[THS] The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment
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Tue Jul 13 14:20:09 CEST 2010
NY Review of Books
The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment
June 10, 2010
by Peter Beinart
Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs
In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank
Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously
rebutting campus criticism of Israel. In response, he unwittingly produced the most
damning indictment of the organized American Jewish community that I have ever
The philanthropists wanted to know what Jewish students thought about Israel. Luntz
found that they mostly didnt. Six times we have brought Jewish youth together as a
group to talk about their Jewishness and connection to Israel, he reported. Six
times the topic of Israel did not come up until it was prompted. Six times these
Jewish youth used the word they rather than us to describe the situation.
That Luntz encountered indifference was not surprising. In recent years, several
studies have revealed, in the words of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari
Kelman of the University of California at Davis, that non-Orthodox younger Jews, on
the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders, with many professing
a near-total absence of positive feelings. In 2008, the student senate at Brandeis,
the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in America, rejected a resolution
commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Jewish state.
Luntzs task was to figure out what had gone wrong. When he probed the students
views of Israel, he hit up against some firm beliefs. First, they reserve the right to
question the Israeli position. These young Jews, Luntz explained, resist anything
they see as group think. They want an open and frank discussion of Israel and its
flaws. Second, young Jews desperately want peace. When Luntz showed them a
series of ads, one of the most popular was entitled Proof that Israel Wants Peace,
and listed offers by various Israeli governments to withdraw from conquered land.
Third, some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians. When Luntz displayed
ads depicting Palestinians as violent and hateful, several focus group participants
criticized them as stereotypical and unfair, citing their own Muslim friends.
Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had
imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in
open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And
in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values
when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism
that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they
were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs.
Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the
kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of
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
fosterindeed, have actively opposeda Zionism that challenges Israels 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
Zionisms door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews
have checked their Zionism instead.
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. Saving
liberal Zionism in the United Statesso that American Jews can help save liberal
Zionism in Israelis the great American Jewish challenge of our age. And it starts
where Luntzs students wanted it to start: by talking frankly about Israels current
government, by no longer averting our eyes.
Since the 1990s, journalists and scholars have been describing a bifurcation in Israeli
society. In the words of Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, After
decades of what came to be called a national consensus, the Zionist narrative of
liberation [has] dissolved into openly contesting versions. One version, founded on
a long memory of persecution, genocide, and a bitter struggle for survival, is
pessimistic, distrustful of non-Jews, and believing only in Jewish power and
solidarity. Another, nourished by secularized versions of messianism as well as the
Enlightenment idea of progress, articulates a deep sense of the limits of military
force, and a commitment to liberal-democratic values. Every country manifests some
kind of ideological divide. But in contemporary Israel, the gulf is among the widest on
As Ezrahi and others have noted, this latter, liberal-democratic Zionism has grown
alongside a new individualism, particularly among secular Israelis, a greater demand
for free expression, and a greater skepticism of coercive authority. You can see this
spirit in new historians like Tom Segev who have fearlessly excavated the darker
corners of the Zionist past and in jurists like former Supreme Court President Aharon
Barak who have overturned Knesset laws that violate the human rights guarantees in
Israels Basic Laws. You can also see it in former Prime Minister Ehud Baraks
apparent willingness to relinquish much of the West Bank in 2000 and early 2001.
But in Israel today, this humane, universalistic Zionism does not wield power. To the
contrary, it is gasping for air. To understand how deeply antithetical its values are to
those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus government, its worth considering the
case of Effi Eitam. Eitam, a charismatic excabinet minister and war hero, has
proposed ethnically cleansing Palestinians from the West Bank. Well have to expel
the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs
from [the] political system, he declared in 2006. In 2008, Eitam merged his small Ahi
Party into Netanyahus Likud. And for the 20092010 academic year, he is
Netanyahus special emissary for overseas campus engagement. In that capacity,
he visited a dozen American high schools and colleges last fall on the Israeli
governments behalf. The group that organized his tour was called Caravan for
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman once shared Eitams views. In his youth,
he briefly joined Meir Kahanes now banned Kach Party, which also advocated the
expulsion of Arabs from Israeli soil. Now Liebermans position might be called pre-
expulsion. He wants to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs who wont swear a
loyalty oath to the Jewish state. He tried to prevent two Arab parties that opposed
Israels 20082009 Gaza war from running candidates for the Knesset. He said Arab
Knesset members who met with representatives of Hamas should be executed. He
wants to jail Arabs who publicly mourn on Israeli Independence Day, and he hopes
to permanently deny citizenship to Arabs from other countries who marry Arab
citizens of Israel.
