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Peter Beinart on the Failure of American Jewish Organizations

Peter Beinart on the Failure of American Jewish Organizations

Before heading to bed last night, I logged onto the New York Review of Books Web site. On the front-page was a powerful article by former New Republic editor Peter Beinart that lambasts American Jewish organizations — AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, and so on — for letting their steadfast support for Israel trump the liberal ethos that informs broader American Jewish identity. I was sure this would cause a storm.

And, lo, I awoke today to an internet frenzy: a friend sent the article to me over email, a Google search pulled up a bevy of chatter. A lively public debate seemed to brewing–and I am happy for it.

I hope it gets the attention it deserves, since Beinart’s article is, in my view, a much needed call for a re-invigorated liberal Zionism. But already I fear what will happen: the piece will be discredited before it is even read. Not only because of its basic argument, but because it’s appearing in the New York Review of Books.

The Review has sadly been branded as anti-Zionist–which is not at all true. While it is staunchly liberal and did publish Tony Judt’s much discussed critique on Zionism, it’s worth pointing out that it has never categorically opposed Israel nor the fundamental right for a Jewish state. What it has been against is the failure of many Israel supporters to honestly criticize Israel’s policies, and even the integrity of its democracy. It has done so out of the liberal belief that Israel was founded as a democracy and should live up to the principles of one. And it has published numerous essays, by Israelis and Arabs alike, and often co-written together, that place a two-state solution at the center of any reasonable solution.

Beinart’s essay fits in line with this view. But what’s distinct about it is the way he exposes the disingenousness of the American Jewish leadership’s general stance toward Israel. AIPAC, he points out, "would never say, as do some in Netanyahu’s coalition, that Israeli Arabs don’t deserve full citizenship and West Bank Palestinians don’t deserve human rights. But in practice, by defending virtually anything any Israeli government does, they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire."

His point is not that Israel is a failure–but that Jews who refuse to recognize its flaws and work toward improving it are, instead, failing Israel. Nor is Beinart naive. He acknowledges the biases of many human rights groups, but he is adamantly opposed to Israel supporters who want to throw out the baby with the bath water. If human rights groups’ sometimes express a bias towards Israel, they should be called out for it, no question. But their underlying mission never should be. Human rights are not only universal values–which is reason enough to support them–but Jewish ones too. Those who "check their liberalism at Zionism’s door," as Beinart writes, do a grave disservice to what it means to be Jewish today.

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