Irwin Z. Hoffman: Commentary on Orna Guralnik’s Reflections on Israel and Gaza in The Huffington Post
I want to offer my own reflections on Orna’s extraordinarily rich, thoughtful, and personal account of her own experience as it relates to Israel’s attack on Gaza. But before doing that, let me say a few words about myself, about my own history as it relates to my Jewish identity as it has evolved over time.
I attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn New York, grade school and high
school. I know what I was taught there. And I know how all the teaching was like the water to the fish for that whole community. Nothing, absolutely nothing was ever questioned one bit by anybody, by any adult, surely by any child. Idol worshippers? Was there even the slightest doubt about their inferiority? And I dare say that extended to gentiles, the “goyim,” generally. My dad was an ardent Zionist and I could not have loved and admired him more. He and my mom got out of Russia and Poland before the Holocaust but they had the moral spirit of survivors, and Israel, once born in 1948 when I was 6, was passionately loved by everyone including my sister and myself. Then I attended a Zionist Hebrew speaking, 2-month sleep-away camp, Camp Massad in the Poconos, for 10 years, as camper then as counselor. Still not a question, not a doubt, even after I stopped believing in God at around the age of 16, corresponding roughly with my reading The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, including the story of Spinoza and his virulent excommunication by the Jewish community. I started then to think something was wrong here. In a broad sense it was a revelation that there was more than one way to think about the meaning of life. But even that didn’t make a dent in my love for, and commitment to, Israel, and my belief in its absolute innocence and in its standing as a beacon of light and goodness and virtue in the world.
I was there with my family when I was 11. My sister was 15. Two months in Israel. We loved it. Everything about it. We made friends there. We stayed with friends in Afula, a family with children my age and my sister’s age. I was there myself after my junior year in college in 1963. I was 21. I had thoughts of joining the Israeli army. My B.A. is from Brandeis by the way. Recently I had an open difference with the new president of the university, Fred Lawrence, regarding his uncritical, joyful trip to Israel, with regular reports to the whole Brandeis community including all the alumni. There was a region for comments under each entry and I made the only critical one over a period of weeks. He replied and I replied to his reply. Backchannel requests for that exchange if you are interested.
My disillusionment and consciousness-raising has been very gradual over many years. I was president of my class in 7th and 8th grade. Yes, reelected!! 🙂 But when I participated in some political email conversation with a listserve of my classmates a few years ago, I was vilified by almost everyone who was participating, some living in Israel, for what I thought were fairly gentle criticisms of Israeli policy. One woman, a girl I had a crush on when I was about 11 years old (she didn’t know it), said to all that although she didn’t agree with me, she thought I was simply registering my views and that I had a right to do that and to be heard respectfully. Then she added that if this mean-spirited way of speaking to this classmate continued she wanted her name removed from the listserve. God (so to speak) bless her. They even denied any recall of my having been president. They thought it must have been another guy named Irwin X. By the way, he didn’t jump in to say no, it wasn’t him. At some point finally someone said he had hold of our graduation yearbook. And he (a close friend in high school) said the minimum with no comment, no apology, nothing. Just this: “It says here on the page naming class officers: President, Irwin Z. Hoffman.” After that, on this subject, silence.
In 1994, as you may recall, a fellow alumnus of the yeshiva, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, mowed down 30 Arabs praying at the Cave of the Machpelah in Hebron, shooting them in the back. He was then killed himself by the surrounding crowd. At his funeral the chant was “we are all Goldstein.” Rabbi Yaacov Perrin made this statement: “One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail.” I wrote to the Yeshiva encouraging them to organize discussions of the relationship between Goldstein’s action and what he was taught at the yeshiva. No response.
With all that that evoked in me in 1994 when I was 52, it required years beyond that time (10? 15?) for me to have the thought that the Canaanites were human beings like the Israelites. And with that thought, came the realization that if any of them were killed by the Israelites I had never considered that to be an event that had any moral implications whatsoever, other than, perhaps, doing what was morally correct, what had to be. That was something of an epiphany. The normative unconscious (Layton) gives way very grudgingly, very slowly. Mine anyway. Even to see the most obvious indisputable things. It’s a source of profound shame for me.
