Look at how well you raised us: In appreciation of my upbringing as a Diaspora Jew

Daniel Gordis has it right.

I don’t know much else about him, but I know that much.

I first learned of Daniel Gordis when I saw him speak at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s annual general meeting in December of last year. I have thought about the ideas he shared that night almost every day since then. I think they resonated with me because they seemed so obvious in hindsight, impossible to have ever missed, and yet it felt like my first time hearing them. Beyond even that, they seemed to contradict much of the messaging I’ve always heard from the mainstream Jewish community.

In his talk, Gordis investigated the growing generational divide in attitudes to Israel among North American Jewry. (Of course, the divide does not define every member of the respective generations, perhaps not even a majority of them, but there is certainly a general trend.) Listening to him forced me to reflect on what I thought I knew about Israel, and also about why his statements of truth felt so novel. After considering the matter for months, I finally have something of a hypothesis: as an eloquent and reflective American-born Israeli, Gordis is able to identify and candidly address elements of Israel that seem so obvious they’re not worth mentioning to native Israelis, yet, in my experience at least, have become almost taboo topics among North American Jews.

So what exactly did Gordis say that was so obvious yet so groundbreaking? It’s simple, really. I’ll even quote him directly, speaking on the purpose of Israel.

“(Israel) was going to be a democracy explicitly and unabashedly devoted to the flourishing of a particular people. It was not going to be a Canadian liberal democracy, or a liberal democracy like you have in the United States. It was going to be what’s called by most scholars an ethnic democracy, which is a tougher road to hoe. Which is more complicated. Which is by definition a very complex balancing act. But that was what it was always meant to be,” he said that night.

It’s a complex balancing act because it’s a system based upon two ultimate yet ultimately unconnected values: the flourishing of Jews and full democratic rights for all of its inhabitants. So what happens when those values find themselves in opposition to each other? One of them has to give. That’s a situation modern Israel finds itself in, and it has chosen to prioritize its nature as a Jewish state over its nature as a democratic one.

If you read that and find yourself getting angry at the notion Israel isn’t a liberal democracy, it may be worth questioning why you believe that it has to be. As Gordis said, Israel it is by design that Israel is not a liberal democracy. Furthermore, Israel cannot afford to be one at the moment, because then it would cease to exist as we know it.

Gordis went on to say his generation failed my generation by not teaching us about Israel as it really is, but as a “Hebrew-speaking, falafel-eating version of Canada.” If, Gordis said, we had instead learned about the real Israel from the beginning, then maybe so many of us wouldn’t have been so shocked and appalled when we broke out of our Jewish bubbles and saw the real Israel for the first time. Or as Gordis put it:

“A smart, thoughtful, sophisticated, group of college students and post-college students are waking up and saying, ‘Wait a minute, a lot of things that happened in Israel wouldn’t happen and shouldn’t happen and couldn’t happen in Canada. And since we think this is such a remarkable democracy, if the things that happen over there could never happen over here, and should never happen over here, why is it okay for them to happen over there?’” he said. “We’ve actually completely failed them. We’ve actually never engaged them in a serious conversation about the ways, not in which Israel and Canada are similar, but in the ways in which they’re intended to be very different.”

I found Gordis’s message to be particularly insightful, and ring true in my own experience. But why did this “failure” occur in the first place?

Then vs. Now

I’ve noticed a similar rallying cry at a lot of the talks I’ve attended over the years. Somebody will be talking about criticism of Israel, and then say something along the lines of, “don’t they know Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East?” to a round of applause and cheers. This call-and-response has bothered me for some time, but it wasn’t until hearing Gordis that I was able to finally figure out why. It’s because it lumps all criticism of Israel into the same basket.

Not all criticism is created equal, and some criticism of Israel is specifically directed at its undemocratic actions. There’s a difference between saying “Israel should not continue to exist as a Jewish country,” and “Israel should try harder to extricate itself from the Palestinian territories.” But when we operate under the assumption that Israel is a democracy just like any other, and therefore everything it does is democratic, and therefore everything it does is objectively just, we rob ourselves of the framework to properly distinguish between criticism that undermines Israel’s very existence, and criticism that legitimately challenges its actions. Said differently, we rob ourselves of the ability to distinguish destructive criticism from constructive criticism.

