I’m a great admirer of Daniel Gordis. He has written several eloquent books about life in Israel. His most recent book, Saving Israel, is a less personal but more passionate read, and I reviewed it here.
I am delighted that Daniel has agreed to be interviewed for Oy Va Goy. We talked about his work, the threat of Iran, the settlements, his views on Barack Obama and his plans for future books.
CNB: So much discussion of Israel focuses on protection against external threats. In Saving Israel you also focus on internal opportunities to strengthen the Jewish state. What has the reaction been in Israel to the book?
DG: As Saving Israel has thus far appeared only in English, the reaction among Israeli readers has thus far been primarily among the English-reading Israeli public. Among these readers, the reaction has been extremely positive, I’m happy to report. Book launches have been sold out to standing room only crowds. And numerous people, pleased to see that someone is finally speaking about the purpose of Israel and not simply the daily external threats that the Jewish state faces, have been urging me to have the book translated into Hebrew. I’m currently exploring that possibility and am preparing to approach a few publishers with the idea.
CNB: Saving Israel, while personal in parts, is a lot less personal than some of your previous work. Have you plans to publish more personal books in the future?
DG: A great question. The personal dimension of If a Place Can Make You Cry, Home to Stay and, most recently, Coming Together, Coming Apart afforded me a way of making the challenges of daily life in Israel a bit more understandable to those who don’t live here, and I’m grateful for all the response to those books. Yet moving away from the personal, as I’ve done in Saving Israel and as I plan to do in the next book I’m writing (about how Israel is giving new life to the idea of the nation-state) allows me to make points that are not related specifically to me or my family. Now that my children are getting older and are approaching adulthood, I have to be more circumspect about I write about my family. But I’m aware of the power of the form of the memoir, and I’d be surprised if I didn’t return to it at some point in the future.
CNB: Which of your previous books are you most fond of?
DG: As God Was Not in the Fire was my first book, I think that I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for that work. I’m pleased that almost fifteen years since it first appeared, people are still reading it and are still writing to me with responses to it. That’s very gratifying. Of all the memoirs, I like If a Place Can Make You Cry the best (Home to Stay is an updated version of that), perhaps because I really like the title, which very much sums up part of Israel’s mysterious and magical pull on me and on so many of us. And finally, I’m happy with Saving Israel. It’s my first (but not last) venture into confronting issues about the purpose of Israel, which is a topic we don’t discuss enough. If I had to pick three, those would probably be them.
CNB: Through your writing you are already an extraordinary international ambassador for Israel. Would you consider taking on such a role more formally one day?
DG: I don’t imagine that that would ever happen, but I think that all of us, regardless of what abilities we have, have an obligation to serve the countries in which we believe, in whatever capacity we’re asked to serve. I’m always looking for new ways to serve this country which is not only my home, but my homeland as well.
CNB: Is Barack Obama good or bad for Israel?
DG: It remains to be seen, but initial signs are worrisome. To be sure, Israel’s new government has made some serious tactical errors in dealing with the new American administration, and has needlessly provoked a clash when the same points could have been made much more adroitly. And Israel could well benefit from a United States with a restored international standing, which Obama is seeking to create. In those regards, some of Obama’s new policies are thoroughly understandable. But in linking support for Israel to the solution to the Palestinian problem (which Israel has tried to solve, to no avail), Obama has linked two issues that he certainly understands need not be linked. And when his administration calls for the dismantling of illegal settlements (which I’m in favor of dismantling, because they’re illegal, and Israel should be governed by the rule of law) in order to “give hope to Palestinian youth,” one wonders – is their loss of hope our doing, or the doing of the leadership they have elected and continue to endorse?
Does President Obama recognize that what a settlement with the Palestinians will require is primarily not concessions on Israel’s side (though those are necessary and inevitable), but more importantly, a thoroughly changed attitude among Palestinians, who have yet to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and have yet to foreswear violence and terrorism? When that changes, we’ll have a shot at peace. Does Obama get that? I think the jury is still out.
CNB: We have seen the extraordinary morality and restraint that Israel shows in the face of threats both external and internal. To what extent do you believe that Israel will have to take off the gloves in order to survive?
DG: As the father of one former Israeli soldier and a son who is now in the army, I’m deeply proud of the values, commitments and senses of right and wrong which are at the core of these young people and the work that they do in the military. But they know that the one thing that Israel cannot compromise on is its security. If Hamas is going to use Palestinian civilians as human shields, as we know they did and do, Palestinian civilians are going to die, tragic as that is. And if Hamas leadership is going to hide in mosques, schools and hospitals, as we know they do, those buildings are going to have to be destroyed. Every other country would do exactly that – it’s only with regard to Israel that the world is aghast when such things happen. No one notices all the targets that Israel avoids because of these sickening tactics on the part of Hamas. The world notices only the targets that are selected, which are very few and far between.
The same is true with Iran. Why would Israel seek a conflict with Iran? And why would our sons and daughters seek to harm an Iranian civilian thousands of kilometers away from us? But if Iran pursues its goal of obtaining a nuclear weapon even as it calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, is it moral to risk the lives of (another) six million Jews living in Israel, and to wait idly by while our enemies prepare to destroy us (again)? I do not believe that Israel will let that happen. And if and when Israel strikes, responsibility will lie not with the IDF, but with the international community, which for years has cynically allowed the Iranians to progress while only pretending to impose sanctions on Iran.
Countries have obligations, first and foremost, to defend their citizens. What other country would watch a sworn enemy prepare to destroy it and do nothing? Why should Israel be expected to adopt that absurd posture?
Thank you to Daniel Gordis. You can visit his website here.