Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Another courageous American Jew takes on Zionism

Reader (and writer!) Erika Dreifus sent me a link to this, and all I can say in response to the article is, oh, Allison Benedikt. You are so friggin' cool. You snuck cigarettes with the cool kids before it was cool, you were Zionist when that was cool, and now, now that it's no longer the thing for Jews to be like that, you're ambivalent about Israel. Ms. Benedikt, I don't want your Zionism. I'd rather, with your approach to world affairs, that you not be on any side of anything I'm associated with.

The entire piece - the author's strange and only mildly erotic journey from Zionist summer camp to intermarriage (!) and disillusionment with Israel (!!!) goes a bit overboard with the coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence theme. I mean for goodness sake, look in an encyclopedia or online depending what year this was and bingo, you can find out who Jabotinsky was. Middle school is one thing, but if you reach late high school, let alone college, without learning about the various major contentious issues of the day that most relate to you personally, you have only yourself to blame. Interested in Zionism? Perhaps read a book about Zionism. In college? Take a class. I found it harder and harder, as the article went on and its protagonist grew older and wiser, to sympathize with someone whose political opinions came only from friends and boyfriends. Mainstream newspapers! One publication from the left, one from the right! Otherwise, oh Jewish Palin, I don't give a Mediterranean fig about your sensitive take on the I-P conflict.

It's no great mystery to the careful reader where the author gets her oh-so-informed approach to the news from: "[M]y parents don't do facts on this issue. They do feelings."

And,

"I watch the news in horror and talk to my Mom on the phone every day, whose opinions vacillate wildly depending on who she is speaking with or how attacked she feels by the anchors on TV."

Oh, and this, buried in the article, I'll bury in this post in kind: "Through sheer force of will and also nepotism, I get a magazine job." From her family she got an inability to form informed opinions on world issues, and, right out of college, a journalism job in New York. A winning combination.

(If the point of this piece is to make American Jews more rah-rah Diaspora, bits like this don't help: "Because [the summer camp is] all Jews, I'm considered cute." Yes, yes, Jewish girls are grotesque and can only attract attention if set apart from the strapping Real Americans. But this, though a gratuitous reiteration of an annoying cliché, I can't really criticize, because it's conceivable that this was her experience.)

Overall, my response to this piece was, in part, to desperately wish I hadn't railed on against the expression "your privilege is showing," because oh, it would apply here. Not just lines like, "I tell my sister that when I move to New York in the fall [after college], I'm going to 'do my own thing,'" followed immediately by the convenient journo job. More the notion that someone who has not only not experienced anti-Semitism personally, but someone for whom the idea that Jews might be, in some broader sense, hated, is inconceivable if in her own life is comfortable.

But it's not really about privilege at all, but about ignorance. Yes, as a Jew, you will get some non-Jews who will find it oh so delightful that they can now explain how evil they think Israel is to a real life Israelite. Maybe the non-Jewish boyfriends who told the author how wrong she was not to be horrified by Jewish nationhood were in no place to be lecturing someone from a marginalized group on the justice of its liberation movement. (Requisite disclaimer: the issue isn't that they "criticized Israel," which of course even non-Jews with Jewish significant others are allowed to do, or that they attempted to expand the admittedly narrow horizons of the author, but that, at least as she tells it, they didn't come at this from the perspective of, whatever one thinks of current Israeli policy or even the founding of the state, it was the national movement of a seriously oppressed people.) Just as she readily accepted that Jews were the eternal victim when this was fed to her at summer camp, the author swallows whole the idea that no, no, it's Israel that's in the wrong. So... I'm left, I suppose, where I started, thinking that I wouldn't especially want someone like the author on the pro-Israel end of things, given the kind of rhetorical support she'd be able to provide.

19 comments:

rshams said...

Was also (unsurprisingly) sent this article by a friend and thought (again) that this was you-bait.

