September 14, 2006
Labeling ourselves as ‘right’ or ‘left’ limits us
I'm not done.
Several weeks ago, I wrote an article on these pages about the war in Israel and how I believe L.A.'s local Jewish left had shown themselves to be a politically irrelevant fringe. People whom I love and respect deeply from my days in Peace Now expressed dismay that one of their own could so publicly criticize. (One even wrote a letter to The Journal stating he was less worried about my opinions and more worried about me as an individual.)
And people on the right wrote in congratulating and welcoming me into the fold. (Those letters came from members of my synagogue who have had to endure my liberal diatribes for years.)
People tell me that it took a lot of courage to so publicly differ with people who have been my friends and fellow travelers on the left since my college days. It didn't take courage. It took turning 55. There are no more dress rehearsals in life. While I have always been outspoken, I am beginning to believe that everything previous was the rehearsal. If I don't say now what are really the deepest concerns of my soul, particularly my Jewish soul, when will I?
So I have to tell all of you, left and right, who wrote those letters, sent those e-mails and made those phone calls of either condemnation or support, while I thank you for those words because they caused me to examine and think deeply, I believe you are all wrong.
The conclusion I have come to is that how we are defining ourselves, left and right, and the boxes into which we imprison our thought with big tags and labels, is what is wrong. Those rigid identifications are limiting our thinking and our ability to conceptualize. We are too busy digging our heels into our political identities and not busy enough breaking those boxes in order to ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves and of our colleagues.
I believe this more than ever after two weeks in Israel.
One of the wonderful characteristics of Israelis is that no one is ever intimidated to ask the big and the small questions and then state their opinions. Because they now have to fear for their survival in a way they have not in years, the fear of changing their minds and ripping off their labels pales in comparison. Israeli society is in an intense free flow of debate and discussion, accusation and self-recrimination that portends many new ways of thinking and perceiving.
While Israelis are furious with their government and military leaders over a war that was badly fought, very few believe that the effort was unjust. From their recent writings and in discussions with influential Israeli opinion makers, I was exposed to a variety of thinking.
During a Shabbat dinner immediately following the cease-fire, a leading scholar of Jewish thought offered his analysis: "We got away easy, paying a minimal price to see our mistakes. Hopefully, the lessons have been learned so we know how to effectively fight the next war, which I fear is coming very soon."
On the night that Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah offered his public apology to the Lebanese people, a Hebrew University professor said: "If Nasrallah is telling the Lebanese that he miscalculated Israel's reaction to Hezbollah kidnapping our soldiers, then maybe he is learning there is too high a price to pay for their actions. While he is apologizing for bringing on the destruction of the south Lebanon, could he also be indicating that Hezbollah suffered more than they are willing to admit? Maybe we don't know everything. Maybe we did a better job than we think?"
One very powerful leader of a leading left organization in Israel asked that he remain anonymous when he told me, "It is time that on the left we stop living an illusion. Right now, the issue is not the Palestinians or whether there are partners for negotiations. A Palestinian state can no longer be viewed as the key to our acceptance and living in peace in the region.
"We better recognize that they hate us so much they are willing to wipe us off the map, as [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has so boldly said. Why do you think he wants the nuclear power? Who do you think he is planning on using it against? Everyone better wake up that we are under the threat of annihilation. If the Americans don't act to deter Iran's nuclear capabilities, Israel will have to. We have no choice."
The work I did this time in Israel was for the Shalem Center, which has been unjustly labeled as a right-wing think tank, a label that gives permission to dismiss their work. When they called me last April, my immediate response to them was, "I don't think this is a match. My politics are on the left." The response to me from David Hazony, the editor of Shalem's Azure magazine was, "You don't know what our politics are. You are just assuming what you have heard to be true."
I challenged myself to be open and meet with them when I was in Israel in May. I found them to be people asking some very significant questions of Israeli society, the Jewish community and the world of academia. Perhaps it was fortuitous. It came at the right time for me.
Among other issues, Shalem has taken up the battle for the good name of Zionism. Their scholars are the counterweight to the post-Zionist theories proffered today by many Israeli academics, who seek to debunk the mythologies they believe were perpetrated by Israel's founders.
Post-Zionists are labeled left. As a result, Shalem has been labeled right. Yet, when I met with Shalem fellows and professionals, I found a very different story. There were those who believed in traditional left causes, those who believed in right ones and those who believed in both.
Shalem fellow Yossi Klein-Halevy, who has traveled on both sides of the divide, told me that his new book is seeking to restore the mythic nature of Zionism that the post-Zionists have sought to unravel. I admitted to him that for years, as a result of post-Zionism, I have struggled to kill my own mythic Zionism and be starkly realistic about the truths that the post-Zionists had awoken me to see. I even told him that when I go Israeli folk dancing these days that I try to see it as exercise and fun, rather than a source of Jewish pride and the fulfillment of participating in a dream of a culture recreated.
As I said this, I suddenly realized how politics had invaded upon my folk dancing. Does my yearning for mythic Zionism, especially when I am gliding across the dance floor with 300 other Jews who are singing the same song, make me a right-winger? Or worse yet, just a silly, unrealistic sentimental aging Jew?
In another conversation with Shalem fellow Michael Oren, who had just returned from his army post in Lebanon, I was challenged to consider whether this war, as has been stated in the media, was a proxy war representing the bigger powers of the United States and Iran, and if it was another manifestation of the terror war being waged by global jihad? If so, I thought, does Israel's survival now represent much more than a Jewish state and reach far beyond to be a global symbol of Western vs. Eastern, something I would never before allow myself to consider?
Does my willingness to entertain these thoughts mean that I am acting out of a victim mentality, that I am paranoid seeing worldwide plots or that I no longer care about the rights of the Palestinians, the Lebanese refugees who fled their homes during the war or that the veins of my bleeding heart have suddenly been cauterized?
No, it means I am willing to question. It means that I know the world is changing and with today's realities, we can no longer respond as we once did.