27 October 2009

Why Stop Making Sense?

Okay, I'm going to admit something.

I was Hillel director on the NYU campus for seven years and nearly every time there was a pro-Israel rally or an anti-Israel rally on campus, I kind of didn't care. Alright, that's a bit of an exaggeration--perhaps what I mean to say is that I didn't fully believe that the rally--either "pro" or "con" would matter. Mostly because I never saw a movement afoot as much as I saw two intractable sides putting on shows for their own satisfaction, the entertainment of others, and, in the worst cases, the deluded ideas that their demonstrations were going to change anyone's minds. It rarely works that way--maybe once in a generation, like when a towering political or social figure hits the scene and actually turns heads. In the meantime, most people go about their business. And with regard to Israel on Campus, that's generally my view. The only thing that ever really worked was real education, something very few people had the patience for.

It's not popular. And it cuts against the grain of many communal resources being poured into "advocacy" campaigns on campus. But I just don't buy it. Never have, never will.

I'll give you an example.

In the spring of 1988, I had finished up school in Madison, and the first Intifada was in full swing. I had been back from a year in Jerusalem, where I PAID TUITION! (this was before birthright) to study at Hebrew University. I want to repeat: IT WASN'T FREE!!

Anyway, I spoke at a rally on the UW campus in favor of a two-state solution. While I thorough enjoyed doing what I wanted where I wanted in my travels throughout the Biblical Land of Israel, it was clear that I was living in two states that was acting like one state. I knew that needed to change, I didn't know how, and the first Intifada was an awakening that at least provided some hope that Palestinians would attempt to responsibly take their fate into their own hands.

At that rally, a epithet was hurled in my direction that a professor friend of mine has never let me forget, if only for the sheer audacity, stupidity and hilarity of it. Madison had two guys who were virulent supporters of the racist rabbi Meir Kahane, and at that rally they stood in the crowd and shouted at me, "PLO FAGGOT!" which to this day has become THE "go-to" insult whenever debate gets heated with said professor. During my seven years at NYU, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg would call me weekly and when I answered the phone, he'd always say, "Hello, Andy? This is Yasser Arafat!" I told him once about being called a "PLO Faggot," and he launched into a long disquisition about Israeli press office officials sharing Mishnaic Hebrew curses in 1948 when he was trailing Ben Gurion around just after the founding of the State. "If you can't laugh," he said, "it ain't worth it."

Sunday evening we pulled up in front of the Grand Hyatt where J Street was meeting in DC. A couple of weirdos with "J Street = Nazis" signs were standing out front and my daughter was appropriately disturbed. Quoting "Blazing Saddles," which she's seen, I said, "You know...morons." And she got the point. But later that night, while we were deconstructing the day, she also said, "Dad, I don't see the problem, Israel won the '67 war. It's our land now! That's life, that's war." So much for indoctrination! She reached those conclusions entirely on her own and our dialogue about them continued throughout the day and on the train ride back from DC.

That's the way it rolls.

In a microcosm, that's the way it ought to be: an argument about Israel's future being played out among those who love Israel--regardless of any difference in views on what is right and what is wrong. Sadly, these last few days have yielded far too much demonization of J Street's views and not enough dispassionate engagement with possible ways forward--but that's what we need.

During those years in the late 1980s in Madison, when walking through the student union, there were three bands I remember hearing: U2, REM, and Talking Heads. Stop Making Sense was still all the rage and a big movie hit on campus. It's interesting: in the original trailer, the Talking Heads decided to frame the film as "Why Stop Making Sense," and that's the way I feel about two states for two people. As ugly and difficult as it may be, I just don't think any other alternative is truly possible. As hard as it may be too get there, as impossible as it may seem, we Jews will be haunted by this conflict until we try to resolve it once and for all.

"Once and for all." Naive words indeed. Because even after agreements are reached, challenges, struggles, difficulties will continue. After all, here in America, 45 million people lack health care. What's so perfect about us?

Q.E.D., as Rabbi Hertzberg liked to conclude, Two States for Two People. Why Stop Making Sense?


Anonymous said...

"these last few days have yielded far too much demonization of J Street's views and not enough dispassionate engagement with possible ways forward"

Too simplistic. The engagement by many of J-Street's most outspoken supporters has been anything but dispassionate.

There are plenty of thinking, intelligent people with legitimate criticisms about J-Street's conflicting messages.

Jonathan Chait has a great analysis at TNR.

J-Street needs to present a more consistent, unified stance. Right now it is only contributing to the political polarization you deplore.

David S

Andy Bachman said...

I don't disagree. Their inconsistent message is hurting them and they do need to be more disciplined. Point well-taken.

Anonymous said...



You have more experience and knowledge about these matters. But I'm guessing it's a maturing process.

I think part of the problem is the nature of the internet. This gives any blogger with an opinion and a following the means to latch on to J-Street or demonize it. Unfortunately, in these cases the extremists have the power.

I whoheartedly agree that a two-state solution is the only realistic way for peace and for Israel to remain a democratic Jewish state. The movement for one state will continue to gain momentum as the occupation drags on.

David S.