You dont have to be paranoid to see the connection between Liebermans current
views and his former ones. The more you strip Israeli Arabs of legal protection, and
the more you accuse them of treason, the more thinkable a policy of expulsion
becomes. Liebermans American defenders often note that in theory he supports a
Palestinian state. What they usually fail to mention is that for him, a two-state solution
means redrawing Israels border so that a large chunk of Israeli Arabs find
themselves exiled to another country, without their consent.
Lieberman served as chief of staff during Netanyahus first term as prime minister.
And when it comes to the West Bank, Netanyahus own record is in its way even
more extreme than his protégés. In his 1993 book, A Place among the Nations,
Netanyahu not only rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, he denies that there is
such a thing as a Palestinian. In fact, he repeatedly equates the Palestinian bid for
statehood with Nazism. An Israel that withdraws from the West Bank, he has
declared, would be a ghetto-state with Auschwitz borders. And the effort to
gouge Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] out of Israel resembles Hitlers bid to
wrench the German-speaking Sudeten district from Czechoslovakia in 1938. It is
unfair, Netanyahu insists, to ask Israel to concede more territory since it has already
made vast, gut-wrenching concessions. What kind of concessions? It has abandoned
its claim to Jordan, which by rights should be part of the Jewish state.
On the left of Netanyahus coalition sits Ehud Baraks emasculated Labor Party, but
whatever moderating potential it may have is counterbalanced by what is, in some
ways, the most illiberal coalition partner of all, Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party
representing Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent. At one point,
Shaslike some of its Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox counterpartswas open to
dismantling settlements. In recent years, however, ultra-Orthodox Israelis, anxious to
find housing for their large families, have increasingly moved to the West Bank,
where thanks to government subsidies it is far cheaper to live. Not coincidentally,
their political parties have swung hard against territorial compromise. And they have
done so with a virulence that reflects ultra-Orthodox Judaisms profound hostility to
liberal values. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shass immensely powerful spiritual leader, has
called Arabs vipers, snakes, and ants. In 2005, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
proposed dismantling settlements in the Gaza Strip, Yosef urged that God strike him
down. The official Shas newspaper recently called President Obama an Islamic
Hebrew University Professor Zeev Sternhell is an expert on fascism and a winner of
the prestigious Israel Prize. Commenting on Lieberman and the leaders of Shas in a
recent Op-Ed in Haaretz, he wrote, The last time politicians holding views similar to
theirs were in power in postWorld War II Western Europe was in Francos Spain.
With their blessing, a crude and multifaceted campaign is being waged against the
foundations of the democratic and liberal order. Sternhell should know. In
September 2008, he was injured when a settler set off a pipe bomb at his house.
Israeli governments come and go, but the Netanyahu coalition is the product of
frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society: an ultra-Orthodox population that is
increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more
entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant
community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism. In 2009, a poll by the Israel
Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis (and 77 percent of
recent immigrants from the former USSR) support encouraging Arabs to leave the
country. Attitudes are worst among Israels young. When Israeli high schools held
mock elections last year, Lieberman won. This March, a poll found that 56 percent of
Jewish Israeli high school studentsand more than 80 percent of religious Jewish
high school studentswould deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset.
An education ministry official called the survey a huge warning signal in light of the
strengthening trends of extremist views among the youth.
The writer David Grossman, right, protesting with Palestinians and Israelis against the
eviction of Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh
Jarrah, April 9, 2010
You might think that such trends, and the sympathy for them expressed by some in
Israels government, would occasion substantial public concerneven
outrageamong the leaders of organized American Jewry. You would be wrong. In
Israel itself, voices from the left, and even center, warn in increasingly urgent tones
about threats to Israeli democracy. (Former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud
Barak have both said that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state if it continues to
hold the West Bank. This April, when settlers forced a large Israeli bookstore to stop
selling a book critical of the occupation, Shulamit Aloni, former head of the dovish
Meretz Party, declared that Israel has not been democratic for some time now.) But
in the United States, groups like AIPAC and the Presidents Conference patrol public
discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all
leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace.
The result is a terrible irony. In theory, mainstream American Jewish organizations
still hew to a liberal vision of Zionism. On its website, AIPAC celebrates Israels
commitment to free speech and minority rights. The Conference of Presidents
declares that Israel and the United States share political, moral and intellectual
values including democracy, freedom, security and peace. These groups would
never say, as do some in Netanyahus coalition, that Israeli Arabs dont deserve full
citizenship and West Bank Palestinians dont 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.
