Prophets and Guardians

There is, it seems, a bit of an occupational hazard to this column-writing business. It probably holds for all sorts of topics, but it’s undoubtedly true when thinking aloud about Israel. Here’s the choice: You can either plant yourself firmly on one side of the political divide, being predictably “right wing” or “left wing,” or you can, depending on the issue, say what you think but appear a bit less consistent.

The advantages of the first option are clear.

Once you are tagged as a “right winger” or “left winger,” people assume that they know what you’re going to say. If you’re “on their side,” they read and nod approvingly, feeling ever so validated by yet another column that says precisely what they already thought. And if they assume they’ll disagree, or worse, that the column will annoy them, they can just skip it altogether or sharpen their proverbial pencils and bang out the inevitably dismissive talkback. Either way, though, we know what we’ll think of an argument – and of a writer – before we’ve even read a word. Ah, the eternal quest for a predictable and comfortable life.

But I’ve never thought that thinking, or citizenship – or love – work that way. If we love our children, do we validate them or criticize them? This is the wrong question, obviously, for the answer should depend on the context.  Parents who never have a kind or defending word to say about their child probably don’t love them enough. But parents who never critique their children are incompetent.

It’s true of marriage, too. None of us would want to be married to someone who never had a kind word to say about us or to us, or who never made clear that they were proud of us.

But if all we want is that validation, we’re probably better off buying an iPhone 4S and talking to Siri than being in a real relationship.

A functioning relationship is one in which our partner wants us to be better than the person we now are and can lovingly suggest, pretty regularly, how we might get there.

It’s an anemic conception of love that would describe our role as parents, spouses, lovers, friends – or citizens, no less – as assuming a position of constant validation or of relentless criticism.

That’s why some of us who write about Israel take a different approach. We don’t care about being neatly classifiable as “left” or “right”; because to love a country is not that different from loving a person. It means defending but also critiquing. It means loving unconditionally but knowing that love does not mean overlooking serious flaws. To love Israel, I believe, is to know that the Jewish state is not just a flag or an army or some holy place. To love Israel is to love the real Israel, with all its many warts and imperfections. And to love Israel is to know that there is a difference between a wart and a serious disease; when an imperfection is so serious as to threaten the entire enterprise, then the most loyal thing that one can do is to insist that Israel be better.

But this approach makes life complicated for readers because they don’t know, up front, precisely what they’re going to get. They will have to read, and then think.

Not everyone responds so well to that sort of challenge. In recent weeks and months when I’ve defended the very legitimacy of the idea of a Jewish state, or pointed to the Palestinians’ obvious disinterest in peace, or stated my abiding belief that none of us (tragically) are going to see this conflict resolved in our own lifetimes, then one entire set of readers trots out the “he’s a peace-talk-pessimist” line. He must be in Bibi’s pocket. He doesn’t care about peace.

But the opposite is also true – critique this government’s entirely unimaginative mishandling of the so-called peace process, or point a spotlight at the medieval religious leadership that has Netanyahu wrapped around its pinky, and the opposite camp goes berserk. One regular reader wrote to say that he used to like my columns, but now I’m “beginning to sound a bit like a Meretznik, or even worse – like Thomas Friedman!” (Except for those three elusive Pulitzers, I guess.) Meretz is mostly gone, of course, but the derisive label seems likely to outlive the party. If you ever sound like them then you obviously don’t care about Israel. You’re hostile to Judaism. Or you’re blind to the dangers of our enemies. And if you ever sound like Likud then you don’t care about peace. And if you occasionally sound like both then you don’t know how to think. Eventually Leonard Fein will write a column in The Forward (June 23, 2011) called “Will the Real Daniel Gordis Please Stand Up?” Because you either seek peace (or care about social justice) or you defend Israel.

