Are we honest when we write?

23 October 2016, 1352 EDT

The reactions I’ve received to some of my recent op-eds have led me to reconsider the relationship between scholarship and politics, and to question the role of social capital in shaping scholarly opinion.

Over the last several months, I have published some pieces that have strayed from what had been my consistent “liberal Zionist” position. One investigated the dark underbelly of Tel Aviv (where I visited the remains of Palestinian villages with Israeli “decolonial” activist Eitan Bronstein). Another (with independent historian Peter Eisenstadt) challenged the “empathy” discourse prevalent among liberal Zionists. A third interrogated the idea of a “non-Zionist” synagogue in Chicago, and a fourth (with historian Joshua Schreier of Vassar College) asked whether Israeli-Jewish identity could be maintained if Palestinian refugees were to return and if Jews were to become a minority. All of these pieces involved some critiques of Zionism. 

The piece on the non-Zionist synagogue involved some gentle but direct criticism. I asked whether these spaces end up applying the same kind of ideological litmus tests that they justifiably decry in mainstream Jewish institutions. Would Zionists be welcome to join their congregation and would Zionist voices be included within their speaker series, for example? But most of the piece employed rhetorical devices actually intended to critique mainstream, Zionist synagogues. Are these synagogue members “non-Zionist” the way I am a “non-fan of football”? I suggested that they weren’t indeed indifferent to what was going on in Israel-Palestine (as I am indifferent to NFL standings) but are very much engaged with justice-seeking in the region. And non-Zionists shouldn’t “hive off” into their own spaces, I argued. We need a robust debate across our communities about issues stemming from the less visible fallout from the maintenance of Jewish sovereignty. We need these non-Zionist voices to be heard by all. Justice, I argued, depends on it.

The reaction from the synagogue members was swift and angry. And I, in turn, felt frustrated that my rhetorical devices weren’t being fully understood. In a piece that was intended to praise these non-Zionist voices for their active commitment to justice seeking (with some gentle prodding around the edges), I felt puzzled that I was seen as attacking them. (The headline — which editors, not writers, write — did not help.) More generally, I wondered about putting forth “opinions” that aren’t necessarily my actual opinions (ultimately, I am excited by the idea of this non-Zionist synagogue!) but which are intended to get readers to think about the dynamics of political discourse in a new way.

In the second recent piece (one on refugee return), Joshua Schreier and I challenged core Zionist assumptions around demographic thinking. Partly because I feel so strongly connected to contemporary Israeli culture — including Hebrew language, literature, television, film and music, I wanted to put the question of demographics to the test. (We prefaced the piece with the claim that full justice depends on refugee return, and went on to argue that Israeli-Jewish culture could indeed be preserved.)

The reaction varied. Some readers were puzzled by what they saw as an overly utopian vision; others criticized us for ignoring the security implications of refugee return. Unlike in the non-Zionist synagogue piece, here I was emotionally and intellectually comfortable with both of these sets of critiques: the security questions are important but they deserve their own piece. And as for whether the piece is overly utopian, it is the job of political thinkers to consider the realm of possibility as well as what appears to be more immediately pragmatic.

But there was one set of reactions that gave me pause. These were readers on Facebook and Twitter who pointed to what they saw as an “exciting” change in my personal positions. I was both flattered by the idea that my body of writings has been followed closely enough for people to notice when I advance new ideas. But I also felt self-conscious and somewhat emotionally exposed.

Ultimately, though, I am wondering about the relationship between scholarly understanding and political commitments. I have long argued — in print and to my students — that whatever positions I hold (say, embracing the ‘two-state solution” — a position I had regularly advanced until recently) stem directly from an intellectual understanding of the region, including a commitment to empathy and interpretive tools to comprehend the “needs and identities of both sides.” But now, as I see myself adopting a more rights-forward discourse — while shunting “empathy” down the list of analytical tools, I am wondering about how my scholarly life indeed informs my politics. Is the relationship directly constitutive? Is it dialectical? Or has there been some rupture altogether?

And there is another, related, question that is nagging at me (which I explore in an article in Journal of Narrative Politics — forthcoming spring 2017):  am I writing for new audiences to accrue new sets of social capital? I know that some of the deep frustration and even outrage I felt from some social media reactions to the “non-Zionist synagogue” piece stemmed from my sense that we share many core values and that personal relationships (whether real or potential) could be damaged. And that some of the self-consciousness I felt from the praise I received in some quarters to the “evolution of my views” provided a sense of social payoff, however craven that need might be.

All I know right now, is that when we tend to examine the connection between scholarship and politics, we often ignore the social realm. I have no easy answers today, but these are my questions. Until next time….