The End of Memoir II: Allison Benedikt and Life before Thinking

by A. Jay Adler on June 28, 2011
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(Yesterday: The End of Memoir, part I)

Though he did it not well, Jose Antonio Vargas, in “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” had a compelling reason to write. He is not merely affected by illegal immigration: he is, individually, a story of illegal immigration. He has lived the subterfuge, the fiction, and the uncertain future and present of being an illegal immigrant every day since childhood – and he lives it at a status in life that might be surprising to many. Along with his homosexuality, the recesses of his illegal life were a second closet out of which he longed to walk. He wanted to be liberated from fear and falseness. He thought that telling his story might play some small role in altering the reality of illegal immigrant life in the country. This is all very easy to get.

But why did Allison Benedikt write “Life After Zionist Summer Camp”? Peter Beinart, with whom, as Jeffrey Goldberg put it, “I don’t agree with … so often anymore,” but seemingly, these days, a right sympathetic audience for Benedikt, wrote in a tweet,

I found this uncompelling. It’s insular….

Uncompelling is the word. A writer, outside of a journal, and particularly on public issues, needs a compelling reason to write, compelling not simply for her – as she, the writer, is inwardly compelled to write – but compelling to others. How compel? In that the likeminded may agree and feel, so, confirmed and self-satisfied? Well, there is that. Truly compelling, however, means, perhaps, that you have some outstanding first-person account, or some expertise on the subject, or that you have, actually, something – original, remarkable, dramatic, unique, insightful – to say on the subject.

No doubt, Benedikt felt some of these attributes applied to her, at least for her. To others, I think, not so much. Insight? In reply to Jeffrey Goldberg – the primary, incendiary respondent to Benedikt – Benedikt wrote,

I wrote the piece to record what I experienced, not to analyze it, and definitely not to talk policy or really even politics. It’s a personal essay about growing up in a bubble, not questioning because you don’t even realize there is anything to question, and then slowly coming into contact with a wider world, and range of opinions, until you must face that you’ve been fed–and accepted–an incomplete or even false narrative about an issue that is more than just an issue but also a huge part of your identity. If I come off as naive (or, as “faux-naive”), it’s because I was trying to convey that I WAS naive. If I come off as conformist, well, there again, I was–and to think that’s anything but the norm for a kid growing up is to not be honest about adolescence. [Emphasis added]

Mind you, this is Benedikt’s defense of herself. Confirming what I observed yesterday, Benedikt was so self-absorbed – “insular” was Beinart’s term – that she believed no analysis of her experience was necessary to make it a worthwhile read for others. Her experiences (“what I experienced”) are so innately interesting to other people, so compelling a representation of reality and inherent a commentary on life, simply in the record of them, that no thought about them, at least on her part, is required. When Yaacov Lozowick challenged her in a tweet about alterations she makes to the hagada during Passover dinner –

you make up your own hagada? who in the world do you think you are?

– Benedikt’s response was

I am Jewish, you mother fucker. And I’m not unique

Indeed, she’s not unique – she meant in her Jewish discomfort with Israel and aspects of Jewish religious tradition, but neither is she unique in her Jewishness. There are about 13 million Jews in the world. What reason did she offer for why anyone should take time for her account of her Jewish life and her relation to Israel – a mere unconsidered record of her experiences – over the time no one could devote to the other 12 million plus? Because she had the chutzpah to presume that  her not very extraordinary experiences – when her intent, she says, was not to consider policy or politics (“I wrote the piece definitely not to talk policy or really even politics”) – were an inherently meaningful commentary on an inherently political subject, inseparable from issues of policy?

In truth, so dishonest is Benedikt’s essay that it is not what it pretends to be and not at all what she claims it to be, neither a mere record of experience nor non-political. It is not written in some neutral, observant voice aspiring to Flaubertian objectivity. And it is not unconcerned with politics. Even as the essay fails to consider politics in any open, intellectual, or honest way, even as it pretends to be just one Jewish woman’s sad and disgusted record of her alienation from Jewish nationalism, the essay is manifestly, manipulatively political right from its lead-in photo. The essay is offered as a kind of public Jewish coming out: this is my experience as a Jew. How best, then, to head that statement of Jewish experience – from all the images of Jewishness and Israel that might be chosen to begin – than with a photo of Israeli soldiers on the ground in their fatigues taking target practice. This is Israel.