After Israels elections last February, for instance, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-
chairman of the Presidents Conference, explained that Avigdor Liebermans agenda
was far more moderate than the media has presented it. Insisting that Lieberman
bears no general animus toward Israeli Arabs, Abraham Foxman, national director of
the Anti-Defamation League, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Hes not
saying expel them. Hes not saying punish them. (Permanently denying citizenship to
their Arab spouses or jailing them if they publicly mourn on Israeli Independence Day
evidently does not qualify as punishment.) The ADL has criticized anti-Arab bigotry in
the past, and the American Jewish Committee, to its credit, warned that Liebermans
proposed loyalty oath would chill Israels democratic political debate. But the
Forward summed up the overall response of Americas communal Jewish leadership
in its headline Jewish Leaders Largely Silent on Liebermans Role in Government.
Not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism
of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as
well. In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to
discredit the worlds most respected international human rights groups. In 2006,
Foxman called an Amnesty International report on Israeli killing of Lebanese civilians
bigoted, biased, and borderline anti-Semitic. The Conference of Presidents has
announced that biased NGOs include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch,
Christian Aid, [and] Save the Children. Last summer, an AIPAC spokesman declared
that Human Rights Watch has repeatedly demonstrated its anti-Israel bias. When
the Obama administration awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary
Robinson, former UN high commissioner for human rights, the ADL and AIPAC both
protested, citing the fact that she had presided over the 2001 World Conference
Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. (Early drafts of the conference report
implicitly accused Israel of racism. Robinson helped expunge that defamatory charge,
angering Syria and Iran.)
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not infallible. But when groups
like AIPAC and the Presidents Conference avoid virtually all public criticism of Israeli
actionsdirecting their outrage solely at Israels neighborsthey leave themselves in
a poor position to charge bias. Moreover, while American Jewish groups claim that
they are simply defending Israel from its foes, they are actually taking sides in a
struggle within Israel between radically different Zionist visions. At the very moment
the Anti-Defamation League claimed that Robinson harbored an animus toward
Israel, an alliance of seven Israeli human rights groups publicly congratulated her
on her award. Many of those groups, like BTselem, which monitors Israeli actions in
the Occupied Territories, and the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights, have
been at least as critical of Israels actions in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank as
have Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
All of which raises an uncomfortable question. If American Jewish groups claim that
Israels overseas human rights critics are motivated by anti- Israeli, if not anti-Semitic,
bias, what does that say about Israels domestic human rights critics? The implication
is clear: they must be guilty of self-hatred, if not treason. American Jewish leaders
dont generally say that, of course, but their allies in the Netanyahu government do.
Last summer, Israels vice prime minister, Moshe Yaalon, called the anti-occupation
group Peace Now a virus. This January, a right-wing group called Im Tirtzu
accused Israeli human rights organizations of having fed information to the Goldstone
Commission that investigated Israels Gaza war. A Knesset member from Netanyahus
Likud promptly charged Naomi Chazan, head of the New Israel Fund, which supports
some of those human rights groups, with treason, and a member of Liebermans
party launched an investigation aimed at curbing foreign funding of Israeli NGOs.
To their credit, Foxman and other American Jewish leaders opposed the move, which
might have impaired their own work. But they are reaping what they sowed. If you
suggest that mainstream human rights criticism of Israels government is motivated
by animus toward the state, or toward Jews in general, you give aid and comfort to
those in Israel who make the same charges against the human rights critics in their
In the American Jewish establishment today, the language of liberal Zionismwith its
idioms of human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromisehas been
drained of meaning. It remains the lingua franca in part for generational reasons,
because many older American Zionists still see themselves as liberals of a sort. They
vote Democratic; they are unmoved by biblical claims to the West Bank; they see
average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders; and they are secular.
They dont want Jewish organizations to criticize Israel from the left, but neither do
they want them to be agents of the Israeli right.
These American Zionists are largely the product of a particular era. Many were
shaped by the terrifying days leading up to the Six-Day War, when it appeared that
Israel might be overrun, and by the bitter aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when
much of the world seemed to turn against the Jewish state. In that crucible, Israel
became their Jewish identity, often in conjunction with the Holocaust, which the 1967
and 1973 wars helped make central to American Jewish life. These Jews embraced
Zionism before the settler movement became a major force in Israeli politics, before
the 1982 Lebanon war, before the first intifada. They fell in love with an Israel that
was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology
of occupation. And by downplaying the significance of Avigdor Lieberman, the
settlers, and Shas, American Jewish groups allow these older Zionists to continue to
identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth, an
Israel that now only exists in their memories.
