Conversation with Daniel Gordis

February 13, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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Daniel Gordis is the president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem, a prize-winning author, regular columnist for the Jerusalem Post and a respected commentator. He is currently in Australia. We spoke to him in Israel prior to his departure…

He is the author of “Saving Israel” which won Israel’s National Jewish Book Award. Professor Alan Dershowitz has called him “one of Israel’s most thoughtful observers,” while Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic has written, “If you asked me, ‘of all the people you know, who cares the most about the physical, moral and spiritual health of Israel?’,  I would put the commentator and scholar Daniel Gordis at the top of the list.”


J-Wire: In the past, world Jewish leaders called on their communities to support Israel unconditionally . Is that call for unity relevant today?

Daniel Gordis: “Yes, I think it is relevant today. The major issue is how to achieve unity. But if you mean a lack of dissension then I don’t think it is. We are in a totally different place today. If you mean a shared obligation to each other then absolutely it is.

JW: In your writings you say that Israel has to be loved like a child who sometimes is not so good. But there are Jewish critics of Israel who appear to never have a good word to say about the country. What message do you have for them?

DG: The quality of Jewish life in the contemporary world as we know it, be it Sydney or Melbourne or Boston or New York or even Jerusalem or Tel Aviv exists because of the State of Israel. We need to recognise that. One has every right to be critical of the things that Israel does but criticism of Israel has to be tempered to make allowances for that and that Jewish life throughout the world should not be taken for granted.

JW: What are your views on the current rate of Aliyah?

DG: By and large, Aliyah typically came from countries in which Jews were not comfortable. There have not been significant number of Jews coming from countries in which Jews were comfortable. Most making Aliyah come from all sorts of places where life for Jews was far from ideal. From Australia, where life is very comfortable for the Jewish community the level is not going to be very high. The most important is issue is not whether or not Aliyah is going to take place but the kind of relationship that Jews around the world have with the State of Israel.

JW: The world is increasingly communicating through social media. Do you see Facebook becoming a tool in the quest for peace, the opposite or both?

DG: People say that Twitter was instrumental in the creation of the Arab Spring. Facebook is a communications tool. It is not going to change the outcome of world history.

JW: You say Zionism is confronting the complex history of the 1948 War of Independence. Does Zionism need to morph in order to become contemporay with today’s world?

DG: It needs to express itself differently. It needs to think in different terms and that’s the subject I will deal with at the lecture at Monash University. It has become an overly politicised movement concentrating on the Arab-Israeli conflict. It needs to become deeper and richer.

JW: You say yesterday’s enemies are today’s sideshow. Are we waiting for the outcome of the Arab Spring to determine who will be tomorrow’s enemies?

DG:   In the short run we will face greater problems but in the long run we can only hope that universal desires for freedom will win over Arab societies as well. Egypt is infinitely more complex today that it was. Syria looks like it’s falling. If it does, Israel looks like having another border that is destabilised. The Hashemite kingdom of Jordon currently rules the majority of Palestinian people. It’s very possible that it will not be immune to the same phenomena and King Abdullah could  well one day be facing similar challenges.

JW: What is your view of the roles of the Haredim and the Settlers in tomorrow’s Israel?

DG:   The future of the Haredim depends entirely on themselves. Do they want to confine themselves to poverty? This would make them hostile to the State and effectively wards of the State. Their option is to join mainstream Israeli society and become educated and employed. It’s up to them. The Settlers issue is much more complicated. Many of them are deeply committed to the Jewish State. The problem is that Israel has created is that it is unclear as to what its plans are for the West Bank. If it plans to get out of the West Bank then make that clear to everybody. If it plans to stay in the West Bank for the long haul then make that clear to everybody. Israel’s obfuscation in its desire to appease the international community and to appease the Settlers has resulted in  people not knowing what the real plan is.

JW: What are your views on the conversion process in Israel. Is it in need of reform?

DG:  Israel’s conversion is only a specific example of a much wider problem…and that is Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. It is one of the greatest problems facing religious Judaism. In the Unites States, there is no Chief Rabbinate and people with religious ideas have to compete in the public square for the loyalty and the allegiance of the communities with which they want to work. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel has no obligation to try to be relevant to anyone’s lives…or to understand  where people are coming from. Their power comes from the State as a result of which they have become completely disengaged from the important issues facing Israeli society and conversion is just one of those issues. It is not a very Zionistic Rabbinate either. So conversion is obviously an important issue but it is not critical. I think the Chief Rabbinate changing it dramatically is very important for the future of the Jewish State.

Daniel Gordis will speak at Monash University in Melbourne tonight

19:00 until 20:30
H116, H Building, Monash University Caulfield Campus, 900 Dandenong Road, Caulfield East

and at Shalom College in Sydney on February 23

He is in Australia as a guest of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation




2 Responses to “Conversation with Daniel Gordis”
  1. Janet says:

    Australia is so fortunate to have someone like Daniel Gordis speaking, he has a deep understanding and perspective as to the real challenges confronting both Jews and Israeli’s today. Please listen carefully to his thoughts and his messages and read his books, you might actually open a window to a different set of ideas and beliefs about being Jewish and Israeli.

  2. Otto Waldmann says:

    At first you get the impression that Gordis is doing what an “observer” and even historian in suposed to do, i.e. just observe and convey reality, unaffected by bias or…subjectivity.
    But, when dwelling on his , actual subjective views, as they transpare from the comments, you notice the typical Israeli intellectual penchant for the inevitable narcisism,the helpless tendency to wish to correct the entire society in accordance with one’s very personal “take”.
    Gordis does it with a degree of acquired discretion, skilfull enough to convince the less cynical ( not me, obviously !!! ) that he is sitting pretty and firmly on the fence of objectivity.

    As about the Haredi, once they change their mores they’d be something else and that is not likely to happen.Some people must find THE way of understanding their relevance, as they ARE !!!

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