But you obviously can’t do both. Right? At a recent conference of the American Jewish Committee in New York one participant noted that she prefers, instead of “left” and “right,” the labels “prophets” and “guardians” – for those labels each cast the “other” in the best possible light. This nomenclature reminds us that “prophets” are more than mere leftwing social critics – they reflect a critical dimension of the Jewish tradition, Judaism’s classic vision of social justice. And “guardians” is better than “hate-mongers” or “peace-pessimists,” or “Bibi-supporters,” apparently, because every people needs “guardians,” as does every state. To be a guardian is not to be a dinosaur, but rather to recognize that the State we’re discussing is sacred, in desperate need of protection.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that “prophets versus guardians” still isn’t good enough. For the distinction nonetheless implies that either you’re a “prophet” or a “guardian.” You choose one. And then you write, vote, agree or disagree.

But life doesn’t work that way. We dare not force people to pick a camp, no matter how elegant the terminology. The Hebrew prophets railed against the injustices of ancient Israelite society but they were desperately concerned about the survival of Jewish sovereignty. And guardians need to protect against not only the obvious threats from the outside but also against the cancers that threaten to devour us from within. Will the Jewish people be any better off if Israel falls because of Jews than if it is undermined by the Palestinians? Either way, we’d be done for.

Genuinely loving this country means that there will be moments when we defend it and other occasions on which we bemoan its grievous shortcomings. Is that muddled thinking? Does that merit the cynical demand that our “real” self “please stand up”? I think not. It reflects, I think, the real messiness of life, of love and of hope. Imagine our world, and our discourse, if every one of us found the renewed courage to read, to think and to recognize that those with whom we instinctively tend to disagree might still have something to teach us.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

15 Comments on "Prophets and Guardians"

  • Danny,
    While neither a guardian nor a prophet, I, like you, know both the core fear that motivates the guardian mindset and the awesome reality of living in the sacred moment that infuses the prophet with hope and vision. Neither right wing nor left wing, I considerer myself a pragmatically idealistic 21st century Zionist who wants to see a healthy, vibrant, Jewish democratic state that reflects the Jewish values that resonate with the core essence of Judaism. I often say I can’t do anything about Hamas but I can do something about the status of women and Jews (and their institutions) that are Other than Orthodox in the Jewish State. In today’s edition of the Cleveland Jewish News, Arlene Fine does a very good review of a diverse views of Jews here in Cleveland. I am proud to share that I am the lead voice. I thank you for being one of my most important teachers. I wish Art Naparstek, the great social scientist who gave to Partnership 2000 and trained me to be an activist, were alive to see how Israelis are taking to the streets to demand a healthier society. I do hope you will be an outspoken advocate for this Cause. I sense this article was your way of saying you need to be critical of the State of Israel. I thank you for helping me find a way to be lovingly critical. Neither prophet nor guardian, just one voice encouraging others to join in some loving criticism of the Jewish Homeland.

  • Steven says

    Unfortunately this left right dichotomy, while foolish, will continue to stick due to the nature of most journalists today. So many do not think and instead peddle a narrative. This results in readers of particular viewpoints living in their own realities. Journalism was once an important profession, one considered to be a vanguard of democracy and thus liberty. Now journalists are by and large lazy propagandists with no integrity… And according to polling data the public has never had less faith in them before.

  • richard says

    The problem I have observed is that folks too often categorize others regardless of their position or how they articulate it. Once you are labeled that is it.

  • The magic elixir for relationship – marital, partner, friend, civic, etc. – is love’s loyalty, faith and hope.

    As valuable as your column is, Daniel, relationship’s foundation merited but passing mention.

    Perhaps there’s a lesson there.

    Hope you enjoy a relaxing and pleasant weekend and a Shabbat Shalom U’Mevorach.

  • Richard Harte says

    Dear Danny,

    You are right-on again. Critical issues are usually very complex and there are ofter more than two sides to an argument. Unfortunately, many people want the quick and simple answer to support their already ingrained attitude.
    I wish more people would take the time to think,consider and look at all sides as you do.
    Thank you.