To be entirely honest, the louder I hear people insist they support a liberal-democratic Israel that doesn’t exist, the more it sounds to me like they’re ashamed of the ethnic-democratic Israel that actually does. In my opinion, if you support Israel, you shouldn’t support it because it’s “the only democracy in the Middle East;” you should support it because it’s the homeland of the Jews, and be open to grappling with the complexities that entails.

In the past 71 years, Israel has grown into a strong and proud country, and I don’t think we’re doing Israel any favours by reflexively defending all of its actions without reflecting on what it could do differently. That kind of behaviour was beneficial when Israel was still weak, in its incubation stage. Now, however, Israel can feel secure in its continued existence, and aim for progressively bigger goals beyond mere survival. But achieving big goals means undergoing big changes; Israel won’t reach its full potential without adapting to the demands of its new goals, and it can’t adapt without soliciting and evaluating feedback.

So how did so many members of the mainstream Jewish community lose sight of Israel’s true purpose and nature? 70 years ago, when Israel was first created, I doubt very many people who supported it held such illusions. Israel was designed to be a homeland for the Jews, and it did not have a very democratic creation. It was forged in a bloody war, with great casualties on both sides, and many non-Jewish people driven from their homes. But the great cost of war and forcing other people into exile was worth it to the Jews then, because the Holocaust had taught them firsthand the greater cost of not having a homeland.

The “Messiness of History”

Gordis calls situations such as the War of Independence, where people are forced to engage in violence or other undesirable deeds out of self-interest, “the messiness of history.”

“Zionism was looking to get into the messiness of history. Because the Jews had discovered over 2,000 years that staying out of the messiness of history did not work out well. You could stay clean, but you didn’t often live to tell the story. Zionism made a fundamental decision: that all of the moral complexity that history entails was a moral complexity that we were going to embrace. Because 2,000 years of Jewish history had proved that there was no other choice,” he said.

Gordis is able to acknowledge the real suffering that Israel inflicts on other people without letting it undermine his support of Israel, because it fits into his framework of what Israel is — an entity that exists first and foremost to protect the Jewish people. In his talk, he mentioned the 60 Palestinians who were killed in one day by Israeli snipers on the border with Israel, calling it “a human tragedy.”

“There ought to be no Jew on the planet whose heart doesn’t ache at the sight of that,” he said. “But the fact that your heart aches does not mean that you had a better alternative.”

If I am understanding Gordis correctly, “getting into the messiness of history” in this case means being willing to inflict harm upon other people so the same will not happen to us. That’s why I believe Gordis when he said his heart aches, even though I find similar statements from other people sometimes sound like empty lip service — because Gordis considers the options, reckons with their implications, and decides which is the least of all evils. He allows himself to feel the weight of his decision.

Viewed through that framework, the Palestinians are not inherently the mortal enemies of Israel. The two sides are enemies of circumstance, both the victims of the messiness of history, locked in a struggle over the same small piece of land that both believe can save them from history’s messy, indiscriminate cruelty. Viewed through that framework, we are actually two very similar peoples. The main thing that separates us right now is that Israel is winning. Israel controls the land, and has the greater might. Israel is better able to impose its will and protect and care for its people, to the direct detriment of the Palestinians.

And that, I believe, is the true cost of the Zionist enterprise. For those who agree with Gordis, it is impossible for us to both keep ourselves safe and keep our hands clean. To break our 2000-year-old cycle of victimhood, it is not enough to quit the game. We have to win, and to win we have to beat someone else, and to beat someone else we have to compromise something we value — in this case, we compromise on the way we treat other people.

In other words, it’s better to make the mess than be the mess, but both options come at a great cost.

But what about in North America?

For the past seven decades, most North American Jews have more or less been able to stay clean and live to tell the story. That has, understandably, affected the way we see the world. Even if we don’t consciously notice, our personal, everyday, lived experience has for the most part reinforced the idea that it is possible to live relatively safely as a Jewish person without making any great moral compromises. A lot of that has changed in the past few years, but I’m not interested in the past few years right now. I’m interested in the past few decades.

