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On That Awl Essay

Why it’s so wrong, and yet so troubling

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At this point, I feel like you’re not getting your money’s worth if I don’t write an actual post on the week-and-a-half-old Awl essay on How I Learned to Stop Loving Israel and Worry About My Mom, so here goes.

When I first read the piece, by Allison Benedikt, I was both touched and put off. Touched, because it feels like an honest, laid-bare narrative of an individual’s loss of innocence, wrought by some moving combination of parents (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” and Benedikt’s are no exception), herself, and the uncaring forces of history and politics. Read this way, it’s nonfiction that nonetheless provides the sort of truths—specifically, what happens when an individual’s conscience collides with the outside world—that we commonly find in novels. The voice of innocence was just that, a voice, a conceit, and as a literary device, I thought it was well done; indeed, as a piece of literature, I thought it was well done.

But was it intended as literature? Of course not, and that’s what put me off. Though The Awl occasionally publishes short fiction, this piece was clearly intended to make a polemical point. And as if the mere existence of a long essay about becoming dissatisfied with Israel weren’t enough proof that it was designed to persuade, Benedikt finally does leave her own personal, idiosyncratic experience behind in the concluding paragraph, and writes: “Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel. It seems my trajectory is not at all unique.”

No serious person can take this persuasively. Her Jewish friends don’t like Israel? Okay, so her Jewish friends also don’t like Israel (it shouldn’t be shocking, given whom she chose for a husband). Her trajectory isn’t unique? Well, there are millions of American Jews, so it would be weird if her trajectory were unlike any other. What Benedikt utterly fails to do is show why her experience—which she has just spent thousands of words laying out with utmost specificity—should be applicable to any other person. She has written a short story, but wants it to be treated like an op-ed.

Her argument against Israel is fundamentally irrational: It depends on that fallacy that people who aren’t her should be persuaded by her story in the absence of any larger logical claim. And it is offensive, and it offended all the people it did because who is Benedikt to tell us who “most of” us are and to tell us that she is “not at all unique”?

The answer, of course, is that she is The Wicked Child. I don’t mean to call her evil; I doubt she means any harm (although, going solely by the essay, her husband is pretty clearly a massive asshole, but that is neither here nor there). I mean she is The Wicked Child that she speaks of deleting from her Haggadah. Let’s go the tape: The Wicked Child (it’s generally The Wicked Son, religion being what it is) asks his father, “What’s this service to you?” What makes The Wicked Son wicked, in other words, is that he banishes himself from the community. Benedikt does not disown her Judaism; she is raising her two children in the faith. But she has banished herself from the rolls of American Jews who, whatever their feelings about Israel, feel a continued obligation to give a damn.

So how should we respond? The father is instructed to tell The Wicked Child that the Seder “is because God acted for my sake when I left Egypt.” The father, in other words, goes along with the son’s self-excommunication. Yet The Wicked Child has done this at every Seder for 2000 years, and indeed, as Rabbi Andy Bachman points out, no Seder is complete without his presence. So if we accept the Child’s self-excommunication, we also compel ourselves to remember it. It is not our job to convert him, to win him back. Nor is it our job to agree with him. But it is our job to recognize him.

And that is why Benedikt’s essay is troubling: While she is wrong—irresponsibly, narcissistically, and stupidly wrong—to suggest that her experience should somehow serve as a template for anyone else’s, we know that at least she exists, that her sad story is true, and that is enough to trouble us.

Life After Zionist Summer Camp [The Awl]

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jerome says:

I am sure Benedikt had no idea what a firestorm her piece would set off. She probably thought her piece would be a personal essay of disaffection that would not cause people to question her committment to the Jewish people. I think you (and other commentators) are correct, however, in calling her out on her abandonment of Israel as being akin to the Wicked Son who places himself outside and above the rest of the Jewish people as someone above and beyond the messy conflicts of life.