But these secular Zionists arent reproducing themselves. Their children have no
memory of Arab armies massed on Israels border and of Israel surviving in part
thanks to urgent military assistance from the United States. Instead, they have grown
up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they
are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates
liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems
in peril. Because they have inherited their parents liberalism, they cannot embrace
their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the
liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.
To sustain their uncritical brand of Zionism, therefore, Americas Jewish organizations
will need to look elsewhere to replenish their ranks. They will need to find young
American Jews who have come of age during the West Bank occupation but are not
troubled by it. And those young American Jews will come disproportionately from the
Because they marry earlier, intermarry less, and have more children, Orthodox Jews
are growing rapidly as a share of the American Jewish population. According to a
2006 American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey, while Orthodox Jews make up only 12
percent of American Jewry over the age of sixty, they constitute 34 percent between
the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. For Americas Zionist organizations, these
Orthodox youngsters are a potential bonanza. In their yeshivas they learn devotion to
Israel from an early age; they generally spend a year of religious study there after
high school, and often know friends or relatives who have immigrated to Israel. The
same AJC study found that while only 16 percent of non-Orthodox adult Jews under
the age of forty feel very close to Israel, among the Orthodox the figure is 79
percent. As secular Jews drift away from Americas Zionist institutions, their Orthodox
counterparts will likely step into the breach. The Orthodox are still interested in
parochial Jewish concerns, explains Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at the City
University of New York. They are among the last ones who stayed in the Jewish
house, so they now control the lights.
But it is this very parochialisma deep commitment to Jewish concerns, which often
outweighs more universal onesthat gives Orthodox Jewish Zionism a distinctly
illiberal cast. The 2006 AJC poll found that while 60 percent of non-Orthodox
American Jews under the age of forty support a Palestinian state, that figure drops to
25 percent among the Orthodox. In 2009, when Brandeis Universitys Theodore
Sasson asked American Jewish focus groups about Israel, he found Orthodox
participants much less supportive of dismantling settlements as part of a peace deal.
Even more tellingly, Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews tended to believe
that average Palestinians wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders.
Orthodox Jews, by contrast, were more likely to see the Palestinian people as the
enemy, and to deny that ordinary Palestinians shared any common interests or values
with ordinary Israelis or Jews.
Orthodox Judaism has great virtues, including a communal warmth and a
commitment to Jewish learning unmatched in the American Jewish world. (Im
biased, since my family attends an Orthodox synagogue.) But if current trends
continue, the growing influence of Orthodox Jews in Americas Jewish communal
institutions will erode even the liberal-democratic veneer that today covers American
Zionism. In 2002, Americas major Jewish organizations sponsored a large Israel
solidarity rally on the Washington Mall. Up and down the east coast, yeshivas shut
down for the day, swelling the estimated Orthodox share of the crowd to close to 70
percent. When the then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the rally
that innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying as well, he was booed.
Palestinian boys standing on the rubble of buildings demolished by the Israeli army
near the Israeli settlement of Netzarim, Gaza Strip, July 2004. The settlement was the
last to be emptied as part of Ariel Sharons disengagement plan in August 2005.
Americas Jewish leaders should think hard about that rally. Unless they change
course, it portends the future: an American Zionist movement that does not even
feign concern for Palestinian dignity and a broader American Jewish population that
does not even feign concern for Israel. My own children, given their upbringing,
could as easily end up among the booers as among Luntzs focus group. Either
prospect fills me with dread.
In 2004, in an effort to prevent weapons smuggling from Egypt, Israeli tanks and
bulldozers demolished hundreds of houses in the Rafah refugee camp in the
southern Gaza Strip. Watching television, a veteran Israeli commentator and politician
named Tommy Lapid saw an elderly Palestinian woman crouched on all fours looking
for her medicines amid the ruins of her home. He said she reminded him of his
In that moment, Lapid captured the spirit that is suffocating within organized
American Jewish life. To begin with, he watched. In my experience, there is an
epidemic of not watching among American Zionists today. A Red Cross study on
malnutrition in the Gaza Strip, a bill in the Knesset to allow Jewish neighborhoods to
bar entry to Israeli Arabs, an Israeli human rights report on settlers burning
Palestinian olive groves, three more Palestinian teenagers shotits unpleasant.
Rationalizing and minimizing Palestinian suffering has become a kind of game. In a
more recent report on how to foster Zionism among Americas young, Luntz urges
American Jewish groups to use the word Arabs, not Palestinians, since the term
Palestinians evokes images of refugee camps, victims and oppression, while Arab
says wealth, oil and Islam.