70 years ago a generation of Jewish people experienced the Holocaust, either directly or indirectly. They knew what Israel is, why it exists, and why they supported it. Because it’s the Jewish state, and that’s all that matters. Then they had children, and they passed on the same value to them. Support the Jewish state because it’s the Jewish state, and you know what the world does to Jews.

So this next generation, roughly Gordis’s generation, grows up similarly devoted to Israel. But they also grow up in a liberal democratic society, one where people are supposed to be treated equally regardless of their identity. They have had the value of supporting Israel ingrained in them directly by their parents’ generation, but they are also implicitly absorbing liberal democratic values along the way.

These values are both incredibly powerful. On the one hand, a generation of Jews that could have been wiped off the face of the Earth teaches this generation to support Israel no matter what. On the other, the flourishing society in which you live and grow teaches them that everyone deserves to be treated equally. These values are ingrained so deeply that many people can’t fathom rejecting either of them, because that would mean admitting they are a bad person, considering betraying either their people or all people.

In this state of cognitive dissonance, something has to give. To avoid the shame of doubting either of these fundamental values, because of course they can’t let go of them, they instead rearrange their understanding. Simplified, it might look something like this: “I believe the values of liberal democracy are best. I support Israel. Therefore, Israel is a liberal democracy.”

According to Gordis, that kind of doublethink happens because nowhere in our community have we said it’s okay to grapple with these questions.

“We never really have that conversation,” Gordis said. “We never really talk about the fact that there are fundamentally problematic, impossibly complicated situations that being an actor in history is always going to mean you have to do.”

In my view, instead of telling people exactly what to think, we should be telling them that you are not a bad person if you have doubts, and that everybody needs the space and freedom to come to their own conclusions on these complex issues.

If you always immediately feel sure about where you stand on Israel’s actions, if your judgment feels more like a reflex or an impulse than a carefully thought-out process, it probably means you’re not allowing yourself to actually consider the action and its implication in full. That might be the reflex of supporting Israel, or your liberal democratic values could trigger the reflexive judgment. In either case, it’s okay to give yourself time and understanding to really consider the issue at hand. We have to deal with complex, messy issues as Jews (and as people), and we should be allowed, encouraged even, to feel confused and uncertain. If we try to avoid cognitive dissonance, we’re really just avoiding our responsibility to think critically.

Broadening my perspective

Embracing moral complexity and uncertainty is not an easy skill to learn, but I believe it is an essential one. It has taught me much since I began working at The CJN. Perhaps the most important lesson is how I, someone who identifies as a progressive Jew, had failed to properly empathize with and understand my fellow Jewish people with whom I disagreed.

I have come to realize that my cardinal sin in evaluating their actions and motivations was that I unknowingly operated under the assumption that Jews were essentially a subset of affluent white people who feel safe being Jewish, because that is how I have always felt as a Jewish person growing up in Canada. That assumption is obviously wrong for many reasons; the two most important being 1) not all Jews are white-skinned, affluent and feel safe, and 2) Jews do not have the history of an affluent white people

The first point is obvious enough. Jewish people exist across the racial and economic spectrum. But even beyond that, there currently are and have been Diaspora Jews who are not afforded the same level of respect and rights in their societies as I am in mine. Over the past 70 years, Israel has even welcomed millions of them into its borders in a series of mass migrations, and is positioned to do the same going forward. Even if I don’t believe Israel’s continued existence is integral to my safety and security as a Jew, there are many Jewish people who have depended or will depend on it for that protection.

The second point is obvious enough, too, but it’s easy to lose sight of as someone who has never felt personally threatened as a Jewish person. Before, when I would reflexively judge the actions or motivations of other Jews, I failed to properly take into account our traumatic history as a people, both recent and ancient, and how that would, and should, inform us as a people today. The Holocaust is arguably the greatest catastrophe in the history of the world, and it happened to my people just a few generations ago. Survivors of the Holocaust are still alive — I should know, as I’ve heard many of them speak. Any catastrophic event can cause intergenerational trauma, let alone one of that massive and horrific scale. And over the millennia we have suffered catastrophe after catastrophe, all contributing to the sense of insecurity that justifiably hovers over many Jews.

