Friday, June 24, 2011

Is Andrew Sullivan the "wicked son"? No.

Entering into the fray over Jeffrey Goldberg's dialog with Alison Benedikt concerning her conversion from naive Zionism to naive anti-Zionism, Andrew Sullivan raises a question worthy of a conversation at my family's mulitcultural seder table. He asks:

I have struggled with it much of my life as a gay Catholic. Am I a "wicked son" for dissenting?

The answer to his question is a resounding "no". The Passover Hagadah's wicked son was not wicked because he dissented. He was wicked for rejecting his connection to his people and asking why he should care about "them". In fact, the Hagadah specifically condemns him for use of that pronoun. The rabbis instruct Jews to regard ourselves as having been liberated from slavery in Egypt. That's why they tag the Jewish child who refuses to do so as the bad guy.

Sullivan, in spite of all the difficulties he has encountered as a gay Catholic, still calls himself a gay Catholic. Far from rejecting the community of Catholics, he takes on the burden of bridging what must seem a very wide gap between Catholic religious law and his personal views. It might be argued that he is actually in the majority of Catholics whose practices vary from those proscribed by the church. He may be a better Catholic than he thinks. He's trying to find a way to reconcile institutional Catholicism with the real world Catholicism of his fellow believers. In this sense, his form of dissent shows more loyalty than does the passive non-resistance of those who agree with him in their personal lives but avoid public conflict with the church.

Sullivan's dissidence differs from Benedikt's rejection of Israel in that, where Sullivan fights against a critical flaw in his community while maintaining his identity with it, Benedikt instead sleepwalks away from her community, barely recognizing her own thoughts on the subject as relevant. For those who haven't read her exchange with Goldberg, she portrays herself as a passive figure, swayed as a child by Zionist summer camp counselors, and as an adult by her anti-Israel husband. She does not advocate dissidence so much as she tries to rationalize her apathy.

In a way, isn't it apathy that the Hagadah condemns as the wickedest thing of all?

Sullivan's column is here: Jews In America And Israel - The Dish | By Andrew Sullivan - The Daily Beast. Benedikt's column can be read here. The exchanges between Goldberg and Benedikt can be read here and here. Rabbi Andy Bachman writes about the subject here.


Daniel said...

Very well said.

If Allison had written "because I am a Jew I cannot support the modern Jewish state. The temple has not been rebuilt and the occupation violates God's commandments," would she be considered wicked?

Dan O. said...

Are you guys just competing to say the meanest thing possible about Benedikt? I mean, please. How do you know Benedikt just walks away, apathetic about Israel forever? Where did you get that from? Maybe the same place it was decided that Benedikt could was incapable of allowing others to put words in her mouth as a literary device (and so she must really mean, for example, that her husband hates Jews).

I guess it's all from the compulsion to call someone you disagree with "wicked". Pile on.

Anonymous said...

Could you answer Sullivan's question? -- Can you oppose certain policies of the Israeli state and still be a Jew?

On another note, one might wonder whether her "apathy" and lack of critical thinking was learned during Zionist summer camp, i.e. learning only one side of a story.

Adam Holland said...


Considering that every Jew opposes something that the Israeli government has done, I think the question is ass backwards. Israel has a greater diversity of political opinion and a more dynamic public policy debate than we have here in the U.S. What makes you and Sullivan believe that dissent is taboo in Israel?

Dan O.:

If you don't consider a lack of concern for the welfare of one's extended family to be apathy, what would you call it? That it is motivated more by the influence of others than by rational thought or painful soul-searching makes this point all the more clear. By the way, I have nothing personal against Benedikt, who I don't know. Moreover, I wouldn't be at all surprised if she changed her views about this in the future, since she seems so easily swayed. She just has to fall in with the right crowd.


I don't consider religious anti-Zionism wicked per se. I'm sure that there are plenty of well-intentioned haredim who fear that God will punish the Jews for establishing a state without the messiah's okay. I just think that view is kind of wacky.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response, Mr. Holland. I believe you are right and there are different centers of opinion in Israel across a political spectrum.

My question was specific to the American Jewish community, of which Mrs. Benedikt is a part. I believe Sullivan was also referring to the community she exists in as well. I think that Mrs. Benedikt's Zionist camp and her parents (at least until she had affected their views) represent American Jews who do not oppose specific Israeli policies. I don't think the ADL opposes any policies of the Israeli state, at least it doesn't exist to do that. I disagree with your premise that all Jews disagree with something the Israeli government has done.

