I Am Allison Benedikt, Well Not Exactly

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In a recent essay, Allison Benedikt, film editor of the Village Voice, writes about her Zionist summer camp experience and subsequent alienation from it (link). Her piece has been called anti-Israel (link) but I don’t really see that. More than anything, I see myself in her story, which is perhaps why I read it more sympathetically.

Allison’s camp description was sufficiently familiar that I realized we had attended the same summer camp and Israel program. I confirmed this with my younger sister, who was a year ahead of Allison in camp. I recognized everything Allison described but I don’t consider it brainwashing, as some might infer from her description (although I doubt she meant it). It was a camp with a distinct ideology that included a single story, a very Zionist but also very left wing narrative of Israeli history. I remember when a former active member who became Orthodox visited camp for Shabbos, presumably visiting his brother who was on the staff (through an interesting twist in Jewish geography, I attended this brother’s wedding in Puerto Rico). The Orthodox brother spoke to the camp eloquently about his religious beliefs, noting that he was still politically aligned with the camp’s ideology. He joked that he once hitched a ride to a peace protest with Orthodox Jews and when they got there, all the others went to the anti-peace side and he went alone to the peace side. This was in the late 80’s when Peace Now was at its height.

My point is two-fold. First, Allison’s Zionist education was extremely left wing, pro-Israel and pro-peace. Second, I felt the same way as she as my religious trek took me far away from the camp’s ideology. In the early 90’s, Yeshiva University was, as it is today, decidedly pro-Israel and pro-setttlements. However, the school’s faculty and student body contained a healthy variety of viewpoints. As a student there, I was exposed to many different views on Zionism, including making the brief acquaintance with the American spokesman for the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta (whose mother lived in the neighborhood and whose views, for the record, I found repulsive). There were pro-peace, pro-Oslo Accords voices (this was the early 90’s) and very anti-Oslo sentiments as well. I remember when Yitzchak Rabin came to speak at YU and many were horrified at the prospect of honoring someone they considered to be so mistaken.

Most eye-opening to me was the radically different narrative of Israeli history I learned. Growing up, there were few heroes as great as Golda Meir. Yet in many sectors of the Orthodox community she was practically a villain. Not only was she virulently anti-religious, the alternate description goes, she was the reason thousands of Israeli soldiers died in the Yom Kippur War. Ben Gurion, as well, was an anti-religious bigot, whose main merit was that he exempted yeshiva students from army service. The mainstream YU Zionist narrative is much more accepting of these figures but my exposure to alternate points of view caused me to question all that I had previously learned. Were any of the Zionist myths I was taught true? Much like Allison, I needed to relearn the entire history of Israel.

Allison and I ended up in very different places, not least because of my day school and yeshiva studies. I married a Bais Yaakov girl and she married a gentile. I became an Orthodox rabbi and she a Village Voice editor. But we share an abiding uncertainty regarding Israel, presumably due to our later-in-life re-education. I oscillate between a pro-settlement view and a more moderate religious Zionism and she, on the opposite end of the spectrum, wavers between an anti-Israel position and a pro-Israel, pro-peace view. If anything, she is closer to her Zionist camp roots than I. As the pro-peace camp began to disintegrate following their apparent victory in the early 90’s that abruptly ground to a halt later that decade, many gravitated in their frustration toward what I would call an anti-Israel, or at least highly critical, position.

Like Allison, I feel compelled to reject as delusional the claims that Israel is a perfect democracy. Setting aside the Palestinian issue, the religious community is often subject to discrimination by overly violent police and to legal limitations on freedom of speech that seem to be enforced only on rabbis (link) and not imams or left wing politicans. There is much more to say about the culture and government but I hesitate out of love for the land. In short, the simplistic praises of my youth collapse entirely under scrutiny. However, with all its flaws, the country is still remarkably free considering its past and present challenges. The US was not built in a day nor, for that matter, is it free from criticism even after two centuries.

More than anything else in Allison’s article, I found her concluding sentence ironically troubling. Ironically because I feel the same way. Like her, some of my fondest memories are at the summer camp of my youth but I would never send my children there. However, my reason is strictly religious. I bear no grudge for the ultra-left wing Zionist education the camp provided even if I later rejected it. She seems horrified by it. The truth is that, much more than I, she has followed through on her left wing Zionist upbringing, taking its natural course as the world changed in the past twenty years.