If another ethnic group other than my own had gone through a Holocaust, I would be compassionate and understanding of their resulting actions. If these victims spoke about the measures they were willing to take to ensure their own safety, even if I disagreed with said measures, I wouldn’t feel like it was my place to judge them. Yet I was failing to extend that kindness to my own people.

Why the disconnect?

I have thought long and hard about why I was unable to properly account for the suffering of Jewish people, and I have a theory about what happened: I had been unknowingly universalizing my own experience as a Jewish person. I grew up going to Jewish day schools in Toronto, living in a wealthy neighbourhood and acting as a free and equal member of society. In university, I founded a chapter of a Jewish fraternity and sat on the board of Hillel, and never once did I feel like I suffered for it. If anything, I was rewarded. I have always felt like an insider to society, like I belong, like a person with value who deserves respect. And I was never fearful as a Jew. Yes, part of that sense of security comes from my personality, but a lot of it stems from the complete safety I felt as a Canadian Jew.

That may be startling for some people to hear. After all, I went to Jewish day school. Didn’t I learn about the Holocaust? Yes, I did. Extensively. I also went on the March of the Living. But it didn’t make me fearful. For people who are scared as Jews, either because they are survivors or the family of survivors, or have experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, that may be incomprehensible. All I can say is, if the goal of Holocaust education was to make me scared as a Jew, and to value protecting the Jewish people above all else, it didn’t work. The entirety of my lived experience tells me otherwise, every day reinforcing my implicit belief that it’s safe to be Jewish.

That’s not to say that the Holocaust education didn’t work at all. In my opinion, it was incredibly successful in instilling its other major value — standing up to injustice. Because here’s what people who are scared as Jews wouldn’t have been able to consider, as hard as this may be to hear: When I would learn about the Holocaust, I didn’t really identify with the Jews. At some level, though it has only recently risen to my consciousness, I identified with the German citizens. I felt, and still feel, like a fully equal and empowered citizen of my society, just like the Germans who supported the Nazi party. I felt, and still feel, that it is incumbent upon individuals who feel empowered to constantly reflect on how they’re using that power and what injustices they are overlooking, a product of the constant messaging from Jewish institutions that it’s just as bad to be a bystander.

In short, I did not learn the lesson that “anybody can be the victim, even you.” I learned that “anybody can be the victim — and even you can be the perpetrator.”

Now perhaps you can see Gordis’s point about how his generation failed to properly educate mine, and how that contributed to the divide we see today. After all, what do you expect when you raise a generation of children teaching them to support Israel at all costs, but fail to teach them about Israel’s true nature? What do you expect when you raise a generation of children to value protection for Jews and standing up against injustice, but they don’t take it for granted that Jews need protecting? You get a generation that increasingly is looking across the world and seeing a country they were told to support behaving in ways that contradict all of their other values.

In Gordis’s generation, the mainstream Jewish community seems to have more or less equally internalized the competing pressures of unconditionally supporting the Jewish state and valuing all people equally. For more and more people in my generation, the latter value weighs much more heavily on their consciences than the former. If these people engage with Israel at all, it is often because they are trying to conform it to the idea of the Israel they were brought up believing in. Others in that cohort will realize they can’t figure out how to reconcile Israel’s actions with their other values, and quietly disengage — from their relationship with Israel, and sometimes even from their Jewish communities.

So where do we go from here?

If anyone is still reading, this may be the part where I finally lose you. This situation I’ve just described — for me, it’s a tremendous source of pride! I find it incredibly heartening. Think about it like this: just a few generations ago, six million Jewish people perished in the Holocaust, and many more suffered unimaginably. But since then, we have flourished so much that less 75 years later, a significant portion of our population feels empowered to stand up against injustice. And not just in the context of Israel, but across North America too.