  • Landy Anderton says


    Thank you for this column, Prophets and Guardians, which is wise and seems to be driven by both high ideals and realistic pragmatism. Extremist belief is the key problem today, whichever side it is on.

    One of the interpretations I like of the Genesis 2 story of Adam and Eve is that the writer was trying to say that partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes our basic human tendency to make moral judgments between good guys and bad guys, our mentally lazy need to dichotimize, demonize, and simplify – our unquenchable hunger for black-and-white certainty and resolution, as opposed to tolerating uncertainty with a little humility and openness to the possibility that the other person may have some points. Moral certainty is the dangerous first domino. It not only corrupts religions but also any possibility of compromise in any relationship, be it international, marital, organizational, or interpersonal. To achieve long-term peace (rather than short-term peace), we have to expand the middle and shrink the extremes. Then the extremists will be ultimately outnumbered and have nowhere to go.
    Landy Anderton

  • Naomi says

    Thank you for expressing a very serious problem within the pro-Israel community – both In Israel and the US. We have become so polarlized and defensive to the point that we are only tearing ourselves apart as a community. I think your analogy to parenting is perfect, unconditional love without criticism when it is needed is actually detrimental to support of Israel.

  • Charles Iseman says

    Dan, great article — I have one grammatical nitpick — it is not that the Palis are “disinterested” (i.e., unbiased, or could care less one way or the other) in peace; it is that they are “uninterested” (or lack interest in or are averse to) in peace. Please keep up your great and necessary work!

    A sidenote — I see that Fran Gordon Immerman is in Cleveland — wow! — so am I, now, having retired from the DC area (and having been born and raised in NYC). Serendipity!

    My best,

  • Howard Stevens says

    My view of the prophets is that they certainly thought they were guardians. Labels are indeed problematic.

    Let’s just appreciate Dan Gordis as a quirky, lively intellect, with his own prejudices and predilections, thoughtful enough to promote stimulating discussions – and also open enough to allow strong criticism of hie views to be posted.

  • Allen says

    A beautiful article about the evils of rigor mortis on the political stage. Whether or not everyone agrees with the analogies used to illustrate the analysis, how can any thoughtful individual miss the main point: some issues require a “right-wing” or “guardian” reaction, while other things require a “left-wing” or “prophetic” reaction. The discussion about – and the response to – an issue should not be about the messenger or the style of the message, but rather about whether a challenge needs to be addressed with a “left-wing” or a “right-wing” tack.

  • Sheila Novitz says

    Thank you again, Daniel Gordis. No, I’ve not ever been able to say that you deliver “muddled thinking,” and the “real” Daniel Gordis is present in all his writing – all the books; all the articles. Consistently true to himself, deeply thoughtful, loyal and faithful to his country and family, and a joy to read even though sometimes painful. Oh, and often funny. Thanks. Shabbat Shalom.

  • Brilliant….
    Now if the Prophets would begin each column cursing our enemies… and the enablers on “our side” who weaken us “for our own good,” and then make it clear that Israel had better not be fooled again by “land for peace” con games, and THEN bash our own idiocies, and then add the Gordis formula about a love that critiques from love… that would be a partial cure.

    And if the Watchmen would lead off each piece with a believable aggitation about Israel’s real and dangerous failings before they proceeded to pith our enemies and their enablers… that would also be good.

    And if both of these things happened, then we’d be making a baby step forward out of the box that Daniel so clearly describes

  • Marc says

    i have a funny friend who always says at our shule ‘when did Judaism become Republican?’ as a ‘democrat’, he reflects the feeling of being outnumbered in our local community. after living 15 years in Australia i am very much in support of universal healthcare–single payer, but also was sad to see Michelle Bachmann knocked out of the race. i would like to see gun laws remove weapons from the community and yet think our social security system and tax system is deeply flawed. i want America to help defend Israel and yet would like America to spend much more at home rather than overseas. i like a free market tempered with government intervention. i want the government between me and my doctor as the truth is that many doctors are simply the weakest link in healthcare and they need to be scrutinized and serve the vulnerable public rather than make millions. the free market is often really subservient to corporate control. there are no easy answers yet we all love to pidgeon hole people. esp the media that wants to sell us front row tickets to our own life.

