Jeff is that guy who “makes the weaker argument appear to be the stronger.”
In May of this past year Daniel Gordis, The Shalem Foundation’s acting president, addressed the J-Street Leadership Mission to Israel and Palestine, criticizing the advocacy group for several of its positions and calling its place in the pro-Israel tent into question. Gordis’ remarks sparked something of a controversy, so much so that Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J-Street, felt compelled to rebut them in the form of an opinion piece he later published in the Jerusalem Post.
The majority of those who have weighed in on “In the Tent or Out,” the column based on Gordis’ address, have focused on its content: Gordis’ analysis of the conflict, the facts he cited and the general thrust of his arguments. Instead, I want to focus on the form that these remarks took, on the way Gordis made the points he did. The Greeks have a word for this, for the way in which one makes points in a debate. The word is rhetoric.
I find Gordis’ rhetoric to be manipulative in the extreme. And, as luck would have it, there’s a word for this as well, one that, appropriately enough, derives from the Greek tutors who bore it as their title. The word is sophistry.
The majority of the issues Gordis raises are used more as opportunities for censure than for exchange. In his discussion of territorial concession, Gordis criticizes J-Street for doubting the legitimacy of those who are hesitant; the reasons for hesitancy itself though, are never addressed. His focus is similarly skewed with regard to the UN’s resolution on settlements. There, the discussion revolves around J-Street’s vote in favor, not around the American-Jewish reason for being opposed. In his remarks on the Gaza War, Gordis condemns J-Street’s protest to it but doesn’t explain the necessity of the conflict at this juncture; Gordis himself admits that Sederot had been under fire for the past eight years. It isn’t that Gordis is necessarily wrong, it’s that he is so busy tongue-lashing his audience they have no opportunity to evaluate whether he’s right. There is no frank, extended discussion of the arguments. There is only a lot of indignant posturing.
But more than this, Gordis’ rhetoric sensationalizes the issues, reducing them to the starkest and most cosmic binaries. As he opens, “Given the extent of the forces aligned against Israel…the pro-Israel camp needs a big tent. Neither Israel nor the Jewish People will survive if we work only with those with whom we agree.” This is how Gordis frames his remarks, not with some perfunctory gesture toward complexity, but with a reductive allusion to what he believes is at stake, the very survival of the Jewish people.
And of course, if it is J-Street’s inclusion in the tent that is under discussion, then the prospects of Jewish survival may indeed be determined by what ensues. In few words, Gordis has made very many issues into one issue: the continuity of Jewish identity. With this as his point of departure, it becomes increasingly difficult for his audience to navigate the nuances of each issue without being pulled into an ideological binary—you are either for the Jews or you’re against them.
Gordis makes this binary even starker later on in his address declaring:
There are groups who are clearly opposed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state; they are our enemies. It doesn’t matter if they are in Israel or outside, or if they are Jewish or not. If they are working to end Israel, or to end it as a Jewish and democratic state, then they are our enemies, plain and simple. There are enemies who cannot be loved or compromised into submission….You need to show us that you care about Israel more than you care about dialogue with Israel’s enemies.
That caring about Israel is being in dialogue with its enemies is a prospect Gordis doesn’t consider. Instead he dramatizes the opposition between Israel and its adversaries. But this dramatization only makes it more difficult to get on with the work of coexisting with one’s adversaries, which may in fact be what is demanded of both sides in this conflict. It is this same dramatization that also explains why Gordis feels he need only cite American-Jewish opposition to the UN resolution, without explaining its ground.
For, in the kind of image Gordis evokes, “Given the extent of the forces aligned against Israel…the only hope for survival is a big pro-Israel tent.” Without it, “Neither Israel nor the Jewish People will survive.” If J-Street then fails to align itself with Israel’s allies on a certain issue, it is in effect aligning with Israel’s enemies, since misalignment, or a shrinking tent, spells death for both Israel and the Jewish people. Thus J-Street’s every departure from the party line deserves the disgrace associated with disloyalty rather than the deference accorded dissent.
I’m not convinced Gordis would actually get behind what he seems to be implying is a necessity, i.e., the homogenization of American-Jewish support. For Gordis himself says, “You certainly don’t need to be a rubber stamp for Israeli policy….Israel desperately needs critique.” But his rhetoric still serves to paint Israel’s critics into a pretty tight corner, especially critics such as J-Street. As Gordis puts it, “What matters more to you – the safety of Israel’s citizens, or advancing your own moral agenda in our region of the world?”
This formulation, like the foregoing ones, reduces the conflict to one in which there are only two sides; either J-Street is for Israel’s safety or it is for some moral agenda. Framing the issue as such makes it seem as if these two positions can only be mutually exclusive. Moral agenda, dialogue withIsrael’s enemies—this is one side. Part of our tent, pro-Israel—this is the other side. My question to Gordis then is this: can there be no position in which a moral agenda and Israel’s security have equal priority? And if so, what would it look like? Could it be part of Gordis’ Big Tent?
- D. Schwartz