You know who stands up against injustice? People who feel safe and secure, people with extra time, energy and resources, people who have faith in their ability to make a positive difference in the world and see it as their responsibility to do so. To me, the fact that we have already reached this place as a people so soon after the Holocuast is borderline miraculous. To me, it is an undeniable tribute to the Jewish spirit. We put our heads down and survive when we need to, but we don’t keep them down. We are a people that look around and look within, a people that are keenly aware of the myriad possibilities the world contains and our ability to affect the change we want to see.

The more I have thought about this, the more I have come to believe that’s our strength as a people: the fundamental belief that we have a say in the future we want. How else can you explain our incredible resilience, both in surviving catastrophes and rebuilding in their wake? A tiny, exiled nation like ours would not have lasted this long, would not have retained hope for this long, if we couldn’t devote ourselves to our chosen causes with the belief that our efforts could make an impact.

There are millions of Jewish people in the word, and we exist across a broad and diverse spectrum. Sometimes the causes we work towards will be the same, sometimes they will be unrelated and sometimes they will be mutually exclusive. But no matter what, we should learn how to appreciate the value of diverse beliefs.

If every Jewish person on earth valued equality over protecting our people, then we would leave ourselves vulnerable to a hostile attack from people who do not see us as equals. But if every Jewish person valued protection over outreach, if we withdrew more and more over time, then we would become irrelevant as the world passed us by. People will freely call an abundance of optimism and compassion naivete, but the same can be true of suspicion and insularity. Both can represent being out of touch with the real world. For just as it is unwise to never let yourself be afraid, neither is it wise to always hide from the world out of fear; that’s how you miss opportunities to grow. The best way to determine which strategy to employ in a given situation is by instigating a healthy and open dialogue between the two, and always appreciating the value of both.

I know Gordis says his generation failed mine, but I do not feel failed. I am grateful for the robust and comprehensive moral education I received, one that taught me to think for myself and be willing to stand up for my beliefs. If anything, I believe his generation failed themselves by driving so many people in my generation away from the connection to Israel that his generation valued.

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this piece, it’s recognition that reconciling all of our different internalized values is a difficult task, perhaps impossible. That’s why we should encourage people to independently weigh the various elements of difficult decisions, so that they can come to a conclusion they can personally live with. And then we should try to respect it, whatever it may be. Personally, I’m still figuring out what I want my relationship with Israel to look like. As I do, I’d appreciate if people give me the space to come to my own conclusions and their respect if its one they disagree with. That’s what I hope to give to everyone else.

It’s hard to see when we get caught up in the fog of fear or frenzy, but there are reasons we believe the things we do. Real, tangible reasons. Our beliefs do not reflect some immutable facet of our character. They mostly reflect our upbringing, context and circumstances. That’s true of me, it’s true of you, it’s true of everyone. It makes sense that people closer in proximity to the Holocaust, be that in time or through family, are more fearful as Jews. It also makes sense that people who are raised feeling safe have a greater appetite for vulnerability.

If you’re willing to consider that our beliefs are primarily a reflection of our upbringing, context and circumstances, here’s a way to try it out. Next time someone you disagree with says or does something that upsets you, don’t give in to your anger right away. Consider that, just like you, they may be confused, hurt or scared. And then ask yourself, or ask them if it’s an option, the corresponding question. What do they not understand? How are they hurting? What are they so afraid of? And then just listen, ideally without judgment. You may be surprised how much of their answer resonates with you.

After everything I have learned about the broad spectrum of Jewry, I believe our goal as Jews shouldn’t be to try to convince every other Jewish person to hold all the same beliefs as us. We are too proud, independent and thoughtful a people for that, too diverse in both culture and lived experience. No, if you ask me, our goal as Jews should be to better understand and empathize with each other, to learn what drives those we disagree with. I don’t expect many minds will be changed, but some may be softened, and some may learn to see through their reflexive judgments, just as I did. My hope is that if we can learn to understand and respect why people hold opposing viewpoints even a little bit more, we can learn to mistrust a little bit less and build our futures a little bit better.

How can we use our knowledge of psychology to actively inform our relationships with ourselves and others?