Are the Jews in trouble? From the outside, things look quite good. Anti-Semitism is at an all-time low in the United States; the Obama administration seems to allow Israel to do what it wants, even as many of us disagree with what it is choosing to do; Jewish Day school enrollments seem to be on the rise. But inside a disease is festering. And this disease is not about assimilation or hyper-nationalism or literacy or intermarriage or any of the things Jewish public intellectuals and sociologists enjoy writing about. It’s about discourse. Or, to be more precise, it’s about the nature of the discourse.
The latest instantiation of this disease arose around the publication of Peter Beinart’s provocative but hardly radical new book, A Crisis of Zionism [reviewed here in RD –Eds.]. In the Forward last week, J.J. Goldberg had a fascinating take on why it has everyone so “unhinged.” Many of the criticisms went beyond contempt—they bordered on inquisitional. One particular critique by Rabbi Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Center, a right-leaning think-tank in Jerusalem, contends that Beinart “detests Israel.”
Any honest reader of A Crisis of Zionism will not come away thinking its author detests Israel. I won’t burden readers with Gordis’ argument (I encourage those interested to read it and judge for themselves); my point here is not to engage these claims, in large part because we all know that little of what we say is likely to convince anybody of anything they don’t already believe. For professional public intellectuals like Gordis, this is a way to stay in the news. For academics such as myself, it is a way to feel relevant when most days we teach a small cadre of wonderful undergraduate and graduate students and toil away at scholarship that few people will ever read.
But for all of us, one hopes, there is integrity in the process. We passionately believe what we write and we are simultaneously committed to literary etiquette and ethics. Unfortunately, sometimes the vitriol gets out of hand. In this case, language such as “tribalism,” “fascist,” “Israel-hater” and more egregious ad hominem comments floated from keyboards to the world of cyberspace. This is not new. We can read transcripts of battles in the US Congress in the 19th century or accusations back and forth in the Zionist Congresses in the early 20th that would make our hair stand on end. When one gets into this business, either as a professional or as a moonlighter, it comes with the territory.
This is not the disease. The disease is that some of us have become so impassioned in making our views known that we have abandoned one of the fundamental elements of integrity in public discourse: privacy. We assume that when we communicate privately, in word or letter, with our colleagues and friends—even with opponents—a seal of trust exists between us. Just as we do not plagiarize, we honor the code of privacy and do not make public that which was meant to remain private.
For me, that trust was broken in the midst of this passionate debate in a way that tells me we have crossed a line. Writing a Facebook wall comment in response to a May 3rd debate between Gordis and Peter Beinart at Columbia University, I referred to Rabbi Gordis as a “tribal fascist.” The tribalist label is something he proudly owns; the “fascist” addition was my own. It was an unfortunate comment and I regret writing it although I can, if the occasion arises, defend it. Which is to say that while I see many of Gordis’ statements as dehumanizing and suppressive, I’m aware of the power of certain words to utterly destroy the possibility of meaningful dialogue. Which, in fact, is the very awareness Gordis appears to lack.
After seeing my comment, Rabbi Gordis contacted me through Facebook and we had a private conversation. He was, as one can imagine, very upset at my use of the term “fascist.” In a previous personal message sent to me the day before he read my accusation, he acknowledged our differences and asked if I wanted to have a conversation. I replied I would be happy to and briefly made my perspective on things quite clear. I then noted that others had also used that word to describe his position and sent him one such blog. I asked for his email so we could correspond at greater length. I figured that was where we were headed. I was wrong.
The following day I received a link to an essay Rabbi Gordis published on Commentary magazine’s website mostly responding to those who wrote critical responses to his critique of Beinart. I did not write a critical response to Gordis. In fact, I do not think I have ever mentioned Gordis in anything I have ever published. As I read his essay I noticed that Rabbi Gordis had reproduced my private messages to him, using them as a source of critique. I was not asked permission, nor would I have given it if asked. Why? Because what one says to an interlocutor in private is meant only for them.
This is not about our ideological differences. Those remain part of legitimate debate. This is about integrity and the ethos of public discourse. It is about where we, as Jews, have fallen in letting our beliefs supplant human decency.
Why do I tell this story? Because here is where the disease shows itself: not in vitriolic language, as unfortunate as it is, not in food-fight accusations, but in the total disregard for privacy and the collapse of integrity as part of public discourse. Some Jews seem so adamant about making their points known or in defending themselves that they abandon all sense of responsibility to the “other”; not only the other who is perceived as the enemy, but the other who disagrees with them.
Perhaps the problem is that Rabbi Gordis no longer makes a distinction between the two. He seems like a man in a war where the words of others are missiles all targeting his or his people’s heart and soul. Men with thin skin are dangerous in battle because they fear that any wound will kill them. Hence, any threat requires an unmitigated response—in this case breaking a bond of privacy to go for the kill. We are all guilty of sometimes crossing a line. But some of us are guilty of erasing it.
A friend of mine once caught his ten-year-old son stealing. When I asked if he’d punished him, he told me, “No, the punishment is in the crime. I told my son that the real punishment for being untrustworthy is that people won’t trust you.”