Allison Benedikt, film editor at the Village Voice, dropped a bomb on the Jewish online discourse yesterday when she published “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” in which she details her upbringing loving Israel and its untimely tarnishing in adulthood. I recommend you read it in full, a single quotation does not capture the ongoing context of a nuanced life story. Among others, Jeffrey Goldberg rushed to pilliory her in a bitter response as childish as the shallowness he accuses her of. (Other commentators who actually know Allison made critical comments about her style but mostly not her substance.)
Criticism of Benedikt is unfounded — and focusing on the efficacy of summer camp confuses her message. The fault is not Zionist summer camp. It gave her a great Jewish experience. The fault is not her parents. Her mother engaged in dialogue and offered her solidarity, eventually. The fault is not a lack of awareness. Benedikt is vastly more in touch with Israel than most American Jews: she had a Zionist upbringing, she has family there, is in regular touch with them, has visited several times, and has a partner who seems to care enough to debate. Most Jews have none of that.
The point of Benedikt’s confession is clearly to express frustration and confusion, to be heard, to put her community on notice that she’s had it up to here. I’ve seen these pieces by the dozens and authored so many of them myself. (And it always interests me which ones get heard and which ignored. Kudos to Benedikt on being heard.) Indeed, what brought me to blogging was a simple need to be heard on this issue, not lectured at. Israel crusaders fall over themselves in stampedes to tell young Jews the “right” answers. If they spent less time speaking, perhaps they would hear something useful. Imagine if the millions of dollars spent on Israel advocacy instead were spent on listening to what we think. Whenever someone like Benedikt peaks in frustration to say “just listen!” the communal thought police rush in to invalidate, decry, and delegitimize what is said. (Rabbi Daniel Gordis, anyone?) Who among the Israel crusaders will instead listen intently and say to Benedikt, “Wow, that is so different from how I relate to Israel. Tell me more.” Imagine if Jeffrey Goldberg had tried being caring over being patronizing.
But actually, there are tons of surveys about young Jews’ attitudes, desires and preferences regarding Israel. (A few recommendations here.) If only planners of Israel education and advocacy would implement their recommendations. Most Israel engagement efforts — events, programs, campaigns — are resolutely against an open conversation that is unbounded by political correctness, in which young people share and explore their inner emotional conflicts. Because doing so necessarily involves discussing boycotts and divestment, one state solutions, human rights violations and other things the establishment has proscribed as toxic.
This lack of openness and failure to implement the obvious solutions was the founding rationale of the “Love, Hate & the Jewish State” series, pioneered by Makom at the Jewish Agency and the New Israel Fund. There are no lectures. No correct answers. Nothing you are expected to parrot or agree to upon conclusion. It’s a dialogue space. To talk about everything the mainstream is scared to death of. Because if you can’t discuss it, then how will you ever take a position on it? It remains the only Israel program of its kind on the Jewish institutional scene.
In a twist of delicious coincidence, the very theme of the next iteration of the series on June 29 is “Airing the Dirty Laundry?” on why the discourse on Israel is so fraught, broken, and ugly to partake. I hope to see you there.
Allison Benedikt did us all a courageous favor by willingly weathering the inevitable accusations of stupidity, shallowness, disloyalty and self-hatred that comes with being conflicted about Israel. I salute her and hope so many others will also tell their elders to shut up, sit down and listen for once. Their control of the Jewish community is waning and they can listen now, or they can listen when we’re in charge.