With your exploration of the "wicked son" analogy, it sounds like you are accusing Mrs. Benedikt of being a wicked son, who has in essence alienated himself from the Jewish Community. Her sin is apathy and she has "sleepwalked" away. Well, I was curious about how much of that to you is based on her political views. Socially, well, she has visited Israel more than a lot of American Jews, and I don't think that she abandoned her family.

Adam Holland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You've answered my original question in a reassuring manner. Yes, Jews can criticize the state of Israel without being ostracized. My concern rested with the "Wicked Child" analogy. I am paraphrasing, but I believe in one translation the Father tells the Wicked Child, "This is what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt...for me and not for you" So there's an idea of exclusion in it.

I could respond to you other points by referencing my personal experience, but obviously I wouldn't feel fair extrapolating it. However, I don't think I'm reading too much into the essay to say Mrs. Benedikt believes her education from her family, Hebrew school, and Zionist camp only told one side of a story, a side that didn't criticize the Israeli government (she also mentioned Abe Foxman so it seemed relevant): "I don't know about Palestinians. No one told me." I will say that I identify with this idea.

Anonymous said...

When you revise the seder isn't that the definition of engaged dissent, and not just abandoning your community/traditions? I'm sorry Benedikt has such a problem with Israel, but Israel is not Judaism.

Adam Holland said...

[This comment was inadvertently deleted. It's original place in the string was three places previous to where it appears now.]

Benedikt described herself as transforming from supporting Israel because she was influenced by Zionists to opposing Israel under the influence of anti-Zionists. You say have difficulty understanding why I call that sleepwalking, but I suspect you really do understand.

I sense a concern on your part that I bear some malice toward her. Let me reassure you that I wish her and her family well. I don't know her, but I believe her to be young and I honestly don't believe her ideas about this to be well established. I also think the idea of judging people and kicking them out of the tribe seems pretty silly, doesn't it? I argue instead that she should think about what Israelis have experienced and what they live with everyday of their lives. If she would do a better job of engaging those realities, I'd have a much easier time of saying that her views aren't rooted in apathy, but in a socially engaged dissidence. I also wish that she would study Israel's history without the ideological blinders of either side. That would help too.

You defend her by writing that she hasn't abandoned her family in Israel. That is true. According to her column, she visits them and her ill-informed husband harangues them about issues their lives depend on. That's what families are for. That's what being Jewish is for too. If she wants to maintain her connections to the Jewish people, she should continue to do so. Oppose various policies of Israel, by all means -- make your voice heard -- just don't harden your heart and close your mind.

Your comment regarding American Jews not opposing Israeli policies seems a bit confused. You write: "I don't think the ADL opposes any policies of the Israeli state, at least it doesn't exist to do that. I disagree with your premise that all Jews disagree with something the Israeli government has done." Are you saying that the ADL should oppose Israel at times but doesn't, or that it is right not to do so because that is not its role? Are you saying that some American Jews never oppose Israel regardless of what it does? You'd do better to be specific about what policies and what Jews you have in mind. You might be surprised to learn that large numbers of American Jews disagree with Israeli laws concerning who is a Jew, religious marriage, recognition of non-Orthodox Jews, etc. Those aren't the issues you have in mind, are they? With respect to the issues that you are concerned with, there are plenty of American Jews and Jewish organizations doing just the things you claim don't happen, criticizing those Israeli policies, arguing about them, and lobbying both there and in the U.S. about them. The opportunities to engage issues on those terms are many.

Generalizations about this issue are a greased slide. They all tend to lead in the same direction. Your concern is peace with the Palestinians. It would be better for all of us to talk about specific peace proposals and how to achieve them, rather than to talk in broad terms about whether Israel is good or bad or even whether it has a legitimate right to exist. That right should be a given at this point in history, both for practical and moral reasons. What other post-colonial nation is constantly subjected to that sort of discussion? That such existential questions sometimes come from Jews with little emotional connection to Israeli or Jewish history will continue to be disturbing to people like me. Can you understand why that is?

Adam Holland said...

I'm of the mind that the four sons in the Hagadah represent character traits found within all of us. The Hagadah tells us how to deal with four aspects of our relationship to our history by using the allegory of four types of sons.

One more thought on this: some writers about this seem to be under the impression that Goldberg, by diagnosing Benedikt with Wicked Child Syndrome, implicitly called for her excommunication from the Jewish people. He didn't. Here's what the Hagadah recommends for the Wicked Child: "blunt his teeth". Discuss.

Dan O. said...

Adam Holland:

"If you don't consider a lack of concern for the welfare of one's extended family to be apathy what would you call it?"

