Monday, May 17, 2010

Peter Beinert's shock therapy for American Jewry

Sometimes an article on a fraught subject, rather than stepping on a proverbial third rail, leaps onto that rail with both feet and so avoids the fatal shock.

Such may be the case with Peter Beinert's The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, which documents the growing divide between liberalism and Zionism among (and within) American Jews, and the failure of  American Jewish leadership to grapple with with that divide.

That leadership is known, Beinert asserts, to "patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace." Presumably he will be fiercely "scolded."  Yet I suspect that this is one piece of criticism that, rather than simply provoking furious denunciation, will lead to some real soul-searching, and perhaps to less poisonous dialogue between Israel's unconditional defenders and its critics within American Jewry.

Beinert's core argument is simple: unconditional support for Israel's every action undermines the core liberal values held by most American Jews, and so undermines young American Jews' attachment to Israel.
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is 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.
Beinert then argues that Israeli society is growing more repressive, citing Netanyahu ally Effi Eitam's support of ethnic cleansing; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's attempts to suppress Arab Israeli dissent; Shas' pressure for unfettered settlement expansion; willingness among the population at large, expressed in polls, to deny citizens' rights to Israeli Arabs; and Netanyahu's own expansive views of Israeli territorial rights as expressed in a 1993 book.

I do think that Beinert overemphasizes the repressive and aggressive elements in Israeli society. He warns that "in Israel today, this humane, universalistic Zionism does not wield power. To the contrary, it is gasping for air"  -- but does not mention that the air has been cut off in large part by Palestinian intransigence, a kind of negative behavior mod that punished Israel for every risk, outreach and withdrawal from territory. Palestinian failure to deal with Barak brought Netanyahu I; failure to deal with Olmert brought Netanyahu II. Indeed, Netanyahu himself is not explained fully -- and there is still room to hope, not primarily or ultimately -- by either his 1993 frothings or by the least savory ministers in his coalition. Arguably he has done more to improve Palestinians' lives and to arrest settlement growth than any of his predecessors.  Hopes of a Netanyahu 2.0 are not entirely ungrounded.

But the one-sidedness of Beinart's characterization of Israel does not negate his argument. His purpose is to warn; his argument is not that Israel is wholly given over to repression and oppression but that it is trending the wrong way, and that the American Jewish establishment is enabling its worst tendencies and so alienating young American Jews.  The most damning evidence he cites is in the attitudes of the young, in Israel and in the U.S.  In a poll this March (noted on xpostfactoid here), 56% of Israeli high school students said that Israeli Arabs should be denied the right to be elected to the Knesset. In the U.S. pollster Frank Luntz, working for Jewish philanthropists, found that American Jewish college students did not identify closely with Israel and were highly critical of its actions. Beinert warns in effect that, the Israeli left is losing the country's youth, and non-Orthodox American Zionists are losing American Jewish youth. 

In short, Beinert's is a family argument. He acknowledges in passing that Israelis debate and denounce current policies far more openly than do American Jews; that the vilified human rights organizations are "not infallible" (and by implication, may be biased against Israel); that Palestinians "have been ill-served by their leaders"; and that "Israel—like the United States—must sometimes take morally difficult actions in its own defense."  The point is not that there are not good reasons for some of those actions, or that Israeli society has grown irredeemably repressive, or that American Jews should not feel and act on a deep attachment to Israel. Quite the opposite.  Beinert is arguing that nonorthodox American Jewry can only maintain that attachment in the next generation by supporting -- and leading -- efforts to hold Israel to high standards of human rights, democracy, and pursuit of the peace without which those standards will be destroyed.

UPDATE: Jonathan Chait argues that Beinert exaggerates the cause-and-effect relationship between older American Jews' uncritical acceptance of Israeli government action and younger U.S. Jews' disaffection:
I suspect that young Jews’ indifference toward Israel is overwhelmingly a function of their weakening ties to Judaism itself. Peter argues for such reforms as bringing pro-peace Israeli students to campus. I suspect that such things, or even a dramatically more liberal turn by the American Jewish establishment, would have little effect on the opinion of young Jews.

That rings at least partly true -- unless you assume that less critical acceptance from the American Jewish establishment could significantly moderate Israeli settlement activity or might have restrained military action in Lebanon and/or Gaza.  But Chait's point  doesn't negate Beinert's central one  -- that "for several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door," and that this abdication has had ill (if marginal) effects both on Israeli policy and on young American Jews' attitudes toward Israel.

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