In addition to all that you mentioned, the thing that stood out as most insufferable was how Benedikt writes that her "parents don't do facts on this issue. They do feelings." But somehow the boyfriends (and husband) who enlightened her totally weren't motivated by such low-down, parochial things such as "feelings." They were all about facts. They "read books!"

Erika D. said...

Thank you, Phoebe. It is indeed striking how the author goes from one one-sided view to the opposite one-sided view. From adulation to "digust." Of course, the unqualified adulation is equated with "Zionism." (Those Zionists! So blind!)

And yet, the last time I checked (a few hours ago), the comment stream was overwhelmingly positive. And of course, I've seen the link RTd, equally approvingly, on Twitter.

I'm taking comfort from your conclusion ("I wouldn't especially want someone like the author on the pro-Israel end of things...."). I just wish that *I* had better skills in the responding-to-this-sort-of-post-department than I do. Hence, my message to you! Thanks again for your thoughts.

Erika D. said...

"disgust"

David Schraub said...

I remember, when reading David Mamet's account of his shift away from (his words) being a "brain-dead liberal", thinking that folks who are brain-dead in one political camp usually stay that way in another (see also: David Horowitz). I'm contemptuous enough of Hollywood liberals to believe that Mamet's former liberalism was of a sophomoric variety, but parroting Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh is just old wine in new bottles. Ditto here -- same basic failings, dressed in different fashions.

Britta said...

Yeah, I don't have much to add, just to agree that everyone in that article was a total idiot (especially the protagonist) and her now-husband is a giant douche. Unless MAYBE your hosts belong to the KKK, spending an entire evening berating them about politics is a really rude thing to do. I'd be mad if she married that guy, not necessarily because of his beliefs, but because of the dogmatic and all-encompassing way they appear to overshadow everything else in his life.

But yeah...I would be embarrassed to write an article like that if I were her.

Phoebe said...

Erika,

"It is indeed striking how the author goes from one one-sided view to the opposite one-sided view."

David,

"same basic failings, dressed in different fashions."

Yes and yes.

Also Britta and rshams, agreed. Gosh, so much agreement! And yet, as Erika notes, the article's winning admiration online. At least now, looks like, some criticism as well, including one remark I especially agree with - how did the author get through UMich without getting educated on the Middle East, if this interested her? (Also a comment from another woman who repeats that she lives with "a goy," and who fears that this would prevent her from visiting Israel (!), as if they don't let you in if you haven't sworn romantic loyalty to the Jews. I do not get where people are coming from. Also this: "I have a feeling that this piece will draw a lot of attention, both because it's excellent and because it says out loud something that few people are willing to talk about in public." How about, no and no.)

The main strength of the article, and the one that I think excuses the amount of time all of us have now devoted to reading and thinking about it, is that it offers a good sense of how your everyday, college-educated but not-all-that-well-informed Jew looks at these issues. Which is to say, in a way no more sophisticated than the average non-Jew. I suppose my privilege is showing, in that I imagine those speaking out on this issue to have, you know, read about it, because I'm lucky to be surrounded - offline but here as well - by people who'd at least friggin' Wikipedia whatever it is that's being discussed. The article was in a way a flashback to the Birthright Israel trip I was on, where I had a chance to meet a more random cross-section of Jews than I normally do. And, contrary to stereotype, Jews are not necessarily brilliant, deep, etc.

PG said...

David said exactly what I was thinking (right down to the Mamet & Horowitz examples); this woman was an ignorant Zionist and now she's an ignorant non-(anti?)Zionist. Her most fundamental ideological commitment is to ignorance, so she'd make a bad ally wherever she went.

However, I don't think YPIS has much sting when the object of proposed criticism bluntly announces herself as the beneficiary of nepotism.

Erika D. said...

Another smart response, from Jeffrey Goldberg: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/06/giving-up-on-the-zionist-dream/240471/.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"However, I don't think YPIS has much sting when the object of proposed criticism bluntly announces herself as the beneficiary of nepotism."