My boys, 5 years apart, both went to religious school on Sundays at the reform temple here in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago, KAM Isaiah Israel. They both had Bar Mitzvah celebrations there. I rationalized it: a rite of passage into the responsibilities of young adulthood. The secular meaning is what mattered for me along with the gathering of friends and family from all over the country to honor them. But there was a class that continued after the Bar Mitzvahs called “Kadimah” (“forward”). After short periods both of them quit. They explained, in keeping with the meaning of “Bar Mitzvah” in the most universal, humanistic sense, that they couldn’t stand it. When there was any discussion of the Mideast no one ever said a word that was sympathetic to the plight, the rights, the sheer humanity of the Palestinians. It was just intolerable to them. And of course, I felt so proud of them. Maybe they felt my influence, but they would not have quit had the experience been different, and each knew I would have respected his choice.
Turning to my reflections on Orna’s commentary and her account of relevant personal experiences, my own thoughts fall into a number of categories. One is directed at the responses to Orna’s account. Those that are sympathetic at Huffington, on the NYU postdoc list serve, on the Division 39 Forum list serve, generally endorse her empathic appreciation of “complexity” and of the need for respect for the humanity of all sides and of people with differing views as well as the sides constituting conflict within an individual. I believe, however, that attention to those aspects of Orna’s reflections, leaves out the “fact,” (of course it’s a “fact” to my mind) that she, at various moments, makes clear that she has a position that is hard for her to hold and express, but there can be no doubt where she stands. The intermittent tentativeness reflects her understandable aversion to hurting or betraying people with whom she feels compassionate and close, including her family, but also other Israelis. Nevertheless, it’s a position that I think does come across, sometimes forcefully. I have to ask Orna to forgive the element of presumption, perhaps, in claiming I can discern something in what she is conveying that she herself may or may not want to endorse or validate. I think though that Orna, much to her credit, put her experience out there to invite free thought and openness and I am writing with a sense of that climate that she has fostered.
I would say that Orna’s position starts with empathy with the Palestinians as fellow humans. In effect, Orna challenges her brother and others to see whether they can hold their militant positions without denying the Palestinians’ humanity. She implies that that might not be possible. The denial may be necessary to bear and even justify the scale of the attacks on Gaza and the killing of thousands, yes even in the context of the aggression of Hamas and the location of their rockets. That the Palestinians are so unlike the Israelis, as her brother claims, that they don’t grieve the loss of loved ones but instead are joyful at their martyrdom so flies in the face of reason, not to mention countless video clips of devastated, anguished survivors, that Orna can hardly believe her ears. I think the complexity of Orna’s thinking includes taking a political position much more sympathetic to the Palestinians than the policy of the Israeli government reflects, despite the violent fundamentalist elements embedded in the Palestinian side of the conflict. What comes across to me is not only that her inner conflict is painfully wrenching because of empathic identification with both sides, but because, Orna, on balance, everything considered (a manner of speaking because it can never be “everything”), finds herself morally opposed to Israeli policy, implicitly if not explicitly, and in favor of a different attitude and course of action, even if that is not fully spelled-out and even if she wavers from time to time.
With regard to that wavering, I want to continue with various aspects of Orna’s perspective, including what comes across to me as occasional hints of a degree of acquiescence on Orna’s part to certain normative Jewish and American defensive attitudes––attitudes that I feel are morally dubious––despite her critical bias overall, which she asserts continually, and which is clearly overriding.
First, I object to even a hint of the essentializing (my neologism) of Israelis and the assumption that if you live in Israel you will be allied with the current Israeli government and in favor of its attacks on Gaza and other military action. I hear this when Orna says of her brother’s weak and transparent (I think) attempts to minimize his own sense of the evil of the massive killings of the Palestinians: “I’m not living there; he is.” However, there is an Israeli “Left” whatever its own problems and possible excesses. There are people in Peace Now and Courage to Refuse and Yesh Gvul and other organizations risking being utterly ostracized and abused in untold ways, some born Israelis some military veterans. See the New York Times on 9/13/14 (p. A6) regarding a letter from 43 members of an elite Israeli intelligence unit asserting refusal to “take part in the states actions against Palestinians” because the information they gather “harms innocent people” and “intelligence is used for political persecution . . . which does not allow for people to lead normal lives, and fuels more violence, further distancing us from the end of the conflict.” Does Orna want to say to all these people, “you have to live there to understand”? Some, I am sure, have even lost loved ones, even their own children. David Grossman comes to mind although his son was killed while serving in the army in Lebanon, in other words not a murdered civilian. Still I’m sure there are some who have suffered that kind of loss too who are critics. They come from a range of sources. Have people seen The Gatekeepers with powerful testimony of seven Shin Bet leaders, a film nominated (along with 5 Broken Cameras) for the documentary academy award in 2013? And let’s not forget that for every Israeli who has come out as definitively opposed to the occupation there must be many thousands who keep their opinions to themselves to avoid the cruel stigmatizing that might ensue. That’s the silent but significant minority. Add those who are profoundly but quietly conflicted (perhaps like Orna’s mother) and a sense of the heterogeneity and fluidity of the whole might emerge.