I think Allison is terribly mistaken in her views on Israel. However, I see no need to attack her or condescendingly lecture her on what I believe are her errors. My only complaint to Allison is that she is too harsh on the camp of her youth. Idealism is good for the young and simplistic ideas are what teenagers thrive on. As you know, in real life nothing is either perfectly good or perfectly bad. Let kids enjoy a black-and-white view of the world. Let them become proud Jews and grow attached to their heritage. They will have plenty of time as adults to become cynical as they learn how complex life really is.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

40 comments

  1. Kol ha’Kavod, Gil. Thoughtful, honest and without barbs. Keep ’em coming this way…

  2. >>The truth is that, much more than I, she has followed through on her left wing Zionist upbringing, taking its natural course as the world changed in the past twenty years.<<

    The anti-Israel position that some have ascribed to Benedikt follows neither logically nor necessarily from the Labor Zionist narrative.

  3. This is really well done.

  4. Funny thing is Gil, is that I always thought that our youth movement was too right wing, because of you and others, who used to walk around camp chanting “No exchange of land for peace.”
    I admire the trajectory of the lives of so many of our fellow camp and movement compatriots, because we are committed to a plurality of Jewish and Zionist streams of thinking. I don’t know if my child will go to the same camp, because she is too young for me to make that decision now, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it. I think the opportunity for her to be exposed to Zionist pluralism, to a spectrum of Jewish religious observance, and to a diverse, geographically speaking, group of Jews her own age, could be very good for her. I agree that young people need simplistic ideas and ideology to buy into, it helps them to develop and evolve into more complexly thinking adults. I hope that our camp and movement still provides the opportunity to think seriously on a “teen” level for many generations of Jews to come.

  5. This is one of the most interesting, nuanced and self aware posts I have seen on this blog since its inception. Kudos to Gil.

  6. Well done indeed! Kol hakavod and good Shabbos.

  7. This post makes a nice change from the polemical posts which have crept into this blog over the last year or two. I have nothing against the odd polemic, but you need to keep a balance.

  8. etw on June 30, 2011 at 10:09 pm
    >>The truth is that, much more than I, she has followed through on “her left wing Zionist upbringing, taking its natural course as the world changed in the past twenty years.<<

    The anti-Israel position that some have ascribed to Benedikt follows neither logically nor necessarily from the Labor Zionist narrative."
    agreed

  9. >The anti-Israel position that some have ascribed to Benedikt follows neither logically nor necessarily from the Labor Zionist narrative

    Not completely true. The founding myth of labor zionists is that a Jewish state will “normalize” the Jewish people and end antisemitism. The fact that nothing of the sort has happened leads them to find other ways to calm the worlds hatred through their own actions – of course, sometimes, nothing you can possibly do will cause some people to stop hating you so the leftists start justifying the antisemitism as the natural result of the “sin of occupation” or an array of other supposed crimes. All done to justify the original myth that we are somehow able to end antisemitism.

  10. I am curious. Which camp did you and Allison go to? I spent summers at 3 very different camps,Gallil(Labor-Zionist) Ramah (Conservative
    and Tel Yehudah (general Zionist)I had positive experiences in all of them even though today I am light years away in terms of religious observance and ideology. I don’t remember them as being very political, but this was back in the sixties when there was no “settlement question” The only question was Israels right to exist-period.

  11. nice thoughtful, self aware, and introspective post.

  12. Joseph Kaplan

    “Like Allison, I feel compelled to reject as delusional the claims that Israel is a perfect democracy.”

    That happens to all (most?) of us as we mature. We learn that Washington might have actually told a lie and that the halutzim did not always dance a hora when they came back from the field. We learn that life, and people, are complex, often multi-faceted and contradictory. That’s part of becoming an adult. But there’s no reason to make children adults before their time.

    I join with all those who thought this was an especially thoughtful post.

  13. well written.

  14. Superb post! Life always becomes more complex as the idealistic visions of our adolescent years don’t always comform with the facts on the ground.

  15. The more I think about it, the more I think Benedikt’s mistake was in the role she crafted for her husband within her narrative. Facts are facts of course, but in her portrayal he comes off as an enormous jerk. I think that was part of what turned me off. I know this is a very subjective issue but I thought I’d put it out there.

  16. say what you want, but mondoweiss.net is one of the leading virulently anti-zionist websites [jewish run] and they did pick up her writing…. one of their goals is to create a bandwagon for palestine amongst younger jews, i think….

  17. I’m compelled to comment that this was a great post. That is all.

  18. Good post, except ...

    “Like Allison, I feel compelled to reject as delusional the claims that Israel is a perfect democracy.”

    NO ONE, anywhere, makes that claim.

