Beinart Sees the Light

Gershom Gorenberg

Peter Beinart, former editor of the New Republic, former Iraq hawk, has made a splash by noticing that

the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

and, moreover, by noticing it on the pages of the New York Review of Books. Some of his critics – Jeffrey Goldberg, for instance – latched onto that venue as reason to find fault. This is even sillier than an ad hominem argument: If Beinart’s argument is correct, who printed the pages is relevant onlyfor people who make up their minds about what an article is going to say purely on the basis of where it appears, and then get confused when it doesn’t say that. (JTA provides a short guide to other responses here.)

As  Ron Kampeas points out, for once the defenders of the hawkish U.S. Jewish establishment can’t use the ad hominem argument itself; they can’t dismiss Beinart as some raving anti-Zionist or reflexive peacenik.

But that misses the point: Beinart’s article is news only and precisely for ad hominem reasons.

Check Beinart’s revelations: The Jewish organizations that claim to speak for American Jews are out of touch with the liberalism of their purported constituents; Avigdor Lieberman has racist views not far removed from Kahanism; in Bibi Netanyah’s book, A Place Among the Nations, he wrote that Israel had already lost enough of the Jewish homeland when it was denied the East Bank of the Jordan. What precisely is news here? That book by Bibi came out in 1993 (I reviewed it at the time for the Los Angeles Times). Lieberman doesn’t keep his views a secret. The Jewish establishment has been trying to silence liberal Zionist criticism of Israeli policies back to the Breirah days.

So the news is that Peter Beinart has now acknowledged that there’s a problem. It’s like an experienced and very well known member of the CP leaving the Party in 1956 after the Khrushchev speech. True, Comrade X had stayed quiet while others left during the first purge trials or after the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty or during the next round of purge trials. But this only  makes the new defection more significant: Even Comrade X can no longer get himself to mouth the party line without reflexive convulsions in his esophagus.  Late is much much better than never. Haver Peter’s change of heart could encourage even more U.S. Jews to acknowledge that the institutions that treat Barack Obama as an enemy of Israel do not speak for them. Keep saying it, Peter, it sounds better every time.

I do have factual quibbles with the article, particularly with the claim that a conflict between the Jewish establishment and Jews who question Israeli policy is new to the present generation of young American Jews. When I’ve spoken at U.S. synagogues and urged Jews to speak out more forcefully for a two-state solution, many gray-headed people have come up to me afterward and expressed their agreement. AIPAC, Abe Foxman and Alan Dershowitz manage to turn off liberal Jews well above the age of 30.

Rejecting Beinart’s analysis, Jonathan Chait has suggested that young Jews’ alienation from Israel has little to do with Israeli policy or the American Jewish leadership’s support for that policy. Rather, Chait says,

I suspect that young Jews’ indifference toward Israel is overwhelmingly a function of their weakening ties to Judaism itself.

OK, that’s true for some people. Assimilation makes them less interested in Israel. But it’s hardly the whole picture. As I noted in a recent article on new  minyanim in the United States (independent Jewish prayer communities, not tied to denominations, usually lay-led), many of these deeply involved young Jews  have spent extensive time in Israel. But a 2007 survey found that only 23 percent of minyan members say they feel “proud of Israel always,” compared to 40 percent of members of established synagogues. Leaders of independent minyanim told me that Israel-related programming is rare. My impression is that lots of people who’d like to be connected to Israel are turned off by its policies, and the easiest solution is just to avoid the subject.

Another form of illiberalism turns off some involved Jews: Israel’s policies toward non-Orthodox Judaism.  Three years ago, Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the American Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, told me: “All the data shows a growing rift between American Jews and Israeli Jews, and the younger you are as an American Jew, the less that you care about the state of Israel…. And one of the reasons for it — not the only reason, but one of the reasons for it — is this kind of insulting treatment of the majority of American Jews by the Israeli rabbinate.” There is a link between the issues of religious pluralism and occupation: As long as the occupation continues, Israeli coalitions will depend on clerical parties to break the deadlock between pro-peace and expansionist political blocks. Only after the territorial issue is resolved will the religious issue get the attention it demands.

