Once upon a time, assimilated Jews would, well, assimilate, leaving Judaism to the Jews. Similarly, Jewish liberals — prizing universalism over parochialism — pretty much left Zionism to the professional Zionists.
Sure, there were plenty of assimilated and liberal Jews in the American Zionist “establishment,” such as AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “the pro-Israel lobby”) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations, but they went about their business of supporting whatever government the Israelis elected, while most American Jews, particularly the non-Orthodox liberal young, went about their business — the slow drift away from Jewish affiliation, let alone activism.
No longer. Now the alienated and even the assimilated want a way back in. The pro-Israel lobby, writes Peter Beinart in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, has to be more responsive to young liberal Jews who seem to be pretty turned off.
Who are the young American liberal Jews (under age 35)? According to a 2007 poll, commissioned by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, 48 percent said Israel’s destruction would not be “a personal tragedy,” and only 54 percent felt “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.”
And although the destruction of Israel, with all the chilling horror that entails, would not break their collective hearts, Beinart notes that the alienated young Jews are getting involved with Israel, in their way. In 2008, writes Beinart, the student senate at Brandeis, the nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university, “rejected a resolution commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Jewish state.” He doesn’t add, but could have, that this past month there was a major effort by some young liberal Jews at Brandeis, unsuccessful, at Brandeis to rescind an invitation to Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren to speak at graduation.
According to Beinart, “fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. … 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.”
The reason? “Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled.”
So it’s not the anti-Israel Jews at Brandeis who exhibit “naked hostility,” it’s the Orthodox.
Beinart indicts Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for what Beinart calls “pre-expulsion” anti-Arab policies that Lieberman never implemented. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whose “own record is in its way even more extreme.” The proof? In 1993, Netanyahu wrote a book in which he rejected the idea of a Palestinian state. That Netanyahu in 2010 announced that he accepts the idea of a Palestinian state is just lip service to Beinart.
After all, writes Beinart in The Daily Beast online journal, Netanyahu didn’t just accept the idea of a Palestinian state but added what Beinart calls such “poison pills” as asking that the Palestinians must “not merely recognize Israel but recognize it as a Jewish state.”
It is thoroughly Orwellian for Beinart to call himself a pro-Israel Zionist while categorizing the most basic Zionist request —recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — as a poisonous sabotage of peace.
Nevertheless, Beinart believes that the Jewish lobby needs people like Beinart to protect Israel from itself. Israel’s democratic values must be protected, he writes, but if that democracy elects Netanyahu, well, American liberals need not support democracy’s choice because young American liberals know better.
To Beinart, the job of the pro-Israel lobby is not to lobby for Israel but to set Israel straight.
Jonathan Chait, in The New Republic, writes, “disturbingly, Peter adopts the habit, associated with Israel’s most strident critics, of portraying any response to Israel’s critics, as an act of coercion rather than an expression of disagreement… It’s true that American Jewish groups have fiercely attacked [some critics but] if this is an attempt to ‘prevent criticism,’ then Peter’s essay is an attempt to prevent support of Israel.”
Writing in Foreign Policy (May 25), James Kirchick makes the point that “Beinart bemoans the excesses of the Israeli right but ignores that the Arab and Muslim states have continuously produced political leaders near-uniformly characterized by authoritarianism, fascism, anti-Semitism, or some combination of the three… Beinart portrays Israelis as the sole drivers of history, with the Arabs relegated to the role of passive, background characters.”
Liberal Zionists, according to Beinart, “see average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders.” Kirchik points out that the “Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran are not discussed in the 5,000-word piece until four paragraphs from the end.” And, Kirchik adds, Beinart makes “no mention of the murderous anti-Semitism spewed in Palestinian schools, television, radio, and newspapers,” or the 77 percent of Palestinians who reject a two-state solution, according to a poll by the An-Najah National University in the West Bank. That poll was last month, not Netanyahu in 1993.
As Leon Wieseltier writes in The New Republic, “liberal Zionism must be as much Zionism as liberalism, and I do not see that the depredations of the settlers and their political sponsors relieve one of the obligation to include Palestinian behavior prominently among the causes of the conflict…. Does he really think that the paltry affiliations of young Jews in America are adequately explained by the alienating effects of Avigdor Lieberman and [a former cabinet member] Effi Eitam?”
Beinart emphasizes that young non-Orthodox Jews feel much less attached to Israel than do their Orthodox peers but hardly explains why.
In fact, liberal Jews, even educated Reform Jews, have been estranged from Zionism for the better part of modern Zionist history. In 1885, the Reform movement’s Pittsburgh Platform rejected a “return to Palestine.” In 1937, several years into the Nazi era, when Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis somewhat accepted the idea of a “Jewish homeland,” it emphasized that universalism, not a Jewish state, remained “our messianic goal.”
Are today’s “illegal” settlements an impediment to liberal Zionism? As late as 1939, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the great Reform liberal, was still condemning the ramshackle ships of Jewish refugees trying to illegally evade the British quotas for the pre-state Yishuv.
Was the 1950s a golden age for liberals and Zionism? In 1958, CBS newsman Mike Wallace opened an interview with Abba Eban, then-ambassador to the United States, by asking Eban to respond to “the charge that Israel threatens world peace with a policy of territorial expansion.”
Wallace presented Eban with a quote from historian Arnold Toynbee: “‘the evil deeds committed by the Zionist Jews against the Arabs are comparable to crimes committed against the Jews by the Nazis.’ How do you feel about that?”
Wallace added during the program, “Well, as a member of the Judaic faith, which cherishes social justice and morality, do you believe that any country should profit territorially from violence?”
Even when Israeli leaders acted exactly in a way that American liberal Jews would approve — three Israeli prime ministers winning the Nobel Peace Prize — polls did not show any reversal to the upward trends in assimilation, intermarriage, Jewish illiteracy and Zionist indifference.
The trouble with the debate is that Israel, to too many American Jews, is only as good as its government. This would be like saying that America is only as good as our presidents, who can be polarizing, too.
But those who love America know that we’re more than our politics, we’re the Grand Canyon at sundown, a beer in Wrigley’s upper deck, the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, and the Ryman Auditorium. Too many Jews don’t know Israel in a similar way.
While young Americans Jews are having their say, tonight there are young Israeli Jews sleeping in tanks near the border or studying air routes over Iran.
One Jew’s bully is another Jew’s freedom fighter.
For more on this subject, go to Jonathan Mark’s Route 17 blog on The Jewish Week website.
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