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No more Jewish loyalty oaths

by Steven J. Zipperstein

March 26, 2014 | 1:26 pm

Photo by MathKnight/Wikipedia

Photo by MathKnight/Wikipedia

Mostly we talk with those with whom we agree. There is a palpable satisfaction in seeing those sitting beside us nod happily, finishing our sentences, relishing the movement of our minds. Those, in stark contrast, who react by questioning every statement — I know some such people, I suspect you do, too — these we tend to slip away from except, perhaps, at Passover seders, weddings and the like where the wages of kinship or obligation make such encounters unavoidable.

How much less likely is it to seek out conversation — or, as some might call it, dialogue — with those with whom we disagree about those matters that cut the deepest, those that most define who and what we are? 

For me, there is no issue that cuts deeper than Israel. (I was raised in the religious Zionist youth movement; most of my closest high-school friends live on the West Bank, with several of them leading figures in the settler’s movement.) Bush and Cheney I dislike, Karl Rove and Marco Rubio as well, but with nothing comparable to the white heat, the immediacy that I feel still for Yitzhak Shamir, decades after he stepped down from Israel’s helm, or the tightness deep in my belly that I experience when contemplating the prospect of Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett as Israel’s prime minister. This intensity has an undeniable physicality about it, a ferocity born in intellection, maybe, but that has, long ago, gone far beyond mind, resting unmistakably in heart and intestine. 

And, of course, no other feature of Jewish life has so surfaced, in recent years in particular, comparable to Israel as the ultimate test of Jewish credibility. Indeed, no other potential litmus test even compares. Graze on whatever you want, on the street, on Yom Kippur deep in the afternoon just outside a synagogue immersed in plaintive, hunger-induced supplication — gastronomic slippage will do nothing to obstruct your election to the board of your local Federation or your university’s Jewish studies advisory board. And if Spinoza were around today, he’d never be cut off because of something so paltry, so abstract as disbelief in the immortality of the soul — probably he’d be named to a chair in Jewish studies. But if that same brilliant, asexual ascetic agreed to speak side by side in a public forum with someone sympathetic to BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), his Hillel chapter would drop him like a hot potato for fear of losing funding.

This situation, which feels like something imagined by Larry David, cries out for pluralism; for open, unfettered dialogue, if you will. And yet how can we demand such pluralism — as we must — when so many of us are, in truth, anything but pluralistic? Writing the first draft of these remarks, I found myself sitting on the patio of a Berkeley cafe within earshot of a congenial, and also resolute, clutch of activists in their late 60s, petitions on their laptops. Among these good-hearted people, nearly every statement, it seemed, was normative, packed with judgments more than merely emphatic, better described as gospel-like.  I listened as one of them related — in some detail — the one and only conceivable way in which to effectively brush one’s teeth. “Doing it any other way makes no sense,” the activist said.  I jotted these words down in my notes for this talk, feeling they somehow got to the heart of the matter.  

Donors might, at times, bludgeon with fiscal threats. A student leader from J Street’s campus arm, for instance, recently wrote how members of his organization typically hear such threats relayed to them by Hillel leaders. 

“If I support the work you’re doing around Israel, we could lose a major funder,” Jacob Plitman, the president of the J Street U national board, wrote in the New York Jewish Week in December 2013. “It’s either you or $50,000 that will benefit all your peers.”This is intolerable. Some of us — armed with a far larger storehouse of ideas than worldly capital — know how to bludgeon, too, however. There is no symmetry between the two, certainly, but there is a typological resemblance.   

It behooves us, I know that it well behooves me, too, to recognize this. When speaking about my own views on Israel — on the interplay, for example, between democracy for all, human decency for all but also security for all — I try to recognize that all that I and anyone else (including most of Israel’s leading security experts, who have famously come out on the side of concerted negotiations) can provide, in truth, are reasonably educated guesses. The best scenario is, at best, the one that stands out amid a medley of fraught alternatives. This ought to militate against unabashed dogmatism, against the inclination to declaim, against the predisposition to live, as do so many us, in political echo chambers like the one that I watched with such fascinated unease at the Berkeley coffeehouse. 

An age of mutually incompatible certainties, this sometimes is how it feels, the one begetting the other, infecting the other with some of its own toxins. Yet, as Chekhov once remarked, “Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.” The rest, you might credibly say, is dialogue.


Steven J. Zipperstein, Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University, is currently Kronhill senior scholar at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. A version of this essay was delivered on March 2 at a forum on pluralism marking the 40th anniversary of the San Francisco Bay Area Lehrhaus Judaica.

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