Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book review: "Saving Israel"

Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Center has written an intriguing book with an ambitious goal: to save the Jewish State and, by extension, Judaism.

The full title is "Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End."

For most of the book, Gordis describes the problems facing Israel, and the problems seem insurmountable: peace with Palestinian Arabs is a chimera, young American Jews no longer identify with Israel and have increasingly become immersed in anti-Israel leftism, the ability of Jews to articulate the reasons that Israel is needed is deteriorating, Israel will never be at peace as long as Hamas and Hezbollah and similar groups exist, the number of prominent people who are against the very existence of Israel keeps increasing, Iran and increasing technology ensures that Israel will always live under a cloud of worry about total annihilation, Israel's Arab minority is increasingly radical and hostile to Israel's existence, Israelis themselves have lost passion for Zionism, and an Israel that doesn't embrace its Judaism has little chance of survival.

The problems are laid out well. Gordis doesn't pull any punches and he doesn't hide from any problems. He acknowledges and does not try to minimize the real pain that Palestinian Arabs have and the real problems in Israeli society today. He explores and pokes holes in simple solutions and stopgaps that people have suggested (like Israel trading the Wadi Ara area for settlement blocs to help reduce the demographic problem - even anti-Israel Arabs that live there would end up moving elsewhere in Israel rather than become members of a Palestinian Arab state.)

His description of the problems is so good that they are almost overwhelming.

Gordis brings up two disheartening stories that set up his solution. In one, his son is paired up with a non-religious Israeli at a post-high school class where they taught Talmud. The subject was the very first page of the first tractate in Brachot. The teacher wanted them to go through the daf and list all the questions they could, and the non-religious Israeli's first question was "What's the Shema?" A Hebrew-speaking Israel went through all his years of schooling without knowing the most basic information about Jewish life.

The other story was about a girl from Sderot who was sent to America as a respite from the incessant rocket attacks. Upon her return, she was angry - asking why she had to go to California to see a havdalah ceremony for the first time in her life.

The Zionism of early Zionist poets and thinkers was explicitly anti-religious. Gordis mentions a children's song written by famed Chaim Bialik, about a see-saw, which actually denies the existence of God due to its playful use of a Mishnaic phrase (mah le-ma'alah, mah le-matah? "Who is above and who is below?") He brings other examples of rabid anti-religious sentiment in major early Zionist leaders.

So what does Gordis suggest? He wants the very definition of what it means to be Jewish to change. He wants Israel to become a central part of diaspora Judaism and he wants Judaism to become the central part of Israeli life. He is equally upset at how Israeli schools ignore all Jewish history between the Bible and the birth of Zionism as he is at how the Chief Rabbinate of Israel ignores the opportunities to lead the entire country in debates about the religion, choosing instead to concentrate only on the religious sector.

Only when Judaism returns as the centerpiece of the Jewish state can Zionists articulate the purpose of Israel. Only a people who know who they are and how they became that way can justify their existence and their self-defense.

Gordis, ordained as a conservative rabbi, couches his suggestions in a pluralistic Jewish way. He doesn't refer to his beliefs in the book and one could argue that Conservative or Masorti Judaism has not exactly inspired masses of Jews in America. Nevertheless, his ideas make sense. Israelis need to become Jewishly literate and there need to be public debates about every difficult issue not (only) from a Western perspective but from the rich Jewish tradition. The divide between the religious Zionist, the haredi and the secular Israelis is too large and the religious have been too insular. Gordis shows that non-religious Israelis seem to want to learn more about Judaism as well but all too often do not have the tools.

Although he doesn't suggest it, there should be TV shows in Israel where Jews of all denominations debate current issues from a Jewish perspective. What is the proper Jewish response to Gilad Shalit's kidnapping? Should Israeli shops sell chametz (leavened products) on Passover? What is the balance between defending Israeli lives and the lives of enemy civilians? How much separation should there be between Jewish and Arab Israelis? The number of topics is endless and it can start a real debate, as well as encourage a Jewish renaissance in Israel. This renaissance might not be traditionally Orthodox but it is far preferable to raising a generation of Jewishly illiterate Israelis.

It is certainly possible to be passionate about Judaism even if one is not Orthodox, and the Orthodox should not be afraid to publicly debate others if they are confident about their own beliefs.

Do these suggestions solve the problems that Israel has? Hardly. Gordis' questions are better than his answer. But his ideas are a prerequisite to solving Israel's problems. Israeli Jews need to be confident enough and conversant enough in their own Jewishness to rely on it to inform their decisions. Without that, the Jewish State could, God forbid, turn into just a Hebrew-speaking America that has nothing unique to offer the world and world Jewry.

It is curious that this book was published in the US and Canada, but apparently not yet in Israel. He doesn't spend much time on what can be done in the diaspora to revive Judaism as well as Zionism among Jewishly illiterate youngsters. Perhaps he is uncomfortable with the fact that most outreach in the US is done by the Orthodox and that Conservative Judaism has largely failed in that regard. Nevertheless, this is a large and glaring omission in this book.

His arguments are centered on what Israel needs to do, and he needs to make these arguments to Israeli society, not English-speaking Jews. Those arguments are compelling.

Saving Israel might overreach a bit in its goals, but that doesn't make it any less important as a starting point in creating a framework that could indeed save Israel.
A good interview with Gordis can be found here, and his webpage is here (h/t joe5348)