  • Robert Gutman says

    Dear Andrea,

    I was treated to two detailed and very substantive email responses from “Benjamin” at the J Street office regarding my previous question about the relationship between J Street Policy and the elements of the J Street Poll wherein they reported 57% Jewish American approval of the the elements listed in the Poll. In Benjamin’s first answer he said: “Thus, I suggest that you don’t read to much into J Street’s views from the polling, but rather the policies outlined on our website and in our communications.” When I responded that conducting a poll based on elements that were not supported by the organization could be misleading, he responded with this:

    “J Street is not a think tank or a strategy/policy organization, but rather than (sic..probably meant “is”) a political org whose first order of business is creating political will for a two-state solution. However, your point is well taken; I will communicate to the appropriate staff the need to clarify the our positions within the relevant position papers (as with the security and terror statement) and to make it easy for the public to find where J Street stands on various details related to the two-state solution.”

    With his help, I found a lot of policy support for the elements listed in the poll. It is not entirely complete (see comments) but is substantial and may not be known to all the users of this facebook. Below are the relevant links and quotations of special interest:

    “Further, the Quartet should clarify now that security arrangements under any agreement will include the demilitarization of the future state of Palestine, and the deployment at Palestine’s external international border crossings of an international force to guarantee the agreed provisions. The US should take this occasion to reiterate its commitment to guaranteeing the long-term security of Israel.” RG: This represents a preference for the Quartet position of a demilitarized Palestine. The only item dealing with the known poor record of failed international policing of treaties in the mid east, J Street says the US should do it without naming the duration

    “The refugee issue should be negotiated and resolved as part of an agreement between official Israeli and Palestinian authorities and endorsed by both peoples. J Street would support the approach outlined in commonly accepted models of a two-state solution under which the vast majority of refugees would be resettled outside the internationally recognized borders of Israel, while receiving compensation.” RG This is the closest thing I could find to to the poll question of giving Israel the right to review and refuse petitions.

    “Ultimately, the question of settlement expansion should become moot – because the real issue that needs to be addressed and settled quickly is the route of the border between Israel and Palestine. Certain agreed modifications to the 1967 lines are possible – allowing some settlements to be incorporated within Israel’s final and agreed borders in the context of reciprocal land swaps. Those settlements (perhaps accounting for as many as three-quarters of all settlers) will then become part of Israeli recognized sovereign territory and construction there will be able to continue according to the laws and zoning ordinances of those localities.

    [*It is important to note that J Street supports the concept of a security barrier as an important element of Israel’s defense, but believes that the barrier must be located along an internationally recognized border.”

    “J Street would support the approach outlined in the Clinton parameters and other models of a two-state solution under which the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem would fall under Israeli sovereignty and the Arab neighborhoods would be under Palestinian sovereignty.”

    Summary: I have learned that J Street sees a necessity for a future Palestinian State to be demilitarized (no time frame given). This policy is correct in the opinion of many American Jews. Implied is the fact that peace could not be consummated without this critical element. Left completely wide open is the question of the reliability and duration of such a guardianship.

    What do you think? Can this really be done in our lifetimes?


  • Yuval Brandstetter MD says

    The problem is those tiny little remarks and moral equivalence remarks that pinpricks the otherwise reasonable whole. When you remark that certain elements have the PM around their pinkie it means that the public which elected him is dum, because they cannot discern that he is but a dummy for the real suzerains. When you remark the the government is dithering because they have not made up their minds about shooting the mosque graffiti defacers, you seem to join the worst of the Meretz brand (its a brand, because precious few Jews are truly meretz) who would love to compel the IDF to shoot Jews with long sideburns. So, while you ponder the important stuff pay attention to the little stuff which makes for reprehensible ideation.


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