Peter Beinart, the former New Republic editor whose strong critique of the American Jewish establishment in a New York Review of Books essay continues to reverberate in the community, says he has been pleasantly surprised by the responses he has received from pro-Israel critics.

In a phone interview yesterday, he told me he’d been warned by friends to “barricade your doors,” but that he has received “very few hostile reactions” and no charges of being a self-hating Jew, as he’d feared.

He believes the “debate is changing rapidly” regarding the Mideast impasse, and worries that the notion of Israel as a bi-national state is becoming increasingly “mainstream.”

Beinart, 39 and a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., was about to meet with 35 high school juniors visiting for the day as part of The Jewish Week’s Write On for Israel program.

He put the issue in context for me by noting that about one-third of the critical responses he has received from his article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” have come from the left, primarily because he espouses a Jewish state.

“I’m a liberal Zionist,” he said, and rather than being marginalized, he called for the establishment to say, “we have a problem” regarding the fact that younger Jews are distancing themselves from Israel.

“Younger Jews who are liberal and care about these things are accessing their Zionism by identifying with those struggling to end the occupation,” he said. “They could be the next Tom Friedmans.
Those are the people we really need,” and it would be wrong to dismiss them as outside of the pro-Israel community, he asserted.

As to why he chose to publish his essay in the New York Review of Books, seen as highly critical of Israel in some quarters, Beinart explained that the New York Times Magazine had commissioned the piece but he and the editors had “stylistic differences.” He said that he then started looking for a publication to run his lengthy essay quickly, and decided on the New York Review.

“I think it’s unfair to charge them with being anti-Israel,” he said. “That’s a lazy way of talking. Yes, they’re on the left. They publish a number of Israeli intellectuals.

“My definition of anti-Israel,” he added, “is someone who doesn’t believe Israel should exist as a Jewish state,” noting that ‘I’m not anti-American because I was upset at how Dick Cheney” operated as vice president.

When I suggested that Beinart’s description, in his essay, of younger Jews distancing themselves from Israel was part of a larger concern of this group growing less attached to Judaism in general, he said, “that’s a fair charge – assimilation obviously plays a role.

“My point, though, is that the message the American Jewish establishment is sending now — `come and join us and don’t publicly criticize Israel’ – is not working. We need a different, more effective message because young people are troubled and you have to take them seriously or you’ll just leave them in the cold.”