[Jessica Benjamin suggests the following for “material on Israelis who have suffered losses but continue to oppose the dehumanization of Palestinians”: Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) http://www.theparentscircle.com/ and the film Encounter Point; Robie Damian’s film One Day After Peace; the website for Breaking the Silence, http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/; and the website for the video Jessica worked on, Moving Beyond Violence, http://movingbeyondviolence.org/. Judy Roth recommends adding Combatants for Peace, http://cfpeace.org; Psychoactive – Mental Health Professionals for Human Rights http://www.psychoactive.org.il/?lat=en; and the film To See if I’m Smiling, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_zFSAr6lNE, which is the story of 6 women who served in the occupied territories]
Second, that people who don’t live in Israel do not have the right to views that warrant consideration seems wholly unwarranted to me. Every vantage point is potentially a source of both blind spots and of illuminating insights. We know very well how much whole cultures and certainly nation states can be blind to their own very dark sides. We can start of course with the United States. One hardly knows where to begin, and I for one am certainly in need of much awakening. Chapter One of Zinn’s People’s History was a good start for me. The genocide of native Americans. Any critique of Israel, moreover, must include the American-Israeli alliance and AIPAC. It’s all very close to home after all.
Third, not everyone agrees that “security” is best served by retaliatory violence. Orna’s father says of the rockets from Gaza, “and the world thinks we should just sit here and take it.” Well, how about something completely different? In response to a rocket from Gaza how about advocating dismantling an established settlement or two and committing to not building any more? OK the reluctance to leave the impression of rewarding rocket attacks may call for strategic timing. But if a settlement won’t go down without a fight maybe that’s where a fight should happen. What might that do to Israeli-Palestinian relations? Are there differences within Israel that are dormant and lurking and even posing the threat of a horrific civil war? Is that danger averted through the silencing of one side and the splitting off of the “bad object” to be embodied wholly by the demonized Palestinians? Could peaceful protest marchers enter a settlement and exit safely without being beaten, without being killed? Maybe there are ways that Israel since 1967 could have been relentless in its pursuit of the strengthening of the moderate faction of the Palestinian people, and the moderate aspect of each Palestinian mind. They could have done that along with building the Iron Dome. It would have required persistence despite suffering murderous violent attacks because retaliating, despite being satisfying in an obvious way and despite the possibility of short-term deterrence, might do more in the long run to potentiate the vicious circle than to slow it down or stop it. It is not a sign of weakness to refrain from retaliation. Quite the contrary; witness perhaps the spirit of the “Truth and Reconciliation” movement in South Africa.
Fourth, any transference to the Palestinians of affects from the Holocaust warrants critical reflection, not simply massive acting out by the state. The “Auschwitz-Gaza tunnel,” in Orna’s words, opens the door to the dangers of identification with the aggressor. How can we just ignore that? Orna sees Pete’s point (“we were victims, yet we failed to learn not to victimize others”) but she “cannot take it from him.” He’s too one-sided, too glibly simplifying. And there’s more to consider after all, as Orna suggests: “Survival,” and “never again.” Yes, but at the same time hard thinking must hold its own, must push and push for articulation and recognition. Whatever the aggression from the Palestinians it’s not the equivalent of the aggression of the Nazis, and the Jewish population in Israel is not the equivalent of the Jewish population in Europe with respect to power. I’m not talking about ratings of degrees of evil. I’m talking about differences in the nature of the evils and all of their contexts. Each has to be seen and judged and responded to in its own terms. The “transference” is a thing to critique in order to open up new creative pathways, not a thing to act on as a matter of blind “principle.” And in the end, Orna and Pete and I might be marching together because our common ground might trump our differences.
Fifth, it offends me to hear continually about the Israelis as victims, simply, without any regard for the Jews’ displacement of the Palestinians originally, and without regard for the deep investment by the Jewish people, via Zionism, in this piece of land as their homeland in accord with the word of God (no less). Is fundamentalism truly the sole province of Islam? There is an ideology there that goes back thousands of years doesn’t it? Even back to the Canaanites after all. There has been disregard by the Israelites of the humanity of those dwelling in that land, or a deeply racist attitude towards them, promoting their destruction with no compunction. So who the aggressor is from day one is at least complex in itself. And a good case could be made for how it is the Israelis, as much as, if not more than, it is the Palestinians.
