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.