I ask again, where did you get that from? She seems concerned both about her sister, her sister's children, and her mother. And please, it won't help me understand merely by reasserting the claim I denied.

I can double-down too. This quote is as mean-spirited as your post. You've just said that in addition to not caring about the Jewish people, she doesn't care about her own family. How is that not mean?

Look if you think "a lack of concern" is equivalent to being opposed to the occupation with emotional vehemence, then excuse me, but "yawn." The personal is the political and vice versa stuff was so 1970's - a decade we should revisit only to learn what not to wear. The personal follows the political, and vice versa, sometimes, but not always, and not predictably. If there is anything to learn from Benedikt's essay, it's that.

Adam Holland said...

Dan O.:

I could have been clearer in my comment. When I wrote that Benedikt doesn't care enough about her "extended family", I meant the Jewish people in a metaphorical sense, not her sister's family. Your reading of that was understandable, but not what I meant.

I don't mean to pile on Benedikt. Her essay hit several sour notes for me, as it did for a number of other readers, and I wanted to critique it in a meaningful way, not punish her. All I know about her is what I read in that essay. If, as you imply, she really cares about the welfare of Israel, but just opposes Israeli policies with respect to the Palestinians, I'm glad to hear it. You seem to know more about her than I do, so I defer to your judgment on the nature of her commitment to Israel's welfare. I just didn't see that in her piece.

When you complain about my referring to her apathy on this subject, yet go on to describe her repeatedly "allowing others to put words in her mouth", you really make a counter-argument unnecessary. The sourest note of the whole essay was her failure to examine her own thought process, citing only on the opinions of others as her motivation. Camp counselors, parents, siblings and spouses can all play important roles in shaping ones views, but should they define those views? If that was merely a literary device as you say it was, what was it intended to mean? I'd like to hear what she thinks, without conveniently placing her views in the mouths of others, or couching her ideas in irony. (If anything, the irony defense makes her seem more apathetic, not less.)

Dan O. said...

Adam Holland said:

"The sourest note of the whole essay was her failure to examine her own thought process, citing only on the opinions of others as her motivation."

I disagree. She is examining her own thought processes genealogically. That doesn't satisfy your request for justification (i.e. what I think you mean by "examine"). The argument could be framed more interestingly over whether a public narrative about the genealogy of attitudes is appropriate. Obviously, when a piece is about Israel the stakes are higher.

"You seem to know more about her than I do, so I defer to your judgment on the nature of her commitment to Israel's welfare. I just didn't see that in her piece."

I don't know her even a bit, but I guess where she's coming from. Having relatives in Israel, I have complicated feelings about what's best for it. For example, I heard lots of arguments about how Operation Iraqi Freedom would be good for Israel. Meanwhile, I remembered that a result from Desert Storm was a Scud missile landing in Ramat Gan, down the block from where my mother grew up. Israelis seemed to think that was a reason to get rid of Saddam, but I thought the opposite. Ripple effects in the Middle East are unpredictable. It turned out that a side effect of toppling Iraq was an increase in Iran's unchecked influence. This has led to increased pressure on Israel through Hamas and Hezbollah. We can go further. But,I believe a response from Israel to aggression from Iran may result in a worldwide disaster (perhaps the Diaspora would then accuse Israel of being apathetic as regards to their interests?). So, I'm deeply suspicious of outrage by what one group sees as a lack of caring about the interests of the larger whole.

Here is another point about "apathy". I understand the strategic importance of the occupation vis a vis security. At the same time, I see the settlements as morally wrong and as roadblocks to future improvements in security. Benedikt seems to see the settlements and the occupation as inextricably linked. (She's not alone. This sometimes seems to the position of the Israeli "center"-right coalition, in support of both.) Others like Mr. Goldberg believe the two can be separated. From the back and forth Goldberg publishes, this seems to be Goldberg's and Benedikt's only significant area of disagreement.

One reason for thinking the occupation and settlements are necessarily linked is the view that the occupation generates a cultural insensitivity to the occupied. This seems to be Andrew Sullivan's point of view in his continuing "An Epidemic of Not Watching" series. Ms. Benedikt doesn't express this view explicitly. Some might be confusing her with Kiera Feldman, who does. Still, it's a reasonable view to attribute to Ms. Benedikt.

I vacillate between this point of view, and Mr. Goldberg's more optimistic point of view. But I don't understand this as a vacillation between apathy and engagement. Rather it's a vacillation between fatalism and hope. One can be fatalistic and still care. (And, as you say, it doesn't mean you can't change your mind.)


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