  19. Articles of this nature are by no means novel. Ellen Willis, may she rest in peace, wrote for Rolling Stone and many other similar magazines. One of her most fascinating articles was her encounter with her brother who became a BT, and R N Weinberg ZL. OTOH, a former Newsweek writer, Joshua Hammer wrote what could only be described as a very negative rant against his brother who became a BT and a Toshe Chasid.

  20. This post is notable for its balance, its empathy, its effort to understand the other person’s point of view.

    Would that Gil displayed those admirable qualities in his posts on Jewish feminism and egalitarianism.

  21. Jerry, it seems like *every* man she describes dating is something of a jerk with an anti-Semitic streak. It’s kind of sad.

  22. I went to the same camp, though I think in the years between you and her (early 90’s-around Madrid, pre-Oslo). Perhaps I am thinking more of the movement, and less about its camp, but I don’t recall a sense of it being extremely-left wing. The narrative might have been favorable to Labor, more b/c that who was in control for the early part of the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel. I don’t think it was especially disparaging of Jabotinsky or Begin. In fact, there was much talk of support for the Shamir government in its quest to obtain the US loan guarantees from President Bush Sr.

  23. Probably because Bush was a Republican. 🙂

  24. ironi burgani

    Great post!

    I do take issue with your conclusion (and R. Kaplan’s concurrence) that we should indulge our teenagers’ simplistic views.

    Perhaps I see thing a bit differently because my teens will be soldiers (and with they way things go in this country, maybe also spouses) before they are done being teens.

  25. The key question is: are you correct about how to educate kids in Zionism? When the tinting on the rose-colored glasses begins to fade, will they become resentful and cynical, or maintain their love for Israel, “warts and all?” Your response and Allison’s response would indicate “yesh v’yesh.” I favor positive patriotism, but I think, especially with older teens, that the “other side” must be presented also, especially now that the Palestinians have much better PR than they used to. We owe our students honesty, and run the risk of losing all credibility if we do otherwise. We can also remind them that, by contrast to most, maybe all, other countries, we have nothing to be ashamed of.

  26. It is important to remember “The New Historians” did not start publishing until the late 1980s and really didn’t start penetrating the American Zionist world until the early 1990s.

    As Ethan Bronner wrote in http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/09/books/the-new-new-historians.html:

    “Fifteen years ago, the Israeli scholar Benny Morris coined the term ”new historians” to describe a handful of young Israeli writers who were recasting the standard Zionist narrative. Rather than a David-and-Goliath tale of outnumbered idealists miraculously outlasting invading hordes, they said, the story of Israel’s triumphs was both more explicable and less heroic. Morris and his colleagues shifted the focus of historical inquiry away from the wonder of Jewish national rebirth to military and diplomatic maneuverings on the one hand and Palestinian suffering on the other. Dismissed at first as self-haters and even traitors, the new historians gained respect during the 1990’s — so much so that a 1998 series on state television to mark Israel’s 50th anniversary borrowed considerably from their work, as did ninth-grade textbooks introduced the following year.”

  27. I wish Allison had attended a real camp, one run by Stalin north of the Arctic Circle. Then she and her Jew hating husband could migrate to N Korea and live happily ever after

  28. IH wrote:

    “As Ethan Bronner wrote in http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/09/books/the-new-new-historians.html:

    “Fifteen years ago, the Israeli scholar Benny Morris coined the term ”new historians” to describe a handful of young Israeli writers who were recasting the standard Zionist narrative. Rather than a David-and-Goliath tale of outnumbered idealists miraculously outlasting invading hordes, they said, the story of Israel’s triumphs was both more explicable and less heroic. Morris and his colleagues shifted the focus of historical inquiry away from the wonder of Jewish national rebirth to military and diplomatic maneuverings on the one hand and Palestinian suffering on the other. Dismissed at first as self-haters and even traitors, the new historians gained respect during the 1990′s — so much so that a 1998 series on state television to mark Israel’s 50th anniversary borrowed considerably from their work, as did ninth-grade textbooks introduced the following year”

    IH- At least since the most recent Intifada, Benny Morris has since distanced himself from his earlier writings, and has criticized other members of the so-called “new historians”, most notably Ilan Pappe.

  29. Today’s Jewish Ideas Daily has a great article by Gil Troy by another Discovery participant who wrote in a negative vein for the Nation-a magazine that has about as pro Israel a record as the NY Review of Books.

  30. Steve — Benny Morris’ politics have moved to the right, but his history hasn’t changed. His most recent work, 1948, is a fascinating read; and is the more polemical “One State, Two States”.