Some liberal American Jews say they do not want to get involved in the question of Israeli policies because that’s up to Israelis to do decide. I’d be more inclined to accept that argument, were it not for the role that U.S. Jewry has played in setting Israel’s current path. The American Jewish right gives support to rightwing candidates in Israel and to rightist organizations. AIPAC has helped create a political climate in Israel in which it’s assumed that the U.S. will accept the continued occupation with, at most, mumbled objections. I can’t give an exact measure of the effect of these factors, but I think it’s significant.  Through its leadership, the U.S. Jewish community has made itself a partner in what’s going wrong here in Israel. If you have any commitment to expressing your liberalism as a Jew, you should put some energy into countering this. Otherwise, you’ve become a silent partner.

Fortunately, there are growing organizations in the U.S. that give you the opportunity to be involved as a liberal who cares about Israel. The right’s monopoly has been broken. Are you sitting in LA, Phillie, or Boston looking for a way to express your hopes for an Israel living at peace? As James Besser writes, the Pennsylvania senate race is turning into a contest between the pro-Israel doves and the hawks:

…one of J Street’s critical goals is to provide “cover” for congressional candidates who support Israel, but also support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… A lot of Jewish Left money for Sestak will help convince other politicians to speak out on J Street’s issues, sign its letters and appear at its events; if Toomey gets a ton of Jewish money and Sestak not much, it’s going to make politicians more nervous about being seen in public with the new group.

In short, if you care about Israel and you don’t like the direction it has taken, stop blaming the establishment. Do what progressives do. Get involved. Make your voice heard. Change things.

One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

15 thoughts on “Beinart Sees the Light”

  1. Speaking of caring about Israel and getting involved, should any of your readers be in California’s 36th district where Rep. Jane Harman has been a stalwart voice for AIPAC, there is a welcome alternative in Marcy Winograd, who has sent out this brief robocall to voters that speaks of her being Jewish yet not accepting the status quo in Israel. The 36th is along the coast north of Long Beach. I wish I had someone like her to offer me the same choice against incumbent Jan Schakowsky another Israel party-line Rep. here north of Chicago. A potential Republican, who is Jewish and was born in South Africa, no less, has nothing new to offer on the subject.

  2. I don’t see the ad hominem aspect as all that significant. Beinart is still a Zionist supporting a Jewish state. It’s not like Tony Judt’s article.

    My anecdotal experience is that Beinart is wrong and Chait is right. By far the biggest factor is American Jewish assimilation. American Jews are becoming indifferent to Israel much more than they’re becoming critical of it. A minority of American Jews have been actively critical of Israel for as long as I can remember.

    Beinart is doubly wrong because even if Israel followed his advice exactly, the war would continue (no one can seriously deny that) and Israel would still have to respond to terrorism. That means continued footage of helpless Palestinian children killed by the big bully Israel. Progressive American Jews who are now critical of Israel because of the Territories will be no less critical of Israel as this asymmetric war continues after a withdrawal.

    The other aspect in which Beinart is wrong is apartheid. Many progressives clearly emphasize that Israel proper, inside the Green Line, is an apartheid state. They’re correct in the sense that it’s an ethnostate (what used to be called a “nation-state”) with a Staatvolk that’s perceived as white ruling over a population that’s perceived as colored, surrounded by hostile populations that identify with the “colored” citizens. None of that will change as long as Israel is a Jewish state with irredentist Palestinians across the border, and American Jewish liberals will become increasingly uncomfortable with the essence of the Jewish state of Israel as their Jewish ties wane and they become less willing to grant Israel an exemption from their morality. Again, that’s even if Israel follows Beinart’s (or Gorenberg’s) advice to the letter. At least anti-Zionists like Tony Judt are consistent, unlike left-Zionists like Beinart.

  3. I forgot to mention, re “feel proud of Israel always”: that’s an awfully high bar to set for loyalty to a foreign state. American Jews are trained from birth to be critical. How much unconditional pride can you expect?

