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Thursday, April 17, 2014

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Seeking a level of comfort with fellow writers

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Some days, I can’t help thinking back 25 years to my high-school French course, which is where I first encountered the concept of the juste milieu – the happy medium – and the difficulty of achieving it. Why is the happy medium so elusive? Why do I more often feel caught betwixt and between or, even among my fellow Jewish-American writers, alone?

When I read something about the new generation of Jewish immigrant writers from the former Soviet Union, I become acutely conscious of my privileges as a native-born American. But when I read interviews with certain American-born Jewish writers my age, I am keenly aware of my closeness to the immigrant experience – to my maternal grandmother, who escaped east European persecution, and my paternal grandparents, who escaped Nazi Germany. I remember that I am merely a second-generation college graduate and that my parents would likely not have been able to attend college were it not for what was then a largely free public university system.

And when I hear other Jewish writers my age talk about how antisemitism is irrelevant to “our generation,” I am astonished. When I moved from Brooklyn at the age of nine to a non-Jewish neighborhood in a New Jersey suburb, I discovered country clubs and social dancing lessons – and the fact that they excluded me as a Jew.

But these issues don’t get to the heart of the patterns of politics and outlook that separate me most from my ostensible peers. That heart is Israel.

In a 2009 column in the Forward titled “How I’m Losing My Love for Israel,” author Jay Michaelson reported, “It has become simply exhausting to maintain the ambivalence, the hugging and the wrestling, the endless fence sitting. My love of Israel has turned into a series of equivocations: ‘I do not support the expansion of settlements, but the Palestinians bear primary responsibility for the collapse of the peace process in 1999.’ ‘The Israelis acted overzealously in Gaza, but they must be entitled to defend themselves against rocket attacks.’”

The “complexity and ambiguity,” he summed up, “wear one out.” Michaelson went on: “I admit that my exhaustion is exacerbated because, in my social circles, supporting Israel is like supporting segregation, apartheid or worse.” But, he explained, “I don’t think advocates of Israel understand exactly how bad the situation is on college campuses, in Europe and in liberal or leftist social-political circles.”

I have more than a passing acquaintance with the contemporary writing scene that forms part of Michaelson’s “liberal or leftist social-political circles,” and he is right. The situation there is bad.

In defending Israel, you risk alienating friends, editors and critics. As open-minded as these “liberal or leftist” circles claim to be, they are as quick as their analogues at the other end of the spectrum to judge and scorn. There is no place for centrists. Like Jay Michaelson, I find it all exhausting.

But unlike Michaelson, when forced to choose sides, I choose Israel. Unfortunately, for me, choosing Israel often means the opposite of engaging. Because I cannot find a juste milieu, I bow out. I exit.

In 2006, I resigned from the National Book Critics Circle, whose leadership had made the organization’s blog a mouthpiece for criticizing Israel, promoting works like Jimmy Carter’s book on Palestine and the treatise by professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer on the “Israel lobby.”

In 2009, I unsubscribed from a popular women’s poetry listserv because it had become a reliable source of condemnation for the war in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009.

In each case, I made my choice after speaking up – and becoming a target of abuse, online and off. Rarely, another writer defended me. Slightly more often, I received appreciative private e-mails.

It wasn’t enough. It still isn’t.

These days, my objections are even quieter – for example, “unfollowing” writers who devote their tweets and Facebook posts to applauding the various flotillas and condemning Israel for enforcing the Gaza blockade (which even the United Nations deems legal). Though not about to launch any boycott campaigns, I won’t support anti-Israel writers by buying or promoting their books. Recently I declined to join the 2,000 writers, many of them Jewish, who signed an “Occupy Writers” manifesto supporting “the Occupy movement around the world.” I cannot join a blanket endorsement of a movement that may well grow to include more episodes like “Occupy Boston occupies the Israeli Consulate” (you can find it on YouTube).

What troubles me most is that too many Jewish writers, particularly those with whom I am naturally linked by age and education, not only haven’t objected to their friends’ routine demonization of Israel – not only have they decided that if they must choose between Israel and their literary friends, Israel must go – but they go out of their way to broadcast their criticisms.

There was a time earlier this year when you could barely spend five minutes on Twitter or Facebook without encountering pieces like Allison Benedikt’s “Life After Zionist Summer Camp” or Kiera Feldman’s “The Romance of Birthright Israel.” In the Jerusalem Post, McGill University Prof. Gil Troy described these essays as resembling 17th-century “captivity narratives”: after being “force-fed diets of Zionist folk tunes” and dazzled by “hunkalicious Israeli soldiers,” the writers “courageously flee their brainwashing into the welcoming bosom of the New York intelligentsia, rejecting Israel while embracing Palestinians, about whom they claim they never were taught.”

But I’ll bet a year’s worth of book sales that most of my literary acquaintances haven’t read Gil Troy. They consider the Jerusalem Post more “biased” than, say, The Nation (which published Feldman’s article) or the New York Review of Books. To suggest that anything the Jerusalem Post or Commentary has to say may merit attention is tantamount to recommending Fox News over MSNBC. (On the other hand, it doesn’t help when Commentary’s chief literary blogger, a smart man, derides the Occupy Writers’ petition as a “useful list of useful idiots.”)

I know Israel isn’t perfect. I will listen to criticisms arising from a sincere concern for Israel’s health and security. I absorb critiques like Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” which raised a ruckus in the New York Review of Books. I pause whenever journalist Jeffrey Goldberg warns against misguided Israeli policy – I am convinced that he writes about Israel with all his heart, soul and might.

I wish I could do the same. I believe that with a little training and lot more study, I could do a better job of making a case for Israel, even gaining the ability to acknowledge its flaws publicly. My responses might not remain so visceral. I wouldn’t have to resign, unsubscribe and “unfollow” so often.

Since I am too old to be of interest to most programs that provide Israel advocacy training, you can imagine my delight when I saw in my local Jewish newspaper that a version of Write On for Israel, a program that trains high-school students to become advocates for Israel through journalism, would be offered for those of us on the far side of college graduation – and my disappointment when I received a more recent e-mail notifying me that the program has been delayed at least a year.

But I’ll keep looking. There has to be a place where I can be an American writer and a Zionist, a place between the diatribes on the National Book Critics Circle blog and the sometimes equally inflammatory responses from the other end of the spectrum. There has to be a juste milieu.

Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories. The essay reprinted here is adapted from a talk she delivered at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., in partnership with the Jewish Book Network.

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