    See also this 8 min clip of him discussing the issue of “The New Historians” in a Q&A at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDlh2fudl90

    The timing is still relevant to Gil’s post and Benedikt’s article.

    P.S. Ilan Pappe’s oeuvre is not worth the paper it’s printed on, as history that is.

  31. For an example of what only came out in the late 1980s, here is a passage from Morris’ 1948 (published in 2008) and describing the

    “The killing of prisoners was not unusual. Until April [1948], neither side generally took prisoners, partly because they had no adequate facilities to hold them. The British, the country’s nominal rulers, would not have countenanced Haganah or Arab militia POW camps, certainly not in areas under their control. In practice, neither side, after capturing enemy positions, houses, or traffic, kept prisoners. Captured combatants were usually shot out of hand or, less frequently, after a brief incarceration and interrogation, freed. During the first stage of the civil war, Jews probably killed more POWs than vice versa simply because Jews overran more Arab positions.” (p. 153)

  32. IH-WADR, I think that one can divide Benny Morris’s writings between what was written pre and post the Second Intifada. I would maintain that his latter writings are well to the right of the “New Historians”. It would be incorrect to note merely that Pappe’s works are not worth the paper that they are written on without noting the extensive role that Benny Morris has played in rendering them as such.

    FWIW, if one reads any history of the Pacific Campaigns during WW2, the Japanese neither surrendured nor treated their prisoners in a benevolent manner.

  33. Steve — the point remains that new history came out in the late 1980s which changed the nature of the Zionist narrative.

    I am a fan of Benny Morris, so I’m not going to belabor the point. Incidentally, if you prefer audio to text, here is the link to a lecture of his about 1948 that I attended in London:
    http://www.jewishbookweek.com/2008/260208g.php

  34. IH wrote:

    ” the point remains that new history came out in the late 1980s which changed the nature of the Zionist narrative.”

    Hazony, in his excellent survey of post Zionism in Israeli media,culture and academia, pointed out that Israeli academia, especially in the social sciences, was in the vanguard of the “new history” , who are in the vanguard of that aspect of post Zionist thought, which in many ways was the direct heir of such wonderful Zionists as Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, etc.

    An article in Azure pointed out that many who subscribed to post Zionist thought, having failed to influence Israeli public opinion of the rightness of their cause, despite heavy foreign funding, now have become adamant supporters of BDS and view the entire Zionist enterprise as rooted in original sin.

  35. IH-I always prefer books to audio.

  36. “-WADR, I think that one can divide Benny Morris’s writings between what was written pre and post the Second Intifada. I would maintain that his latter writings are well to the right of the “New Historians””

    Though it is true that his politics changed, Morris’s view of the historical facts has remained stable. As recently as a year ago, in The National Interest, Benny Morris wrote a full throated defense of the historiography of the New Historians (himself included), against Ephraim Karsh, while simultaneously positioning himself as in the same political camp as Karsh. He dislikes Pappe, yes, but he is still quite comfortable talking about Jewish plans for Palestinian population transfer during the earliest parts of the war for independence. In an article called “The Historiography of Deir Yassin” published in the Journal of Israeli History in 2005 (well after the beginning of the second intifada) he describes the massacre in great detail. His analysis of the historiography of the massacre notes “Over the 1980s and 1990s Israeli archives opened their doors—and the upshot was a basic corroboration of the Arab claim that a series of atrocities had taken place in Deir Yassin on 9 April 1948, including the haphazard slaughter of one or more families and of small batches of prisoners of war and the execution of individuals.” He does say that the wildest claims are false, but all of this falls squarely in the camp of “the new History.”

    The change in Morris is not that he thinks his historical work is wrong. In his famous 2004 haaretz interview, Morris repudiated the his moral judgement of the historical facts he unearthed. Yes, he seems to have said, we did some terrible things, and we should have done more of them. In that sense, R. Brizel is right that his views are to the right of the New Historians.

  37. “Like Allison, I feel compelled to reject as delusional the claims that Israel is a perfect democracy.”

    Actually, like Allison (and far too many Diaspora Jews), you feel compelled to reject Israel as a real place to live and build, and are content to blog at one another about the “true” nature of the Jewish homeland as a work in progress. However, you both shun the work, choosing instead to pontificate from opposite ends of the truly non-Zionist spectrum. There are some of us who once upon a time took inspiration from Jewish camping and made aliya, finding out what Zionism really means. Back then we knew that if one is not part of the solution, one is part of the problem. Join us.

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