Daniel Gordis speaking at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, Jan. 25
Daniel Gordis speaking at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, Jan. 25

Daniel Gordis in Marin: ‘Israel was never meant to be a liberal democracy’

Israeli author and commentator Daniel Gordis warned audience members they were not going to like what he was about to say. And he was right.

Gordis, comparing himself to a dentist about to drill a tooth, then got to the central theme of his hour-long talk last night at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael — that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank won’t end anytime soon.

“The occupation is not about to end, not this year, not next year. The good money bet is that the occupation is not going to end in the lifetime of anyone in this room,” he said as some people in the audience of about 150 shook their heads.

In a talk titled “Israel’s Dilemma: ‘The Occupation,’ the Jewish Soul and Security,” Gordis assigned most of the blame for the stalemate on Palestinian leaders. He singled out Mahmoud Abbas, the 82-year-old president of the Palestinian National Authority who earlier this month attacked President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“The question for me, therefore, is not how to end the occupation now or the next year,” Gordis said. “The more valuable, the sophisticated question, is: ‘In the interim, what do we do?’”

Gordis, whose “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn” was selected as the 2016 Jewish Book of the Year by the Jewish Book Council, listed four things he believes Israel should do now — and some things American Jews should do.

He said Israel needs to have “as soft a footprint as possible” in the West Bank; keep the two-state option alive, even if there’s no chance of negotiations now; have an open discussion in Israel about the occupation; and support “bottom-up” programs that seek bonds between Israelis and Palestinians, such as in schools.

The first of those goals is very difficult to attain, he noted, since “every night there are Israeli troopers who bust into Palestinians’ homes, and they often find weapons and they very often find explosives.” Gordis then quoted one of his sons as saying: “Abba, if anybody did that to us, I would hate them forever.”

Israel was created for the purpose of the renewed flourishing of the Jewish people.

“Is it pretty to see Israeli soldiers, to see Jewish guys, bust into houses in the middle of the night?” Gordis asked. “It’s war. It doesn’t make it good, it doesn’t make it acceptable, it doesn’t make it nice, but to whatever extent possible, Israel needs to do it with as little dread as possible.”

Gordis, 58, who was born in New York and moved to Israel in 1998, said American Jews should not focus solely on the occupation but instead on developments in Israeli culture and education and technology.

“We should not confuse ourselves about what Israel can and cannot do. Israel cannot end the occupation now,” he said. “So, as frustrating as it is, as un-American as it is, [we need] to say there are problems that don’t have solutions.”

Gordis touched on the well-documented differences between Israelis and American Jews, saying neither group really understands the other. And he said part of that disconnect is due to their nations’ different natures.

“America is meant to be a liberal democracy. Israel was never meant to be a liberal democracy. Israel was created for the purpose of the renewed flourishing of the Jewish people,” he said. “To compare Israel and America is, to some extent, to compare apples and oranges.”

Gordis, senior vice president and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, also rattled off a long list of people and organizations he felt deserved criticism, ranging from the Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace to Donald Trump.

He accused U.S. Jewish organizations such as JVP and IfNotNow of “the newest form of anti-Semitism” and said members of those organizations ought to be more concerned with the treatment of minorities in America than with Palestinians.

And though Gordis said he is no fan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he described as “spent — he’s been around for far too long,” he said Israelis no longer have to be embarrassed by their leader when talking with American counterparts.

“The difference between the U.S. and Israel is that Israel has a sane leader,” he said, drawing guffaws from members of the audience.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.