But we’re not talking politics.

The essay begins,

It starts at a very young age.

What starts at a very young age? Clearly enough from the first few paragraphs, it is the indoctrination. Why the very idea of Zionist summer camp itself, of course, and Israeli flags, and actual Israelis, and being taught to be proud of Jewish intellectual culture – tikkun olam – and watching Raid on Entebbe. What a brainwashing. As if all cultures do not acculturate their young and seek to inculcate historic and national, even militaristic pride – George Washington minus his slaves and Saving Private Ryan and “La Marseillaise”!

Goldberg writes,

The whole piece is written in a kind of faux-naive, I’m-so-lost voice that I found a bit grating.

That’s only the half of it, because it’s not the naïve, but the faux that really counts. Contextualized – including the opening photo; life after not just Zionist summer camp, but Zionism; all that follows in the essay; and the attitudes of the likeminded – that naïve voice ironizes everything.

There are real live Israelis at camp every summer. They have awesome names like Michal and Eyal and are rock stars with their rolling Rs and Israeli scout uniforms. They make me nervous.

Because we know what they really are, how they really behave. See photo above.

The counselors talk to us about “tikkun olam,” which roughly translates to “repairing the world”—this is something that Jews do very well because we are very good people.

Snicker, snicker.

In her mock naiveté, Benedikt is the thoroughly Americanized Jew encountering Jewish otherness. She is from Youngstown, Ohio and her camp friends’ “lives are more Jewish than mine.” Then later, at a camp for older kids, in Upstate New York,

This is my first real brush with East Coast Jews. I am no longer considered cute, and those that are remark on my “Ohio shoes” and my flat accent. I don’t have Umbros; they do. And they’ve all already been to Israel! They know how to speak Hebrew!

But right from the start, on first attending camp, she observes,

Weird names like Jabotinsky and Herzl float through the air.

Jewish names, she means – European names. This is an experience that many half-assimilated second generation children of immigrants may have, of any ethnicity or nationality – the foreignness, the strangeness of the first generation relatives with their heavy un-American accents, their different names, and their odd customs. A contemplative, analytical authorial voice might mediate the relation, the difference, between childish discomfort and a fuller adult reality. But in Benedikt’s pedestrian, childlike voice (Israeli campers are “awesome” when she is a young girl, her sister’s children are “awesome” when she is an adult) that unworldly childhood perception of strangeness – that difference – is allowed to stand in itself as commentary.

What follows for Benedikt in the essay is the passage in seeming passivity from Zionist socialization to her husband’s loathing for Israel, and to what she later tells Goldberg is not her own hate so much – she self-corrects in writing, which is to say publically – as rage. But the essay, we are to understand, was just a record of experience, it did not, its author avers, seek to consider policy or politics, and its profound dishonesty lies precisely in its cowardly flight from genuine intellectual engagement with the politics even as it attempts emotionally, tonally to sucker the reader into a political stance.

Benedikt’s having presented the essay as one Jew’s lament over Jewish identity has led discussion of the essay, beginning with Goldberg, to be rather insular itself. It’s been mostly Jewish inside baseball: a Jew’s responsibility to Jewish community and what, if any, are permissible alterations of the hagada, with Rabbi Andy Bachman and Adam Holland interestingly weighing in. But every time someone like Benedikt provokes that kind of discussion, they both confirm themselves to themselves and the now active prejudice of so many non-Jewish opponents of Israel and Jewish nationalism: all the Jews care about, it persuades them all over again, is themselves, their chosenness and their own insularity. But this is too narrow. The issue is greater than that.

Allison Benedikt is not wrong as a Jew, behaving as a Jew toward other Jews about a Jewish issue. She, just like her husband, who is not Jewish, is simply wrong – intellectually, morally, and politically wrong. Because she had not the courage to defend intellectually her “hate” and her “rage” toward Israel, and her temerity, to begin, to put her memoir out there – a political attack on Israel disguised as a matter-of-fact memoir of changing identity – she has brought this reaction not upon her ideas, because she offered none, but upon herself.

AJA

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