Saturday, January 14, 2012

"But Israel was like Christmas: something I’d never do."

Last night, midway through my one and only drink of the evening, a gin martini from which I am recovering today, I got into a discussion with a couple friends about the state of liberal Zionism. It was two against one (and despite my contrarian tendencies, I was with the majority) that any self-identification as any kind of Zionist these days means you've announced yourself to be a Newt-loving, universal-health-care-fearing, DADT-repeal-opposing, sweater-vest-wearing, you get the idea. 

My own thinking is, while there are indeed more and less liberal subsets of organized American Zionism, the liberal end of things (J Street comes to mind), especially among younger adults, tends to be more focused on differentiating itself from the AIPAC end of things than on emphasizing why Zionism comes out of left-type ideas, postcolonial-ish, even. Israel, though flawed, is the home of the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. This is kind of important, I'd think, for the message. But liberal Zionism these days is always defensive, about how Zionism isn't necessarily incompatible with being left-of center, about disavowing any connection to a Republican party that, especially lately, is laying on the this-is-a-Christian-country rhetoric rather thick. 

Group shot from last night's First Annual Meeting of the Liberal Zionists, Mid-Atlantic Division.

NYT travel writer Matt Gross appears to have what is both a complex and incredibly common approach to his Jewish identity, and indeed cannot discuss his recent trip to Jerusalem without prefacing it with some "Now ve may perhaps to begin, yes?"-style self-analysis:
As a traveler, I am not a particularly choosy person. I will go pretty much anywhere, anytime. Wander on horseback into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan? Why not? Spend the night in a sketchy Burmese border town? Sure! Eat my way through Bridgeport, Conn.? Loved it. Once, I even spent four consecutive Sunday nights in Geneva — in midwinter — an ordeal to which no rational adventurer would willingly submit. 
In fact, of all the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one — besides Afghanistan and Iraq (which my wife has deemed too dangerous) — that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel. 
This surprised friends and mildly annoyed my parents, who had visited quite happily. As a Jew, especially one who travels constantly, I was expected at least to have the Jewish state on my radar, if not to be planning a pilgrimage in the very near future. Tel Aviv, they’d say, has wonderful food! 
But to me, a deeply secular Jew, Israel has always felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden. For decades I’d tried to put as much distance between myself and Judaism as possible, and the idea that I was supposed to feel some connection to my ostensible homeland seemed ridiculous. Give me Montenegro, Chiapas, Iran even. But Israel was like Christmas: something I’d never do.
Readers, resist the (inevitable) urge to psychoanalyze. To bring up terms like "Portnoy's Complaint" or "Jewish self-hatred" or "oy the neurosis." Take note, if you're up for a digression, of this prime piece of evidence for Jewishness-as-non-celebration-of-Christmas. Gross is so ambivalent about his Jewish identity that he, a travel writer for the NYT who can go anywhere and wants to go anywhere, a Jew who's not merely secular but deeply so, refuses Christmas. Those new to questions of Jewish identity, if you can make sense of the stance of this author, you move straight to the advanced class.

But mostly, don't be thrown off by the fact that Gross presents his uneasiness about Israel as something that separates him not only from his parents, but also his own friends - it's very much a thing for American Jews critical-to-the-point-of-skeptical of Israel to present themselves as utterly alone in this regard. That this self-presentation is so common certainly gives the illusion that there's this large and influential group of secular American Jews who are rah-rah Israel, who make life uncomfortable for the lone dissenters. But where is this majority? There's... me, there's David Schraub, and we have some British fellow travelers. The "iffy burden" contingent, meanwhile, is made up of virtually every secular American Jew under, what age shall we give here, 60?

Like a good Birthright participant, albeit not on that program, Gross, we'll be relieved to know, learns that Israel is a real place, with real-life people, who do things like drink beer and listen to music. He even has a "here, we're the WASPs"-type revelation: " Here I was, being seen not as a Jew or as a non-Jew, an American or a tourist, but as a mensch: a good and honorable man."


Micha said...

I kind of feel sad for Gross.

First his personal Jewish identity issues prevent him from visiting -- as a regular secular tourist -- a reasonably nice tourist country. And this is a guy who takes pride in visiting everywhere.

Then when he does visit, the only places in the whole country he sees are the old city, the restaurants one block outside of the old city, Yad Vashem and the most Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem.

In a way I think all my concerned about the survivability of Jewish identity in the US were misplaced. This guy is so influenced by his Jewishness he's probably more Jewish than me, and I live in Jerusalem.

It's as if I visited Washington DC and the only place I visited was the Holocaust museum.

Of course on the other hand you have the travel reporters who visit "secular" Tel Aviv and talk about it in glowing terms, but if and when they visit Jerusalem, they seem to tremble in fear that god might strike them down. So I suppose it is good that he did mention restaurants and pubs as the light-rail, as if Jerusalem is a real place.

worldmatt said...

