Don't despair: Israel's not a failure: American Jews shouldn't be disappointed that Israel's not a liberal wonderland.

Author:Gorenberg, Gershom

Rabbi David Gordis has despaired of Israel. In the pages of Tikkim magazine, the longtime American Jewish leader and educator recently wrote that Israel is "a noble experiment, but a failure."

A friend told me about the article at her Shabbat table while I was visiting the United States. "Despair," I responded more sharply than I expected to, "is immoral in politics."

"Maybe so," she said, "but I think a lot of American Jews feel that way."

Reading the article only strengthened my reaction. Gordis was executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in the 1980s, and he opens his article with nostalgia about exchanging repartee with Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Abba Eban at a Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meeting 30 years ago. Those were the years, he says, when American Jewish organizations more or less maintained unity in support of the Israeli government in power. (Right-leaning groups, including AIPAC, he says, broke the rule by criticizing Labor-led governments.)

Then comes his lament. "Present-day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary" dimensions of Jewish life, he writes, for an "oppressive occupation," an "emphatic materialism" and "fundamentalist religion."

From my perspective, Gordis is a latecomer. As a graduate student in Jerusalem, I was organizing protests against Israeli government policies before Gordis was defending them from his seat at the AJC in New York. Since then, I've spent three decades as a journalist covering occupation, settlement and religious politics.

Still, I find Gordis's picture of Israel to be a caricature. Perhaps that's unavoidable in a brief article. But he should know Israel better than to describe the right wing as "entrenched" in power when its share of the vote has shrunk over the past three elections. It now has a majority that could collapse with the defection of a single Knesset member.

And it is stunning audacity for an American to lecture Israelis about materialism. "Look at your own society, " I wanted to shout. Gordis, it seems, wants Israelis to be larger-than-life idealists while American Jews applaud from their well-appointed living rooms.

What really offends, though, is the despair--from Gordis, and from whichever American Jews feel the same way while thinking themselves liberal or progressive.

I can best define despair in politics as unrealistic pessimism. History gives evidence that dedicated, organized...

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