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Liberal Zionism’s Champion

Liberal Zionism’s Champion

From inside the Orthodox fold, Peter Beinart is honing his critique about why young Jews are ditching Israel.

In America, the lines of debate on Israel are starkly drawn; respected intellectuals cross them at their peril. You need only look at the reputations of the late Tony Judt or Alan Dershowitz — accomplished scholars in their respective fields — whose outspoken views on Israel have become caricatures for either side of the debate: Judt, the anti-Zionist; Dershowitz, the pro-Israel hawk.

The same type of thing might have happened to Peter Beinart.

An admired author and former editor of The New Republic, Beinart published a devastating critique of American Jewish leaders earlier this spring, arguing that they were not critical enough of certain Israel policies. Their blind support for Israel turned younger Jews away from Zionism, he argued, since younger Jews’ liberal values often appeared at odds with Israel’s.

“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” Beinart wrote in The New York Review of Books, “and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

The essay sparked a long and heated debate, with ripostes coming from liberals and conservatives alike. But perhaps the most surprising thing about it was that Beinart emerged relatively unscathed. He was neither lionized by the left nor demonized by the right. The debate was, to put it simply, impassioned but civil.

Plus, Beinart got a book contract.

In an interview last week at a kosher hummus restaurant in Midtown, Beinart talked at length about the essay, the debate it inspired, and the forthcoming book, which he hopes to finish this summer. He will discuss it further on Tuesday night (Nov. 30) at the 92nd Street Y, in a panel discussion titled “Has the American Jewish Establishment Failed Young Jews?”

“For all its flaws, Israel is a remarkable accomplishment,” he said. “But in reality, it is not a democracy outside of the ’67 borders.” He is passionate about returning Israel to its liberal democratic roots, as well as building a viable Palestinian state alongside it. But he said: “I don’t think people in the establishment realize how many young Jews are questioning Zionism these days.”

In his essay, Beinart relied on recent surveys showing that college-age Jews are far less connected to Israel than older Jews. Critics have cited countervailing data showing that young Jews have historically felt less attached to Israel regardless of what’s going on there, and that they become more engaged as they age. But Beinart said that it was much more than data that compelled him to write the essay.

Foremost were his kids, he said. He has a 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, both of whom moved with him and his wife to New York this summer. Both go to Jewish schools: his daughter to a Chabad-run daycare, his son to the Heschel School. And he does not want them to feel any tension between supporting Israel and being committed to human decency, democracy and liberal values generally — in other words, the exact tension he feels himself.

“I had to engage with it more because of them,” he said, adding: “For a long time, I think there was this epidemic [among American Jewish liberals] of not watching what Israel was doing during the Bush years. I felt I needed to confront the reality of the occupation head on.”

Moreover, he felt that American Jewish organizations made contemporary Israel look rosier than it was. “It’s a Disney-fied Zionism” they promote, he said. “And I really believe that Disney-fied Zionism doesn’t work. … [American Jewish youth] are too smart, too shrewd for that. They have access to too much information.”

Critics have offered plenty of rebukes. Liberals have said that liberal Zionists have ceded too much ground to conservative notions already, like that idea that Israel is in grave danger of annihilation.

Daniel Luban, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, who wrote an incisive critique of Beinart’s essay in the online magazine Tablet, said in an interview over e-mail: “I have no objection to denouncing bigotry or human rights violations by Israel’s Arab or Muslim antagonists — in fact, I think it’s important that we avoid idealizing or romanticizing them. But I do think that the constant tendency of many liberals to offer ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ criticisms … shows a basic lack of perspective.”

Conservatives have also been unsparing in their critique. Steven J. Rosen, a former AIPAC lobbyist who will be on the 92nd Street Y panel, said that it was not the role of American Jewish groups to criticize Israel. “We believe that the people who should make the decisions in Israel are the people of Israel. And whatever policy they take, we should support.”

He added that AIPAC supported Israel’s liberal government during the 1990s peace process, and that just as Beinart believes the occupation disregards Palestinian lives, plenty of conservatives believe giving Palestinians a state would endanger Jewish lives. On this point, “the mainstream doesn’t agree with the right either,” Rosen said.

Beinart moved to the Upper West Side in August, after living in Washington, D.C., for seven years, while he was the editor of The New Republic. Despite the magazine’s liberalism on most issues, it was one of only a few liberal journals to initially support the Iraq war — though on liberal principles, like the belief in democracy and ending a brutal regime’s rule.

