
Marks was recognized for his support of the Federation, Israel and the wider Pittsburgh community.
Anita Lopatin Smolover received the Federation’s Campaigner of the Year Award. Federation vice chair Meryl Ainsman called Smolover “a true gem.”
“For over 75 years I have had another love [in addition to her family],” Smolover said, “the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.”
The event was underwritten by the Ira and Nanette Gordon (z”l) Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.