See, this is actually part of the problem I have with YPIS. It's as though, if one acknowledges one's privilege, the privilege ceases to have any meaning, and we're no longer allowed to take it into account. As if we can forget about the unfairness of this particular woman having gotten the sort of job recent college grads dream of, and the larger implications this has on the country if that's who's in journalism, because at least she's not ignorant of the fact, or denying it. Although, in this particular example, she kind of is, in that she adds the bit about "sheer force of will," puts it first, even, to give the reader the impression that nepotism was just a small part of what got her foot in the door.

Erika,

I agree with everything in that post. Not surprising since he and I make nearly the same points. "The whole piece is written in a kind of faux-naive, I'm-so-lost voice that I found a bit grating." Oh yes.

The more I think about it, the essay annoys me less as a Zionist than it does as a woman, as a feminist, from the where-are-the-female-opinion-writers perspective. The author's trying to be cute, playing the what, me, understand world affairs? game, needing guys to tell her what to think, letting a guy push her around politically and it sounds like with politics as a pretext to act like an ass, if not an ass with a particular beef with the ethno-religious group she belongs to, and then marrying him... it's all kind of a disaster from a feminist perspective.

Britta said...

Yes, exactly. In addition to Jews, non-Jews, Zionists, and anti-Zionists, this woman makes also women look bad. In fact, it's amazing how she manages to make pretty much any and everybody come off as totally unappealing (except maybe her sister).

Also...from a YPIS standpoint, it's grating that, with paid journalism/blogging gigs being a scarce commodity, this is the type of person who gets them. While I think meritocracy can be overemphasized (since rarely is there a job where only one person can uniquely do it better than everyone else, and chances are it's a crapshoot among many people who are qualified enough), you can see in this sort of situation why taking into account something more than connections is important. Also, given that the whole beginning of the piece was about being an Ohio Jew and not a snobby East Coast Jew, the NYC nepotism kind of came out of nowhere. Of course, considering how little information is presented in this thing, pretty much everything came out of nowhere.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

"Also, given that the whole beginning of the piece was about being an Ohio Jew and not a snobby East Coast Jew, the NYC nepotism kind of came out of nowhere."

Oh yes, I was struck by that as well. I mean, it's entirely plausible that someone would both have been mocked at camp for having the wrong shorts (I too was mocked, at a Jewish - not specifically Zionist - camp in the NE I went to for precisely one summer, when I was 8, for having the wrong shorts. It happens.) and to benefit from privilege later in life. But you can't present the shorts-mockery as some kind of fundamental underdog status, and then lo and behold get the kind of job she did through nepotism, not to mention the season of presumably parent-funded finding-one's-self in NY that preceded it. (To be differentiated, I think, from graduating, not ending up finding a job till fall, and moving back in for that first summer with one's parents, who happen to live in NY. If I found myself that summer, it was my 12-year-old self revived due to the context.)

PG said...

Hmm, I guess I'd always thought that YPIS was intended to point out to the target that she is unconscious of her privilege but everyone else can see it. It's like someone telling me my breasts are showing: embarrassing to me if that's not what I intended, but fairly unconcerning if I'm obviously wearing something that would be low-cut and revealing even on a more flat-chested girl.

Frankly, the fact that she even admitted the nepotism indicates that either a) she thinks someone might comment on the article who knows her situation and would try to zing her with that, so it's a preemptive defense; or b) she's being relatively sincerely confessional and letting it all (privilege included) hang out. In either case, she's had to recognize that she isn't where she is based solely on merit.

Indeed, nepotism is about as privileged as privilege gets, since "merit" derived in large part from privilege -- e.g. high SAT score thanks to great schooling and tutoring -- still requires some talent/effort. In contrast, nepotism has absolutely nothing to do with her as an unique individual rather than so-and-so's relative.

Phoebe said...

PG,

There are a couple reasons I think YPIS would sting in this instance - the fact that, as Britta notes, she makes much of her Midwestern underdog-ness within the American Jewish community, and, as I mentioned, her choice to bury the "nepotism" bit under the cover of "sheer force of will." To keep your comparison going, think of it as a very form-fitting turtleneck with no bra.