Hi Phoebe! Your blog post popped up last night in my daily dose of Google-delivered narcissism, and I figured I'd respond a little.

Not that I have a particularly involved response. I mostly just wanted to say that although I don't totally agree with your analysis of my story, I do appreciate being the subject of obviously thoughtful criticism, rather than a few of the knee-jerk reactions I've seen elsewhere (coming from both left and right, of course).

Oh, and as for the "advanced class," I think I'll linger in the intro seminar a bit longer. My stance, such as it is, might not make perfect sense—I grant there are plenty of contradictions, irrationalities, and less-than-thought-through beliefs—but I can't help it. I'm a human being, and that goes with the territory.

[Terrible joke about "territory" and occupation deleted. You're welcome.]


—Matt Gross

Anonymous said...

hi Phoebe!
I just wanted to tell you that I discovered your blog only 15 minutes...and I love it!!!!
You have a new regular reader.
Keep up the good work!

Micha said...

In retrospect, as a tourist review of Jerusalem it was a fun read. It's nice to hear nice things about your city. As a self-analysis of Jewish identity, the review and the various responses to it are a little nuts. We Jews seem pretty obsessed with our own identity no matter what part of the left-right or secular-religious framework we occupy.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Micha, Micha,

I agree with most of what you wrote. My only question for you would be, why is it a bad thing if a travel writer heads to Tel Aviv, treats it as they would Paris or Rome, that is, fails to construct an essay about the geopolitical situation of the country to which the city in question belongs, never mentions Jerusalem or Eilat for that matter, talks about culture, food, fashion, and takes no particular stance on The Israel-Palestine Question? The NYT's Style blog often has travel items like that (and indeed, such an item is currently at the top of the site - didn't even need to search for it!) I'd think what Israel's supporters (and I mean this in a non-extreme sense, not as in those mythical 'people who think Israel can do no wrong') should want is for Israel to be described as a regular country. Not every travel story on Italy veers off into a story about Berlusconi and Italian misogyny, for example.

Matt Gross,

Thanks for responding. I, in turn, appreciate your appreciation of level-headedness. But I must say - you wrote an article that's at one and the same time introspective personal essay and Jews-and-Israel - the only way you could have gotten a more emotionally-charged response from NYT readers is if you'd discussed whether the dog in the accompanying photo was a "rescue," and whether the tomatoes in any salads you may have eaten were sustainably harvested.

Micha said...

Oh, I'm happy to read positive articles about Tel Aviv that treat Israel as a normal country. What I'm complaining about as a Jerusalemite, and even that not very strenuously, is the visitor that goes to Tel-Aviv -- Restaurants, gays, bars, beach -- and then in the last two days he or she decides that he "must" go to the Jerusalem (cue dramatic music). That visit is viewed like going to church/synagogue. The attitude of the reporter suddenly changes into something solemn or even a little frightened. He does his obligatory Jerusalem visit and runs back to normal Tel-Aviv.

Matt Gross went in opposite direction. First he went to the heart of holiness -- the old city. And only later he walked 15 minutes down Jaffa street to the trendy restaurants in that area. I'm kind of happy that he did describe Jerusalem as a place where there are trendy restaurants and pubs and not only religious sites. So that's a positive note for me beyond all the Jewish complexes.

worldmatt said...

Phoebe, Micha,

What the two of you are discussing is precisely the "politically iffy burden" I mentioned in my story—the idea that my going to Israel, unlike anywhere else in the world, would entail my representing its history, culture, and politics in a way that demonstrates I've either Zionistically embraced my Jewish identity (thus pleasing David Harris) or discovered the horrific truth about The Occupation (delighting Philip Weiss). Why would any Jewish travel writer—or Jewish human being—want to deal with that?

But I did, and as in every other installment of my "Getting Lost" series, I wrote about what happens when you show up in a strange place with no map, guidebook, hotel reservation, or agenda (either practical or ideological). If I left out some of the history and politics—I did visit other parts of Jerusalem, including Shabbat services at a Reform congregation, as well as Bethlehem and Hebron—it was partly because of space considerations but also because some of those things didn't fit the story I was trying to tell, which—whether the Harrises and Weisses like it or not—involved good food, odd characters, and moments that had nothing to do with tackling The Burden.

Once again, very happy to be talking about this in a virtual space where I am recognized as only a partly (okay, mostly) shameful blot upon the honor of the Jewish people, rather than an autogenocidal madman.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Fair enough. My own experience of Jerusalem is so limited (one trip when I was 8, and passing through on Birthright at 23) that I have no sense of what % of the city is bars-and-restaurants, what % Very Serious Monuments. I can't think of any all-Israel travel essays that do what you describe. It mostly seems to be a visit to Tel Aviv, a write-up of something that could just as well have been in Milan, but with some Israeli specificity, and onto the next global destination.

