A self-described “deeply secular Jew” admits that “he had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting” Israel, regarding it “less like a country than a politically iffy burden.” Nevertheless, he takes a friend’s advice and spends six days in Jerusalem. There, amid the winding streets and spiritual mall of the Old City and the hip bars and restaurants of West Jerusalem, he finds “exactly the kind of place where I feel comfortable.”
It sounds exactly like the testimony of a kid on a Birthright Israel trip, right? Instead, it is a travel article in the New York Times by Matt Gross.
So of course, Jewish readers, including one prominent Jewish leader, reacted with their typical restraint and generosity of spirit.
“This is the only travel article I have ever read anywhere by anybody, that left me angry,” reads one comment. “Mr. Gross protests way too much about his flight from Judaism.”
“Such a sad cliche- the Jew who will run off into the arms of every other culture except his own and swears- swears!- that he has not internalized anti-Semitism and turned it into self-hate,” writes another.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, writes that he is disappointed but not surprised that the Times “would find a travel writer on Jerusalem who brings some heavy-duty baggage to the topic.” And he insists (or at least pretends) that he doesn’t understand why a certain type of Jew would be conflicted about visiting Israel:
[F[or Gross, I repeat, "Israel felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden." Does Israel somehow make his life uncomfortable as "a deeply secular Jew," while those pesky Israelis endlessly deal with the messy demands of sovereignty and neighbors who aren't always ready, even after 63 years, to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist? Would his self-image and place in the world be enhanced if only Israel closed up shop?
Funny how no other country awakens in him such feelings.
That is putting a whole lot of words in Gross’ mouth. But really, is it really so “funny” that a deeply secular Jew would be conflicted about visiting a country that places on its Jewish visitors so many demands of history and identity? As I wrote a few years back in response to a similarly ambivalent essay, some Jewish liberals have a hard time thinking about Israel not because they are lazy or self-hating, but precisely (davke, as the Israelis say) because the subject is so fraught. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you that the things we have the most trouble dealing with are those that hit closest to home.
Harris has to know this. But he refuses to welcome Gross’ journey to Israel and his mostly positive takeaways (and note, in the comments and elsewhere, that Gross is also criticized for being too soft on Israel and the occupation!), or wish him luck on his future joruneys. Instead, Harris presumes to tell him and other conflicted Jews what they ought to feel about Israel and their Jewish identity.
Actually, I was hoping for a happy ending after that kind of set-up — some realization that, as a first-time visitor, Gross had forged a bond with Israel, that would outlast his stay.
What I find so disappointing about Harris’ response is that it violates the first rule of advocacy and outreach to disengaged or unaffiliated Jews: start where they are. Harris could have welcomed Gross’ article as an essay by a deracinated Jew who, after only six (!) days in Israel managed to overcome some of his internal conflicts. Instead, he treats him as a lost cause who didn’t feel the “twinkle” after his short visit.
Harris could have welcomed the Times article for speaking directly to exactly the kind of traveler who considers Israel a land of blood and conflict or a New Jersey-sized synagogue. For these kinds of readers, the article offers an alternative image of Israel as a fascinating historical destination and a place of “frozen-yogurt parlors and focaccerias,” “underground” bars, and restaurants where you can have your “mind blown by a platter of seared veal sweetbreads with artichokes, cherry tomatoes and cauliflower cream.”
Isn’t this exactly the kind of article Israeli officials envisioned when they launched their “Brand Israel” p.r. campaign — marketing an Israel beyond the conflict? Does Harris think that message would have been more credible had it been written by someone without Gross’ “heavy psychological baggage”?
Yes, Gross’ lack of curiosity about the Jewish state annoyed me. But he went, and he enjoyed it — enough to tell other people about it and recommend that they go too. Let’s call that a victory, not a “shame.”