  4. The demographic picture seems to be somewhat more complicated than either Beinart or Chait’s distillations. Steven Cohen’s research on the subject (which Beinart cited) isn’t universally accepted, but he does a good job of laying out the facts at Foreign Policy. Basically, Gershom has it right:

    Where Israeli policies do come into play is with a critical segment of Jewishly engaged young adults. Younger, active Jews are just as “engaged” with Israel as their older counterparts, but they are far less likely to see themselves “pro-Israel.” Significantly, despite the efflorescence of new Jewish initiatives in such domains as culture, social justice, and new media, hardly any new initiatives by young people relate to Israel. More pointedly, when asked to engage the Israel question on any side of the agenda, younger leaders resist doing so, in part out of fear of controversy in their own communities or fear of repercussions from donors who fund their initiatives. Younger Jews believe they have only two acceptable choices if they are to remain welcome in conventional Jewish precincts: public advocacy or private ambivalence.

    I disagree that American liberals are uncomfortable supporting ethnic nationalism, within limits. Daniel Larison does a good job of explaining left-wing enthusiasm for nationalism, which actually undergirds in large part their sympathy for Palestinians. The only response, as far as I can see, is some sort of fudging about how the left only supports non-Western nationalisms, which I think is pretty obviously belied by even a casual survey of lefty rhetoric on the subject. Paul Gottfried is half right when he insists that liberals who support a Jewish majority in Israel but support immigration to the U.S. The exception isn’t carved out for Israel, it’s carved out for the United States.

  5. That penultimate sentence should be: “Paul Gottfried is half right when he insists that liberals who support a Jewish majority in Israel but support immigration to the U.S. are being inconsistent.”

  6. Beinart is absolutely on target. This is because the majority of US Jews, especially the younger generation, have adopted NewJudaism, which stresses economic and social justice over tribal, atavistic ties to land. At one point, a Jewish state might have been a necessity, but no longer. In order to prevent further anti-semitism, Jews must leave israel to its true owners, the Palestinian people, and give up this apartheid fantasy. I fear that we must choose between israel and peace and I choose peace

  7. The Israeli army has just announced the killing of at least 10 in their commando raid against the Gaza aid convoy. Perhaps munitions will be found; pray so. For otherwise, Irsaelis, you have just been given a powerful tool for change. Nonviolence, imperfectly formed there if present, is a gift to the opponent. What will you do with this unwanted thing, Israel?

    “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always. “–M. K. Gandhi

    But wait: let us return to the vexing question of whether American Jews are still really Jews.

  8. Raghav, I’ll see your Larison and Gottfried and raise you a Kevin MacDonald. He emphasizes Beinart’s demographic point which, he claims, other commentators have missed. It’s the Orthodox Jews, who are generally more concerned with Israel and more hardline, who are having by far the most children among American Jews. MacDonald sees this as a pattern throughout Jewish history: the moderate, assimilated Jews tend to leave the community, and the fanatics determine the direction (e.g., Hannukah). MacDonald sees no reason why this pattern won’t continue in the case of American Jewish support for Israel.

    I’m interested in your (Raghav’s) comment on “fudging about how the left only supports non-Western nationalisms”. As you know that’s close to my own view. Actually I think that the left is, in practice, OK with nationalisms except when they’re Western and the Other is non-Western. (Examples: Israel, white South Africa bad. Scottish nationalism OK.) The left might give lip service to internationalism, but in practice they’re not bothered much by nationalism except for Israel, South Africa, etc. So how is this belied by “even a casual survey” (ouch!) of lefty rhetoric?

  9. I gave a link to MacDonald’s followup comment when I meant to link to his original comment here.
    That’s where he makes the point that I cited.

  10. I have not read the above responses yet but I want to thank you Gershom for this response to Beinart’s article ( actually he had a follow-up and has given two interviews ( one on bloggingheads TV and the other on The Forward’s website). I know he is saying nothing new and what is important is this epiphany, and that his voice has been heard in the quarters from which he has associated, from which clubhouse he may be kicked out of being a “traitor”. Would not be surprised. The bloggingheadsTV debate, if you have the patience and time for it is an example of not only how articulate Beinart is on all points thrown at him, but that he is also sincere. It’s not only his epiphany then, but how well he expresses this point of view.

    Thank you Gershom..