My one contrarian caveat here - and again, I don't know Jerusalem well enough to say much in this case - is that there can also be a danger, in travel articles, of a missing-the-forest-for-the-trees situation, where a writer gets incredibly excited about finding something familiar in an "exotic" locale, as when Gross, alas, was thrilled to find that Jerusalem has hipster bars. On the one hand, this contributes to the message that Jerusalem is a "normal" place. On the other, that's an awfully long trip to go for a hipster bar.

(I am, however, a hypocrite - I just looked up and dragged my husband to a hipster coffee shop in Tucson. In my defense, I now really do live in the woods of NJ, so the fact that Blue Bottle coffee can also be found in Brooklyn doesn't mean I can get stuff like that at home.)

Matt Gross,

Neither I nor, from what I can tell, Micha, accused you of being a "shameful blot." Speaking for myself, I find the concept of the self-proclaimed "bad" Jew, who seems to relish being called "bad" by other Jews, quite interesting, but am not interested in tossing around accusations of "bad"-ness myself. For one thing, it would make would-be "bad" Jews all to pleased; for another, I may identify as a Zionist, but I'm also intermarried and non-observant, and thus in no place to tell others that they're insufficiently Jewishly-involved.

If I accused you (or, your persona in the essay) of any sin, it was of being neurotic/tortured/whatever about Jewish identity in a way shared by plenty of Jews. Which isn't much of a sin. I responded to your essay not because OMG Think of the Jews, but because I'd been trying to convince a friend that liberal-minded, educated, etc. secular Jews these days are totally off Zionism, and you provided me with a fun read and a data point. Your essay also interested me because something about your approach to Jewish identity - the 'cringe' - was one I'd thought was pretty much kaput in the States, if not in the UK, but then once I started thinking about it, it struck me that there's been something of a revival of that mood.

As for the rest, I understand how visiting Israel as a Jewish travel writer would pose unique problems. Simply by virtue of identifying yourself as Jewish and writing about Jerusalem, you were bound to get a negative response from Jews on the vocal extremes of this issue. But this profession-specific concern wasn't in your essay. You presented yourself as opposed to visiting Israel, and only Israel, not merely in a professional capacity, but in general. "For decades I’d tried to put as much distance between myself and Judaism as possible [...]" - this is kind of a different concern. Plenty of Jews are "deeply secular" and simply don't give Judaism much thought. You came across, in the essay, as not so much apathetic as vigorously... opposed? confused?

Most (not all, I'll grant) of the accusations of self-hatred came, I suspect, not from your failure to profess undying love for the Jewish state, not from your admission that you're secular, but from what seemed to be a kind of horror at that-which-is-Jewish. While I don't like the expression "self-hating Jew," and aside from that am not concerned with the ultimately unknowable inner lives of people whose essays I read in the NYT, it was this - the ick-too-Jewy - tone you established early on that jumped out at me.

Micha said...

Matt, I'll second what Phoebe said.

What was remarkable for me was to what extent your attitude to Israel and the trip was shaped by these Jewish identity issues, as well as this false dichotomy of either being fanatically Zionist without criticism or obsessed about the occupation to the point of rejecting the whole country -- which itself is also shaped by Jewish identity issues. It's all very... well... Jewish. As if the whole Jewish people with their myriad of religious and political attitudes are looking over your shoulder.

After all, if I visit Manhattan I am not constantly obsessed about Indians, Vietnam or Iraq or OWS, nor do I become fanatically pro-American either. You can visit Israel, and Jerusalem, being aware and critical of the flaws and of the history (and religion) while at the same time just seeing the sites and checking out the restaurants and bars. Which you did, and that was the part I liked. Just as you would visit other countries with their own issues.

As a Zionist and a Jew, I would certainly have been happy if you came away from the trip feeling a certain connection, or maybe feeling that this whole Zionism thing makes more sense to you. But I'd rather you just visit and enjoy yourself -- and see that Israel is an actual living place rather than this fetish people project things on -- than be burdened by all these issues.

By the way, did you see in the old city the stores that sell IDF and Free Palestine T-shirts next to each other? I don't go to the old city that often, and that made me laugh the last time I visited (my sister took a few American friends on a short tour and I tagged along).

Phoebe, I'm not really hip enough to comment about the hip ratio of Jerusalem. My sister is better at this. I can tell you that there are several neighborhoods in the city center, that have a large ratio of trendy bars, coffee shops and restaurants, art stores and for some reason a lot Italian Ice Cream places. Some of these places have the extra charm of being in old neighborhoods. The restaurants Matt visited are in one of these neighborhoods.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think we've failed here as Zionists and Jews - we're insufficiently hysterical about this issue. We're such a disappointment!