As for why she reveals this, both of the possibilities you mention are plausible. She has indeed saved us the effort of Googling her and finding out (if Google would tell us this) that her existence in the public eye is thanks to nepotism. But I don't see the author of this piece as someone that capable of thinking through various possible outcomes. More likely, it was to keep things in the overshare vein, and perhaps (although I doubt consciously) to reiterate the idea, expressed elsewhere in the piece explicitly, that American Jews are way rich and privileged.

But back to YPIS in general. "I'd always thought that YPIS was intended to point out to the target that she is unconscious of her privilege but everyone else can see it." That's certainly part of it, but if you take it to the logical next step, once the privilege is acknowledged, then what? YPIS sets things up so we're suposed to have no problem with P if it's been acknowledged... when the more likely scenario, among actual humans, is that one small acknowledgement of P (coupled, as it inevitably is, with disclaimers and 'but I'm actually not that P, like those folks over there) leads to a cascade of accusations of still-greater P, of being just generally clueless, because once one acknowledges one's own privilege, one has entered one's self into that conversation, opened one's self up to those accusations, insofar as one has declared one's self the kind of person for whom YPIS will sting.

Britta said...

This YPIS conversation reminds me of a series of articles written several years ago by white liberals in the "actually I'm a racist" confessional mode, like one woman who bought a cheap house in the ghetto and then got mad that people stole her patio furniture, and wrote this piece on how black people actually WERE criminals who played loud music at 3 am. The whole style was in this "look how brave I am for admitting feelings that most people in my social circle wouldn't dare to acknowledge." I know that admitting you have a problem is usually the first step to solving the problem, going, yep, I'm a racist/really wealthy etc. and then stopping there as though you've done something brave is arguably a step backwards, in that it rather just makes being racist/nepotistic etc. that much more socially acceptable. This resonates with my experiences with white privileged activisty communities too, where pretty much all the time is spent processing one's own feelings and attitudes ad nauseum and then, if there is a second step, "raising awareness," that people forget that self-reflexivity is a step to participating in a larger movement, not the movement itself.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

Thank you for explaining that better than I could have done. Acknowledging nepotism, then using that platform for drivel, is hardly counteracting nepotism's ill effects.

Andrew Stevens said...

The "sheer force of will" comment was just setting up a joke about the nepotism, like "he made his money the old-fashioned way, he inherited it." I don't believe for a second that she said it to pull the wool over anybody's eyes about how she got her magazine job.

Also, her "journalism" job is doing film reviews. I don't think you can read this piece and conclude that she doesn't have the talent to do film reviews. I've never read her reviews, but I wouldn't assume she couldn't do them just based on this piece; she might be very good at them. I could name a number of superb film reviewers who sound like jackasses whenever they write about anything else.

I can't believe I'm defending this, since I have the same general reaction to the piece as everyone else in this thread, but there you are.

Britta said...

oh, fairly off this topic, but this might be a good article to write about. I read this and thought it actually was a parody, until I realized it wasn't.

http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2011/06/16/the-tyranny-of-education/

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

I suppose it's conceivable that someone would throw in "sheer force of will" in that way, with the meaning you read into it, but it doesn't at all fit with the cleverness level - or more to the point, the level of self-awareness - of the rest of the piece.

Britta,

Huh! I guess part of what makes it read as parody is, what undergrad is giving that much thought to how much adjuncts are paid, or just generally to the educational system beyond its relationship to their own day-to-day lives? Although the line about "the animosity of faculty against students and professors" suggests a healthy amount of confusion, as does the conviction that departments that study women or minorities are social justice movements housed in universities, as though that's their intended purpose, and the university has a duty to keep funding them for that reason.

On a personal level, I found it amusing, unfortunately, knowing that universities are scrapping their French departments these days... meaning, by the logic of that post, that the French are marginalized.

Britta said...

Phoebe, in addition to the things you point out, the line about "identity politics" made me think it was parody, because I haven't heard that term used as anything but a slur in recent times.