Like many of her generation, I too was fed a postcard version of Israel. The polish wore off for me during the First Intifadah. I did not, however, abandon my devotion to Israel and its ideals. If Israel is to remain (or at least strive to be) a Jewish Democracy, the diaspora must remain engaged. Giving up as Benedikt seems to have done is the comfortable choice(and probably reduces conflict in her home as well.)

jake says:

It was pretty lame and all the attention is unwarranted
I agree with some of the general sentiments that it does make her look kind’ve dumb and naive…

Consider this. Allison Benedikt’s piece is not an essay but a story. Fiction. Let’s rename it “Jerks.” Her husband may be the guy in the story. He may not. In the story, he’s a jerk. To some degree, Allison Bedikts’ parents are jerks. The hero is Allison. Who transforms – through a multiplicity of jerks. Her transformation is followed by a partial one of her mother’s- the promise of potential redemption forming in an emerging questioning of the jerk-of-jerks (for the author), Israel. And now the story has done what it needs to. Jerked a lot of jerks (like us) into worrying about it.

Whether or not the author’s husband is a genuine jerk, only she knows. If as a guest he baited hosts with emotionally laden anger, then, hey – Allison really does have a jerk for a husband. But then she married him. If she’s suggesting that her parents disliked him because he was not Jewish, even more idiotic does she seem.

That said, who knows? We don’t really, because an essay that’s written in the voice of a teenager – with the same half-baked ability to broaden one’s perspective, is not an essay. It’s angst posing as truth. And if I come off as deriding this work, it’s because it seems so clearly undeserving of serious commentary. What’s more interesting is the commentary on the piece. Everyday – perhaps several times a day – there is more scathing criticism of Israel by people who live there and even love their nation in papers like Haaretz. The entire episode has as much merit as Weiner’s weiner, which went from hours into days of press coverage – and had as much validity as the asshole posing as a Gay Syrian.

So Allison Benedikt is … a self-deleting Jew. (Copyright 2011 Neal Ross Attinson.)

A very thoughtful take, Marc. There were about five levels on which this issue offended me, and you eloquently persuaded me to see a sixth.

Dan Klein says:

Possibly Jewish adjective of the year (tied with Liel’s Self-infatuated Jew).

Bill Pearlman says:

God save us from Jewish angst. If she doesn’t give a shit what happens to Israel and her sister, so be it.

Dan O. says:

I find it incredible that all of the give and take on this is, “who are you, and what do you mean by this?” It’s not like she’s the only one asking the question. At least she’s aware of it. Y’all are wicked too. Crikey, I’d have thought that was obvious, but apparently not.

Maayan says:

Thanks Marc – that was an insightful post.

Jennifer says:

I admit that I knew nothing of this debate until I read your post. I have since become more informed. While Allison Benedikt’s original essay is nothing special, and rather annoying on many points, the debate/discussion on this essay is rather interesting.

To give you an idea of my biases, I should say that I am a “Mid-western Jew” and not an “East Coast Jew.” (Allison’s distinction not mine.) And I am in the camp that agrees with Rabbi Bachman that a Seder with out the Wicked Child/Son is not a Jewish Seder. I am not a Zionist, nor am I an anti-Zionist. Here again I agree with Rabbi Bachman that Israel (the country) is a complicated issue.

In this debate (including reader comments I have read here and elsewhere), I am struck by two things.

One, this debate is not just about where one stands on this issue of Israel. It is about the whole concept of group identity at a time when liberal American culture is moving away from group identity.

My second observation is one I make every time I read a liberal debate on Israel. (Atlantic Monthly and Newsweek all pass for liberal in my neck of the woods.) Namely, why is American media (except for Fox “News”) so biased against Israel? I understand Jews holding Israel to a higher standard. But why does everyone else? From my perspective, it seems like every questionable act on Israel’s part is taken up as a sign of their lack of true democracy. Whereas, incidents like the murder of the Fogel family (and the Palestinian response) passes without significant comment.

One of the worst things about Benedikt’s essay is that she never really show’s us WHY she became anti-Zionist, other than that she was attracted to non-Jewish boyfriends and that her husband was anti-Zionist. So, Israel isn’t a perfect democracy? Well, neither is the US. And it never has been. Democracy isn’t easy anywhere, and especially not if an infant and her family (Fogels) can be murdered in their own home without an International outcry.

