Many American Jews have insisted that a healthy, mutual friendship with Israel entails criticizing Israel. Many Israelis, especially those who work with Jews from the center and the left, have accepted those marching orders, creating paradigms about “hugging and wrestling.” And they share reassuring philosophical insights like Harvard’s Michael Sandel’s teaching that embarrassment reflects belonging — Syrian brutality does not embarrass us: Israel’s milder mistakes do.
Many American Jews are so committed to wrestling, however, they frequently forget to hug; at a conference of young American Jews I recently attended, many Israeli delegates from the center-left resented that every conversation about Israel seemed to start with a ritualistic condemnation of Israel’s settlements.
A healthy relationship involves criticism, even if some take that freedom too far — but freedom to criticize must be mutual. Yet, what was once a constructive Zionist critique of American Jewry has been silenced — frequently by the same leaders and rabbis asserting their freedom to criticize Israel.
The most recent example involves the firestorm Makom’s Robbie Gringras stirred with his May 10 Jewish Week Opinion piece asking where Israel fits in the kind of happy-dappy worship service he experienced at Romemu in New York (“Shabbat Service Here Highlights Israel-Diaspora Gap”). Although his article began by calling it “a wonderfully inspiring religious service” — I have never had the pleasure — Gringras deemed the service too foreign to Israelis, too individualistic for his Zionist sensibility, and too saccharine-sweet for the realities Israelis face. His harshest line characterized the rabbi’s do-good sermon as “ecumenical, universal, and ever-so-slightly Christian.”
The article infuriated American Jews, especially liberal clergy. One typical reaction denounced the article by bashing Israel, saying: “Maybe a larger number of Israeli Jews would find a way to God and spirituality if the government weren’t delegitimizing the kinds of worship practiced by the majority of Jews in the United States,” then asking: “Who cares? Why should a Jewish worship experience in the United States have to matter to an Israeli?” Boy, talk about the best defense is a good offense. Gringras retreated, declaring on The Jewish Week website, “I blew it.”
Gringras’ apology was telling. Reasserting his left-center bona fides with the people he offended, he picked on the big, bad Orthodox wolf, writing, “I miscalculated how the intolerance of the Israeli Orthodox establishment has ensured an Israeli voice — even a progressive one like my own — is not welcome when asking questions of progressive Judaism.”
The fury triggered by Gringras and other critics sends a clear message: American Jewry, and especially liberal Jewish practices, must be immune from criticism, especially from Israeli outsiders. But shouldn’t hugging and wrestling — the phrase Gringras helped coin — go both ways? Don’t we have much to learn from each other, even when the language gets a little purple in the provoking?
I grew up in the Young Judaea youth movement in the 1970s, when “social criticism,” as we called it, was one of the Zionist movement’s highest values. It involved self-criticism but also entailed absorbing the Israeli and Zionist criticism of American Jewry’s materialism, careerism, individualism, self-absorption, Cathedral-style Judaism and rampant assimilation. We saw Zionism, which had responded to the Jewish problem of the 19th century — anti-Semitism — now responding to the 20th-century’s Jewish problems, which concerned the quality of Jewish life more than the preservation of Jewish lives.
Yes, we overly romanticized the kibbutz as an ideal, even then, let alone now when Israel is a high-tech colossus with materialism and selfishness issues of its own. But constructing a model of a more collective, vital, informal, hip, muscular, real, nationalist, idealistic Judaism helped us — most of whom grew up to become good American Jews — and American Jewry, which absorbed some of the best of the Zionist sensibility. American Jewry is prouder, stronger, more politically savvy, and culturally more dynamic thanks to Israel, while American Jews are more confident individually and collectively thanks to Zionism.
Ultimately, we all must learn from each other. Israelis could benefit from absorbing more American Jewish openness, diversity, and liberality, while American Jews could benefit from doses of Israeli collectivism, informality, and intensity. But true learning, like true friendship, will involve occasional criticism. Inevitably, in our headline-driven sensationalist culture, that criticism will sometimes be shrill. Both sides need humility to thrive. Both Israelis and American Jews would benefit by thinking more deeply about the message and stop being so touchy about the tone and wording.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” was just published by Oxford University Press.
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