By J.J. Surbeck
Daniel Gordis hardly needs any introduction in San Diego. But for the few who may not know who Gordis is, he’s the go-to guy for commentary and insight on everything Israel. As president of the Shalem Foundation, senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, the author of four books, a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, a contributor to The New York Times, and a much sought-after lecturer, Gordis knows a thing or two about the modern-day Holy Land. This month, the native New Yorker who made aliyah in 1998 is returning to the States, this time to San Diego as the featured speaker at the StandWithUs kick-off event that will launch the organization’s San Diego chapter (its 14th in the U.S.) Sept. 19.
Rabbi Gordis sat down with the San Diego Jewish Journal to share his thoughts on Israel advocacy, his views on a possible peace solution, and what San Diegans should do in Israel to better understand the state of the country.
San Diego Jewish Journal: Daniel, you were here in San Diego just a few months ago. What is bringing you back here so soon?
Daniel Gordis: It’s very simple. StandWithUs asked me to give a series of lectures in San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle, and I respect the work they do, so I said I’d be happy to do it.
SDJJ: What are your thoughts on the state of Israel advocacy in the American Jewish community? There is no shortage here of “armchair generals” prone to telling the Israelis what they should do to solve the conflict, but from your perspective as an Israeli, what would be the most useful contribution Americans could make to best support Israel?
DG: Great question. We can’t expect Americans to be a rubber stamp for anything Israel does. It’s not realistic, and it’s not even good for Israel. When Israel makes a mistake, it should be corrected. That said, there is indeed a multiplicity of possible perspectives.
You could make the argument that Israel should negotiate with the Palestinians now, or you could argue that it shouldn’t. Or that it’s the only way to move things forward, or that as long as the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish State, we’re wasting our time. Or that Israel should do all it can to fight the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state….or — and this is an out-of-the-box argument — that Israel should support that recognition as well! I’m not making that suggestion, but one could argue that Israel would thus show its willingness to support the creation of a Palestinian state…as long as conditions x, y and z would be fulfilled, such as giving up the right of return for Palestinian refugees, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, accepting an Israeli military presence along the Jordanian border, etc.
All sorts of arguments can be made, but what we Israelis have the right to ask of American Jews is that they make their voice clear on one point: that whatever position they want to assume vis-à-vis Israel, it is a voice that is unabashedly and unequivocally supportive of the flourishing and thriving of Israel as a democratic state. The problem that we have in the Jewish-American community is not a problem of multiplicity of opinions. The problem is that there are organizations who claim to be pro-Israel that are….completely not pro-Israel. They assume positions — like the endorsement of the Goldstone Report — that are clearly anti-Israel. They will criticize Israel without ever criticizing the Palestinian side. They will accuse the IDF of misdeeds when its record is more impressive than any other army’s in the world, including the U.S. and Canadian ones. So what we want to ask of American Jews is the following: whatever position you want to assume, through everything you say, first make sure that it is clearly understood by everyone who hears you or reads you that you are unabashedly concerned first and foremost about Israel’s security, about its democratic nature and about its Jewish nature. Then we can have a conversation.
SDJJ: The first time we met was some six years ago, and my sense at the time was that you were politically left-of-center, still believing that peace with the Palestinians was possible. Since then, however, it seems to me you don’t believe it’s possible any more, moving you to the right-of-center. Is this an accurate perception?
DG: I get asked that question a lot. Look, since that time, we’ve had the second Intifada, the war in Lebanon, the war in Gaza, continuing Palestinian unwillingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, increasing rejection of Israel’s existence at the international level, etc., so while my core belief has not changed — that at the end of the day the Middle East would be a better place if there could be a liberal, democratic, peaceful Palestine living alongside a Jewish democratic state — yes, I was probably more optimistic than I am now. And while I am worried about Israel’s leaders not always saying what they should be saying, I am infinitely more worried about the Palestinian side, for the simple reason that if [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas were to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and renounce the right of return, all his security forces put together won’t be able to keep him alive, and therefore, if you can’t stay alive for saying something as simple as Israel has the right to remain a Jewish state, I think that what we are involved in here is a hoax.
SDJJ: What would be your personal advice to the many visitors to Israel from the San Diego area regarding what they should see or where they should go to better understand the reality of what Israel faces, so that when they come back here they can be better advocates for the Jewish state?
DG: A person who’s never been there before should see all the standard things first: Jerusalem (old and new), Tel Aviv, Yad Vashem, Masada, etc. And that may be enough for the first two or three visits. But as people become more familiar with Israel, they should get off the tourist beat.
It’s not that hard to go to the West Bank, and people should see how Jewish and Arab villages are situated. They should get a sense of what a settlement looks like. There are settlements of 50,000 citizens, and there are some made of two caravans and one light bulb, and everything in between. They need to understand that the same word is used by the Obama administration to designate all of them. Needless to say, also, the word “settlement” is very misleading. They ought to go to Gilo, a bedroom community of Jerusalem, and to Gush Etzion, but also to some of these isolated settlements in the middle of Palestinian communities, bearing in mind that [those residents] will probably have to go in the end. By seeing for themselves, people will become more sophisticated in their understanding of the situation.
Another way to become more sophisticated is to read Israeli literature. Israelis produce an enormous amount of high quality books, which is a window into the soul of a society. If you haven’t read any author like David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, etc., then you’re looking at the conflict almost as a sporting event, when in fact it’s not all black and white. Israeli movies also say a tremendous amount about the issues Israelis face. Americans need to come to understand Israel in a much more sophisticated and nuanced way than many of them do, and that would be unbelievably helpful.
J.J. Surbeck is the executive director of T.E.A.M. (Training and Education About the Middle East), a San Diego-based nonprofit created in 2008 to provide the San Diego population with balanced and objective information regarding the Middle East conflict. Visit T.E.A.M. online at www.sandiegoteam.org.