Jennifer, my take on your self-description is that you are Zionist, insofar as you believe that Jews have a right to reclaim their status as a nation, in the cradle of Judaism, living within borders that do not conform precisely to biblical history but which include our holiest city, or at least part of it. Benedikt doesn’t seem willing to affirm that right, although it is historical, legal and, I believe, moral. If you believe Israel must also accommodate the demand for a Palestinian state on its border, then I’m with you as well. But I think the definition of Zioinism is elastic enough to be inclusive of divergent viewpoints on how a Jewish state ought to be properly constituted, so long as it enjoys all the rights granted other countries.

I would take issue with your claim that liberal American culture is moving away from group identity. I think group identity is basic building block of liberal American philosophy, and has been for decades. We’re all hyphenated Americans now, increasingly assertive of our right to stand aloof from the American idea on ethnic and religious grounds. And the liberal critique of American culture is principally that it fails to adequately recognize and defer to those differences. We all want our parade, our vacations, and all sorts of special dispensations on the grounds that they are a right pertaining to our group identity.

The travesty is that the one group that liberal American culture is often willing to deny what it grants to everyone else is Jews. We’re just too bourgeois for a creed that still, foolishly I think, exalts radicalism.

Yitz says:

This is the first I’ve heard about the reaction to Benedikt’s essay, and I’m a little puzzled. Did she end up saying that she no longer cares about Israel? That’s not the impression I got. I thought she cares deeply, which is why she’s so disillusioned.

I’m also disturbed by the way you attack her by calling her names. Does it matter that you think the piece comes across as narcissistic, irresponsible, and stupid? Are you discussing the issues or simply name calling? You say she’s wrong. Why is she wrong? What is it about her assertions that are incorrect? This is an ad hominem attack, not a reasoned critique. And how dare you call her wicked and dismiss the piece as conceited!

I bring this up because you say that her argument relies on a fallacy, but, so far as I could tell, she wasn’t making an argument. She told a story, and it seems to resonate with many who have read it. Trying to use logical terms like ‘fallacy’ is misleading. She doesn’t need to show why her experience is applicable to other people. It’s a story and some people will find that it is applicable to them, whether you like it or not. You admit that “her trajectory is not unique” and you don’t find that surprising. What are you hoping to achieve by insulting her and people who think like her?

You need to address the issues that she brought up if you want to dismiss her “argument” as “fundamentally irrational”. Where is your “rational” argument?

Bill Pearlman says:

Typical stuff. Spoiled American Jewish 20 something is overcome with angst about Israel. A real country, inhabited with real people, with real problems. Marries a guy who has problems with Jews. Then she has to inform the world that she is checking out. So what.

jacob arnon says:

Benedikt is absurdly generalizing from her own sorry experience.

It seems that she exchanged a controlling husband for a controlling mother.

Israel or Zionism is not the issue, the issue is her inability to think for herself. Even in her childish rebellion she needs to believe that she has lots of fellow travelers.

She is what psychologists call a narcissistic rebel. Someone dependent for approval on the object against which she rebels. Why else would she make her plight public.

I feel sorry for her.

dave says:

The Benedikt essay makes most sense when you read it as a family drama rather than a political treatise. It is the story of Benedikt’s coming of age using Zionism as a prop:

“Summer camp. Mom said the world is like this. But I found out the world is like that. In my 20s, I moved to the big city and had to reconcile the tenets of my sheltered upbringing with experiences and new opinions that challenge my comfort zone. Up until now, an idyllic summer camp has been the wellspring of my cultural identity, now I’m in the Big Apple with people who are better read and traveled than I am, and I realize my parents aren’t all that smart. And that camp they sent me to wasn’t 100% right either. And Israel? Well, it’s definitely not perfect. That’s another thing they lied about.”

It’s one of those kinds of stories, the kind that Judy Blume tells best. Zionism is just the Thanksgiving meal, the static object over which the family drama takes place in the story. Mother, sister, boyfriend, husband. My parents were strict, I rebelled, and my kids are never, ever going to that camp.

Zionism is the family sacred cow. Israel is an adolescent playground of beaches, cute boys, and Oscar parties. Then she dates a non-Jewish boy and he tells her about ethnic nationalism and totally blows her mind.

