This past Tuesday evening I had the immense pleasure of attending Gershom Gorenberg’s talk at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Israel”.

About seventy-five people were in there, mostly from the older generations and with the kind of focused interest that could only come from voraciously consuming news reports and commentary on Israel, from being fans of Gershom’s blog http://www.southjerusalem.com/, or both.

Gorenberg, a journalist and investigative historian, as well as an American-born Jewish Israeli, ranged across a number of topics. He mentioned the recent violence in and around Aza, 1967 Israeli government decision-making, anecdotes from his Israeli life, and the kinds of documents he uncovered while researching his book The Accidental Empire about Israel’s settlement project on lands conquered in the Six Day War. And during his time behind a small podium looking a lot more “charming uncle” and a lot less “love guru”-ish than you might expect from his online headshot, he even took some chuckle-worthy swipes at the last American administration, beginning his remarks: “It’s great to be speaking here in liberated Washington…”

Interestingly, many of his insights were psychological in nature. In short form, here are a few tidbits from his talk that stuck with me:

++ Few on either side of the Israeli/Palestinian divide seem to understand that their opponents will react the same way as anyone else would under attack: through increased militarism and solidarity. Israel’s actions strengthens Hamas, just as Hamas’s actions strengthen the Israeli right-wing (Likud and beyond).

++ The Zionist project was to create a Jewish state, which would be a democracy, on the full historic Jewish homeland. Two of these three things are currently feasible. Which would you drop?

++ The meaning and importance of having a “Jewish state” is based in experiencing living as a majority: the feeling of being at home, where the external trappings of life/culture correspond to the internal/family ones. Of being unexceptional and ‘in tune’.

++ The one-state solution will not work because nationalism won’t go away for the forseeable future. At best, Canaan/”Israstine” would end up a basketcase like Belgium — at worst, a bloodbath like Bosnia or Lebanon.

++ Israel and the Jewish Diaspora are meant to have a symbiotic relationship: they share the cultural/societal benefits/discoveries of building/improving a Jewish-majority society, and we share the reminder of what it’s like to be an “other”/a minority — “Do not oppress the stranger. Remember that you were strangers in Egypt”.

++ Besides for the military-strategic and nationalistic reasons for not abandoning the Territories soon after 1967, it is likely that many top Israeli decision-makers, who had grown up in British Mandatory Palestine, were psychologically unwilling to cut apart again the seamless landscape they’d grown up in until 1948.

++ There is a dissonance between what we know (the Jewish people are weak, scattered, hated, and lost) and reality (the Jewish people are strong, linked, and more powerful and accepted than in thousands of years): this dissonance is reflected in two recent alternate-setting novels, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. We relate more to the imagined Jews of a shaky Alaskan exile or of a Nazi-sympathizing USA than to ourselves.

++ Immediately after the Six-Day War, Israeli government legal experts warned of the possibilities of engendering an apartheid situation in the Territories. One explained how holding onto them without extending full citizenship to the residents was inappropriate in “the current era of decolonialization”. It’s the same arguments over and over for the past 40 years.

++ Every other political/social question in Israel takes backseat to the Israeli-Arab conflict. The only times controversies like religion-state issues get full attention is during times when it seems like peace in on the way, like the early Oslo days.

++ Jews in the Diaspora constantly worry about saying things that are heard every day in Israeli media criticizing the Israeli government. Perhaps it is because we know that we disagree out of love for Israel, and we can’t assume the non-Jews around us have the same motivation.

++ The Jewish settlers in the West Bank who are least likely to move quietly back into Israel proper are also the least likely to live peaceably under Palestinian soveriegnty, no matter how functional.

++ Arguing for 400 years and not coming to a decision is okay in the Talmud. But when you’re running your own country, “choosing to not make a decision”, like Israel did about the Territories, is not an acceptable outcome.

The questions after the talk were interesting and diverse in topic, but the most interesting to me, and the most challenging by far, was the final one. A man (fluent in Hebrew — possibly Israeli?) towards the back wondered “where was the space for the Palestinian voice” in Gershom’s many references to “the [non-dysfunctional, democratic, Jewish, prosperous, meaningful] Israel we want to build”. (Emphasis mine.) He didn’t answer the question satisfactorily, perhaps because we were out of time. Or perhaps because it’s a deep, dangerous question about the moral limits of the idea of the nation-state and he didn’t want to go there. Anyway, it was a fascinating and entertaining evening. Check out his writings.

…or his other upcoming speaking engagements!
* 2/8 New York City * 2/8 Boston * 2/12 University of Maryland * 2/17 Chicago *