Some days, I think back 25 years to my high-school French course, where I first encountered the concept of the juste milieu — the happy medium — and the difficulty of achieving it. Why is it so elusive? Why do I often feel caught betwixt and between or, even among my fellow Jewish American writers, alone?
When I read about young Jewish immigrant authors from the former Soviet Union, I become conscious of my privileges as a native-born American.
But when I read interviews with certain American-born Jewish writers my age, I become aware of my closeness to the immigrant experience. And when I hear these writers talk about how anti-Semitism is irrelevant to “our generation,” I am astonished. When I moved from Brooklyn at the age of 9 to a non-Jewish suburb, I discovered country clubs, dancing lessons — and the fact that they excluded me as a Jew.
But these issues don’t get to the heart of the thinking that separates me most from my ostensible peers. That heart is Israel.
In a 2009 Forward column headlined “How I’m Losing My Love for Israel,” author Jay Michaelson reported, “It has become simply exhausting. … My love of Israel has turned into a series of equivocations,” such as, “‘I do not support the expansion of settlements, but the Palestinians bear primary responsibility for the collapse of the peace process in 1999.’”
Michaelson went on: “I admit that my exhaustion is exacerbated because, in my social circles, supporting Israel is like supporting segregation.” But, he explained, “I don’t think advocates of Israel understand exactly how bad the situation is … in liberal or leftist social-political circles.”
I have more than a passing acquaintance with Michaelson’s “liberal or leftist social-political circles.” He is right. The situation there is bad. As open-minded as these “circles” claim to be, they are as quick as their analogues at the other end of the spectrum to judge and scorn. Like Michaelson, I find it 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 blog had become a mouthpiece for criticizing Israel. In 2009 I unsubscribed from a women’s poetry listserv because it had become a reliable source of condemnation for Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s early 2009 military incursion in Gaza. I made my choices after speaking up — and receiving abuse online and off. Rarely, another writer defended me. Slightly more often, I received appreciative private emails.
It wasn’t enough. It still isn’t.
These days, my objections are even quieter — for example, unfollowing writers whose Tweets and Facebook posts keep condemning Israel for enforcing the Gaza blockade (which even the United Nations deems legal). Recently I declined to join the writers, many Jewish, who signed an “Occupy Writers” manifesto supporting “the Occupy movement around the world” — a movement that may include more episodes like “Occupy Boston Occupies the Israeli Consulate.”
And too many Jewish writers go out of their way to broadcast their criticisms. There was a time in 2011 when you could barely avoid pieces like Allison Benedikt’s “Life After Zionist Summer Camp” or Kiera Feldman’s “The Romance of Birthright Israel.” Gil Troy described these essays in the Jerusalem Post as resembling 17th-century “captivity narratives”: After being “force-fed diets of Zionist folk tunes” and “hunkalicious Israeli soldiers,” the writers “courageously flee their brainwashing … rejecting Israel while embracing Palestinians, about whom they claim they never were taught.”
But most of my literary acquaintances haven’t read Troy; they consider the Jerusalem Post more “biased” than, say, The Nation, where Feldman’s piece appeared. To suggest that the Jerusalem Post or Commentary merits attention is like recommending Fox News over MSNBC. (But it doesn’t help when Commentary’s chief literary blogger 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 pause whenever journalist Jeffrey Goldberg criticizes misguided Israeli policy; he writes about Israel with all his heart, soul and might.
I wish I could do the same. My responses might not remain so visceral. I wouldn’t have to resign and unsubscribe so often. Since I am too old for most programs that provide Israel advocacy training, I was delighted to hear that New York’s Write On for Israel program was going to offer a version for older writers — then disappointed to learn it would be delayed.
But I’ll keep looking.
There has to be 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 a writer who lives in New York City. She is a director of communications at the City University of New York and the author of “Quiet Americans.”
This piece was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.