She sees her friends in IDF uniforms and they look cheesy, and by extension she is vaguely aware and ashamed of her own youthfully provincial Zionism.

So, she has broken free from the parents orbit (personified by Zionism in her story) and fallen in with a new crowd who are also, like, totally disgusted by Israel, and a husband who also hates it for reasons we don’t really know, other than architecture and a palpable fear of being a bombing victim.

Though the entire narrative is ostensibly Zionism put on trial, the particulars of “the matzav” are barely enumerated or acknowledged, let alone discussed. It’s a family saga disguised as a Zionist witch trial.

fred lapides says:

Allow me to expand well beyond what the Awl essay said and this rebuttal and the many comments:
1. Jews in America are basically to the Left of the political spectrum.
2. As lefties, they can no longer identify with the marxist notions once held by so many because Russia and China have made clear what those ideas are all about.
3. What to do for lefties now? why focus instead of on Marx et al upon the impoverished,the proles, the dispossessed and disenfranchised.
4. And this group of Those Who Need Our Help are in this instance The Palestinians…oh, Hamas too don’t get snippy but look at the larger group.
5. And so in Israel, a garrison state surrounded by those who would see it destroyed, Jews there turn to the Right (Bibi et al) and the Left is an increasingly minor voice.
6. But for Jews outside of Israel, Zionism, Israel, are the oppressing Bad Guys.
7. In Sum: Keep one’s American Judaism but badmouth Israel.
8. Me? A leftist except when it comes to Israel. It is that state, constantly under attack by neighbors in one or another fashion and European and American “do gooders” that is the place where support is needed; the Palestinians and other Arabs? Give up your jidhadist ways; do away with hatred for non-Muslims and your own women–then and only then will you begin to become that which will improve your humanity and make for a better and more peaceful world.

Agree, Fred. I’ve spent more than two decades contributing modestly to the crusade for gay rights, and have gradually discovered that my fellow travelers now oppose gay rights, insofar as they blindly throw their support to groups for whom homosexuality is always a sin and is often punishable by death, all because they are inalterably opposed to the state of Israel. And not only that, but some of the most prominent voices in the movement for equality for gays and lesbians, to wit, Tony Kushner, Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, to name just three.

What are we supposed to think, when we are told that gay civil freedoms are something to fight for everywhere except Israel, where they are merely ‘pinkwashing’, a hypocritical pretext for justifying oppression of the Arabs?

How are we supposed to reconcile this discrepancy?

Why blindly adhere to our old political allegiances?

I should probably append Adrienne Rich to that list. From the intro to that Alvin Rosenfeld essay on antisemitism on the left:

There is the poet Adrienne Rich, who argues that the word Zionism is “so
incendiary, so drenched in … ideas of blood and soil, in memories
of victimization and pursuant claims of the right to victimized” that
it “needs to dissolve before twenty-first century realities.”

Jerome says:

Predictable Adrienne Rich comment, historically ignorant, imprecise, and bigoted.

Is Zionism drenched in more blood than, socialism, then Christianity (the Christianity her “Jewish father embraced and she was raised in), than democracy (counting all the people we had to kill to keep democracy from being destroyed (civil war any one?),than Islam, or even feminism (think of all those feminist women in Germany who followed the troops East in order to gain more power for themselves), than any other ideal one can think of?

Actually Zionism is more benign than most ideals since it did establish a democratic State where all citizens are equal.

Bur Adrienne Rich wouldn’t care about that would she?

Jerome says:

Last sentence should read: But Adrienne Rich wouldn’t care about that would she?

No, she wouldn’t, nor would her compatriot Judith Butler, another prominent gay activist and supporter of anti-Israel boycott and divestment campaigns. This while gay men and women are arrested in Egypt, stoned in Afghanistan, hanged in Iran, etc.

I just don’t understand what I’ve been fighting for.

masortiman says:

Some jewish parents raise their kids with little commitment to Judaism, than are shocked when they intermarry.

Some Jewish people love Israel, but don’t follow its politics, read Hebrew, or visit – then are shocked when their children are disillusioned.

Both examples of the non-sustainability of a light, comfortable, commitment.