Pete says “Israel is a bully. The entire country is operating from a totally cynical, arrogant place. They all want a more brutal ground invasion.” Orna writes, “No, if Pete had spent one week in Israel he’d know it has nothing to do with cynicism and arrogance and all to do with fear and guilt.” Here I feel Orna slips into the normative American-Israeli stance that it’s all fear, and self-defense, and guilt about the violence and perhaps the collateral damage that Israel is forced to inflict in the process of defending its land and its people. It’s not just part of it. It’s all of it, “all to do with fear and guilt.” Is that not the kind of simplification, ironically, that Orna is trying laudably to resist? I want to ask Orna what she asked her brother: “Orna, tell me one thing, honestly: How much do you believe in what you’re telling me?” What about the sense of entitlement to that land that I spoke of above that is a deeply held belief in Jewish ideology? What about the pervasive belief in the legitimacy, the moral imperative, of a Greater Israel, surely a vision that has played a part in Israeli policy, in the dogged building of settlements under the auspices of one Israeli government after another. Labor, Likud, it doesn’t matter! Is there no national expansionism going on that is not motivated primarily by the rationales of fear and self-defense? Not one iota of anything proactively expansionist? Can anyone believe that?
Sixth, the side that has the overwhelming power in the present carries a different level of responsibility than the relatively weak, displaced, oppressed, occupied, yes, murderously enraged, other side. And maybe sometimes, that other side might not be caring so much about dying because they are already spiritually suffocated, already soul-murdered. What do they have to lose? It requires a certain audacity for any Israeli to sneer, as I think Orna’s brother does, at a Palestinian who seems not to value life on this earth to the degree that is normative in Israeli (and American) culture when Israel has done so much to ensure for Palestinians a life on earth of unabated misery.
Seventh, it’s not right, it seems to me, to ignore the possible connection of Israeli policy supported by the U.S. with white, Judeo-Christian, European colonialism generally.
Eighth, note that Norman Finkelstein, despite his tirade in Old Wine, Broken
Bottle against Ari Shavit (Promised Land) whom he regards with utter contempt, as a two-faced, utterly hypocritical, right winger in disguise, particularly the disguise of immersion in paralyzing complexity, believes himself in a two state solution and is angry with Israel for allegedly undermining any attempt to make that a real, viable option (pp. 67-69). But it’s one thing to believe that a Jewish state is necessary given the history and current evidence of virulent, genocidal antisemitism in many places in the world, and another thing to regard it as the embodiment of innocence and virtue. If a Jewish state, in effect, a theocracy (please spare me calling it a democracy) is necessary then surely it qualifies as a necessary evil, or maybe the least of the evils that pragmatically are possible resolutions. It doesn’t mean some kind of forgiving isn’t called for ultimately from the other side and that Israel can’t be celebrated in thriving, not just surviving. But when that’s your starting point rather than a sense of the absolute entitlement of a wholly innocent child, are you not immediately required, ethically, to be optimally generous to those who are egregiously harmed, displaced, occupied, colonized, by your actions? Please note that that’s a far cry from the one-state solution (i.e. clearly not a Jewish state) and the right of Palestinian return that Ali Abunimah (The Battle for Justice in Palestine) and many other Palestinians (maybe some Jewish Voice for Peace members, not all) advocate in ways that surely have merit even though they are probably insufficiently attuned to the dangers of exploding antisemitism in a world lacking any secure, safe haven for Jewish people, and for any kind of viable Jewish identity, even of the most progressive nature.
I know Orna is not being rigorous in terms of establishing her position on each issue. She’s giving us her visceral reactions and thoughts over real time in the context of committed personal relationships. But in the end, I believe she feels called upon from deep within her soul to land fully in the place that she believes in her heart-of-hearts is right, as best as any human being can determine such a thing. As I read her, she is very close to getting there despite her appreciation of complexity and despite her fears of the consequences for her relationships with friends and family. She struggles with the possible rationalizations, yearns for their achieving in her mind some status that she can respect, but in the end, “There is no way I can avoid knowing, and no way to retreat from shame.” Listen to her. No way! None! The complexity notwithstanding. That’s the heart of it. No, it’s not the case that the complexity precludes arriving at shattering conclusions. After she thinks and identifies with every side and tries her damndest to give every point of view its due (even though much crystallizes for her as defensive “platitudes”), understands everything as much as she can, she tells us what she thinks, everything considered, is the truth, what she thinks is right! That’s what’s different about what Orna has given us. It’s not the complexity and the empathy simply, but the political stance that she is struggling courageously to develop and ultimately to fight for within herself and in the world.
Orna, thank you again. Signing off now with much respect, and love, and hope . . .
Irwin Z. Hoffman