  11. Aaron: Beinart is doubly wrong because even if Israel followed his advice exactly, the war would continue (no one can seriously deny that) and Israel would still have to respond to terrorism. That means continued footage of helpless Palestinian children killed by the big bully Israel. Progressive American Jews who are now critical of Israel because of the Territories will be no less critical of Israel as this asymmetric war continues after a withdrawal.

    This reasoning excuses Israel entirely- and those who espouse it are not helping Israel ultimately. I don’t consider it “pro-Israel”.

    Do you know what Beinart’s advice is?

    The picture ( morally & regarding international law) would be very different if there was either a just peace agreement or a withdrawal from occupation- or even a serious believable movement in that direction.

    War that continues beyond a just and agreed upon peace looks a lot different than what is seen now and increasing seen as oppression, oppression by people who should know better.

  12. Sorry- re the italics that should read:

    Aaron: Beinart is doubly wrong because even if Israel followed his advice exactly, the war would continue (no one can seriously deny that) and Israel would still have to respond to terrorism. That means continued footage of helpless Palestinian children killed by the big bully Israel. Progressive American Jews who are now critical of Israel because of the Territories will be no less critical of Israel as this asymmetric war continues after a withdrawal.

    This reasoning excuses Israel entirely- and those who espouse it are not helping Israel ultimately. I don’t consider it “pro-Israel”.

    Do you know what Beinart’s advice is?

    The picture ( morally & regarding international law) would be very different if there was either a just peace agreement or a withdrawal from occupation- or even a serious believable movement in that direction.

    War that continues beyond a just and agreed upon peace looks a lot different than what is seen now and increasing seen as oppression, oppression by people who should know better.

  13. Aaron, your added qualifiers have already restricted this to a pretty small dataset. But even so, “liberals only care about non-Westerners being pushed around by Westerners” is a problematic reading of the evidence. It requires finessing Chechnya (Russia isn’t really Western), the Balkans (the Bosniaks aren’t really Western) and Quebec, where lefties continue to support a nationalist movement that grumbles about “votes ethniques” and slant-eyes. Heck, it requires finessing Israel itself with some hand-waving about how the Sephardim are really perceived as Western.

    Really, the case rests almost entirely on the international campaign against South African apartheid. But there are a host of relevant distinctions between South Africa and Israel: South Africa wasn’t a democracy even in a formal sense, its domestic politics were highly illiberal in a way Israel’s aren’t (yet), and among Americans it evoked memories of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.

    I admit I don’t know for certain how sustainable a peace agreement will be. But I’d like to see the Right acknowledge how uncertain their own comfortable pieties are: for example, their belief that Western criticism of Israel is implacable or that the Gaza withdrawal proves that Israelis can stand up to the national Orthodox when they want to.

  14. Raghav, the data set can be broadened by removing the “nationalism” restriction. Those on the left (I know I’m over-generalizing) sympathize with the non-Western Other against the West, whether nationalism or states are involved or not. That broadens the scope considerably. It’s a lot more than Israel and South Africa.

    I know that I may be over-fitting my theory. As I’ve said before, and as you remind me, the reason I said “Western” not “white” is that the Russians, who get a free pass, are perceived as white but not Western. But I think that’s pretty solid. Even before this clash of civilizations stuff, back during the Cold War it was the Soviet Union against the West.

    I’m not at all certain that Western criticism of Israel is implacable. I express it with certainty – these are comments to a blog – but I admit that I could quite possibly be wrong. It’s possible that an Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line would cause the Western left to start siding with Israel against Palestine or to lose interest in the war. It’s even possible that the war could more or less end.

    I feel more certain about your other example, the ability of Israelis to stand up to the National Orthodox if they thought there were a real opportunity for peace.

    On my theory of anti-Israel bias as an instance of anti-Western bias – rather than of anti-Semitism, as many on the right claim – well, it’s a theory, who knows? It’s the most parsimonious explanation of the data I can think of.

  15. Suzanne, I wrote the words you quoted the day before this incident with the Gaza-bound ship. This is the kind of thing that will happen after Israel withdraws from all the Territories, assuming that Iranian-backed militias such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad or whatever continue their struggle for liberation. I don’t think it’s either pro- or anti-Israel to point out the fact that many Westerners (not to mention Muslims) will instinctively side against Israel whenever Israel uses force.

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