But its views on Israel were decidedly more conservative, especially under the ownership of Martin Peretz, a fierce Israel defender who retains the title of editor-in-chief.

When asked if Beinart felt he could not express his own views on Israel at the magazine, he said: “I don’t think it was the best way for me to add value there. I was also more ambivalent about my own views on Israel, although The New Republic is not monolithic on Israel.” Still, he added: “The magazine has a long history with Israel and Marty Peretz does have a strong influence.”

Beinart spent the last few years after he left the magazine, in 2006, writing his new book, “The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris,” which reads like a mea culpa of his former support for the Iraq war. His wife, Diana Hartstein Beinart, gave up her job in the Obama administration vetting judicial nominees this summer when Beinart took a job at the CUNY Graduate Center, teaching in the journalism and political science departments.

These days, Beinart mostly teaches, writes his weekly Daily Beast column or thinks about his Zionism book. “It’s going a little more slowly than I’d like,” he said, noting that he expects it to be published in early 2012. But he does have the basic outline and at least one chapter complete.

The original essay was actually intended for The New York Times Magazine, but when he turned in a draft, the editors told him they wanted it to be more of a first-person narrative than an argument-driven essay. “I didn’t think my own story was that interesting,” he said, so before he began rewriting it, he sent it to an editor at The New York Review of Books.

The New York Review has been a leading forum for liberal views on Israel, not only publishing Judt’s controversial essay arguing for a bi-national state, but also many of Israel’s leading liberal writers in favor of a two-state plan, like Amos Elon, David Grossman, and Avishai Margalit. Beinart fits in the latter camp.

The intense response the essay provoked caught Beinart somewhat off-guard. He said the original piece was supposed to be the first in a series, but the intense reaction it provoked changed that. “I thought it would get some attention,” he said, “but keep in mind that after it came out, the Gaza flotilla event happened. And that helped.”

In any case, the reaction inspired him to write a series of follow-ups. But with his agent’s encouragement, he decided to turn it into a book instead. By the end of the summer he had a contract with Times Books, an imprint of The New York Times Company. There is no title yet, but Beinart says it will basically expand on the essay’s central conceit: the American Jewish leadership’s failure to support liberal democracy in Israel, “and the consequences for the younger generation.”

Beinart did some reporting while on a brief visit to Israel this summer. But the majority of the chapters will be on problems he sees in the United States: the Jewish establishment’s focus on anti-Semitism, the Obama administration’s approach to the peace process, and, more personally, the increasing role played by Orthodox Jews.

“I have enormous respect for the Modern Orthodox community,” he said, noting especially its commitment to both a rigorous secular and religion education. “But there are disturbing elements with regard to liberal values.”

Beinart, 39, says he is not Orthodox but was raised by traditional Jewish South Africans who moved to Massachusetts shortly before he was born. His father, an architecture professor at M.I.T., had a business partner in Israel, who Beinart often visited in his youth, continuing to do so now.

But it was his maternal grandmother, a Sephardic Jew, that sparked his connection to Judaism, he said. Like her, he keeps a kosher home, does weekly Shabbat dinners and goes regularly to Saturday morning services with his family. They have not officially joined a Manhattan synagogue yet (“we’re still shopping”), but most of the ones they visit are Orthodox.

“He was a very active member of this synagogue,” said Barry Freundel, the rabbi at Kesher Israel in Washington, a Modern Orthodox synagogue Beinart attended for years (and Sen. Joe Lieberman still does). Rabbi Freundel said there was no ill feeling after Beinart published his essay, and that the synagogue even hosted a panel with Beinart and Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s political affairs director, to discuss it.

Still, the rabbi added: “I don’t think many [Orthodox Jews] share Peter’s political views.” While he said he certainly could not speak for all Orthodox Jews, he said they probably did not see the Israeli occupation as fundamentally wrong. Orthodox Jews “may not like it, but they do not see it as morally repugnant,” he said. As for pressing for a peace process, he said, “What they will say is that they can’t find a partner for peace.”

Beinart’s personal affinity for Orthodox Judaism makes him a seemingly odd critic of its politics. But he says he sees no other choice. His children will be at least partially educated in a Modern Orthodox environment, and the prospect of them having to choose between what he sees as blind support for Israel on the one hand, or liberal values on the other, worries him deeply.

As he put it over lunch last week, “That’s what keeps me up at night, that my son and daughter will be forced to choose between the two.”

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