Now, nothing is foolproof. But as far as I can tell, the best way to prevent intermarriage is to make Judaism something so appealling, so central to your child’s life, that they don’t treat it as a minor difference when they seek out a spouse. And that is very hard to do if Judaism isn’t actually central to your own life.

And the best way to get a child to take Israel’s situation seriously, is to do so yourself. I am a long time moderate dove – who reads JPost and Haaretz, who knows about the Jordan option, the Allon plan, the Geneva Accord, and the emergence of the Kadima party. I have tried to be open with my child about my belief in a two state solution, my discomfort with the Israeli far right, AND about my deep, committed Zionism. Her gap year in Israel seems to have left her with deeper love for the land, the people, and the state.

masortiman says:

“all because they are inalterably opposed to the state of Israel. And not only that, but some of the most prominent voices in the movement for equality for gays and lesbians, to wit, Tony Kushner, Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, to name just three. ”

In fairness, Sullivan a few years ago was “inalterably” supportive of Israel, among other things. Over the top, incendiary, emotional, perhaps not really meaning “incapable of alteration” :)

That pro-Israel ardor makes far more sense for his declared political positions, to say nothing of his personal history. If not for American Jews, about whom he has said some unforgivable things, you would never have heard his name. But with respect to principle, shouldn’t he be an unqualified booster of Israel? In the midst of a sea of intolerance toward homosexuality, there is a single country that upholds civil liberties irrespective of sexual orientation, and which will fight to defend those values.

I don’t mean this in a way that excludes vacating the territories, which I strongly favor. But notwithstanding the current government’s foot-dragging, Israel has made an effort to do just that, without getting any kind of credit for it from the international community, of the American left.

I’ve read other reflections on the Benedikt piece, but this one resonated with me the most. Thanks Marc.

I just get the sense that Allison Benedikt, for all her declarations, is simply easily led. Acceptance by her modern left acquaintances and keeping the peace in her marriage with her anti-Israel husband is more to blame for her change of heart than the realities of Israel.

First, summer camp fed her an age-appropriate, idealized version of Zionism. It was like showing her a Disney Dixieland band and telling her that’s what New Orleans is like. Understandable, actually, because the realities of geopolitics are a bit too nuanced for young people to fully grasp. Besides, Disney is way more marketable.

And she bought it. It would have been hard not to, in that environment.

Then, as she readily admits, she is surrounded by liberal, anti-Israeli “Jewish friends” and an unabashedly Israel-despising husband. She again buys the party line. She has to. It would be difficult to envision how she could exist in that world and still be a Zionist. She’d run the risk of being alienated from her “Jewish friends” who are “fed up” with Israel. Worse than that, it would be hard to imagine how terribly her marriage would suffer if she and her husbands were on different sides of the Israel/Palestine “fence” (pun intended). It would all be so very untenable.

Jews have a tradition of fighting for justice and the truth. When assimilation and acceptance becomes more important — as in the case of Allison Benedikt — “go along to get along” becomes the norm, and we lose that special part of who we are. And that’s a shame.

Jacob Arnon says:

“There is the poet Adrienne Rich, who argues that the word Zionism is “so
incendiary, so drenched in … ideas of blood and soil, in memories
of victimization and pursuant claims of the right to victimized” that
it “needs to dissolve before twenty-first century realities.””

What are those “21th c realities?” Does Rich bother to tell us?

Her comment about “Zionism being drenched in ideas of blood” is itself a blood libel.

Does he make distinctions between those forced to fight in order to defend their lives and those who are bent on killing certain groups of people like Jews or other minorities in the Middle East? These are the 21st century realities.

Israelis like Jews in Europe and the Middle East before the founding of the State of Israel were often the target of violent and bloody attacks. There is no reason to believe that if the Jewish State didn’t exist that Jews would be living in peace and harmony.

The opposite happens to be the case. Europe is becoming again more conservative and more hostile to Jews.

Finally Rich’s “blood and soil” comment not so subtly equates Zionism with Nazism. This is not only absurd it’s a bigoted and it’s hateful.

I suppose as was said above being brought up in a Christian environment by a Jewish father wasn’t cost free.

Why does any one still take her seriously?


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On That Awl Essay

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