Of course, Israellike the United Statesmust sometimes take morally difficult
actions in its own defense. But they are morally difficult only if you allow yourself
some human connection to the other side. Otherwise, security justifies everything.
The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents Conference should ask themselves what
Israels leaders would have to do or say to make them scream no. After all,
Lieberman is foreign minister; Effi Eitam is touring American universities; settlements
are growing at triple the rate of the Israeli population; half of Israeli Jewish high
school students want Arabs barred from the Knesset. If the line has not yet been
crossed, where is the line?
What infuriated critics about Lapids comment was that his grandmother died at
Auschwitz. How dare he defile the memory of the Holocaust? Of course, the
Holocaust is immeasurably worse than anything Israel has done or ever will do. But at
least Lapid used Jewish suffering to connect to the suffering of others. In the world
of AIPAC, the Holocaust analogies never stop, and their message is always the same:
Jews are licensed by their victimhood to worry only about themselves. Many of
Israels founders believed that with statehood, Jews would rightly be judged on the
way they treated the non-Jews living under their dominion. For the first time we
shall be the majority living with a minority, Knesset member Pinchas Lavon declared
in 1948, and we shall be called upon to provide an example and prove how Jews live
with a minority.
But the message of the American Jewish establishment and its allies in the Netanyahu
government is exactly the opposite: since Jews are historys permanent victims,
always on the knife-edge of extinction, moral responsibility is a luxury Israel does not
have. Its only responsibility is to survive. As former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg
writes in his remarkable 2008 book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its
Ashes, Victimhood sets you free.
This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among
Americas secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived
experience, or what they have seen of Israels. Yes, Israel faces threats from
Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But
the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons,
and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of
the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938.
The drama of Jewish victimhooda drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived
through 1938, 1948, or even 1967strikes most of todays young American Jews as
But there is a different Zionist calling, which has never been more desperately
relevant. It has its roots in Israels Independence Proclamation, which promised that
the Jewish state will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by
the Hebrew prophets, and in the December 1948 letter from Albert Einstein, Hannah
Arendt, and others to The New York Times, protesting right-wing Zionist leader
Menachem Begins visit to the United States after his partys militias massacred Arab
civilians in the village of Deir Yassin. It is a call to recognize that in a world in which
Jewish fortunes have radically changed, the best way to memorialize the history of
Jewish suffering is through the ethical use of Jewish power.
For several months now, a group of Israeli students has been traveling every Friday
to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where a Palestinian family
named the Ghawis lives on the street outside their home of fifty-three years, from
which they were evicted to make room for Jewish settlers. Although repeatedly
arrested for protesting without a permit, and called traitors and self-haters by the
Israeli right, the students keep coming, their numbers now swelling into the
thousands. What if American Jewish organizations brought these young people to
speak at Hillel? What if this was the face of Zionism shown to Americas Jewish
young? What if the students in Luntzs focus group had been told that their
generation faces a challenge as momentous as any in Jewish history: to save liberal
democracy in the only Jewish state on earth?
Too many years I lived in the warm embrace of institutionalized elusiveness and was
a part of it, writes Avraham Burg. I was very comfortable there. I know; I was
comfortable there too. But comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication. Lets
hope that Luntzs students, in solidarity with their counterparts at Sheikh Jarrah, can
foster an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and
in love with what it still could be. Lets hope they care enough to try.
May 12, 2010
Peter Beinart is Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City
University of New York, a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, and Senior
Political Writer for The Daily Beast. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of
American Hubris, will be published in June.?
'The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment': An Exchange June 24, 2010
To the Editors:
Peter Beinart offers a conveniently impressionistic view of the American Jewish community to frame his critique of Israeli policy trends [The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, NYR, June 10]. He should know better than to fall into the trap of generalizing about the Jewish state without giving proper context for what is going on.
He sees an Israel that is clearly moving to the right, that has less regard for the other, no matter who that may be, and that is unwilling to take seriously efforts toward peace. Beinart seems to be suffering from the same problems we have seen in the Obama administration, ignoring what Israel has gone through over the last decade and thereby misreading what Israelis are thinking today.
Israelis, to a large extent, and this is shared by many in the American Jewish community (another of Beinarts targets), feel frustrated that all their efforts toward changing the dynamic have been met with rejection and/or violence. Most Israelis understand that continuing to sit in the West Bank is not good for the country. So at Camp David in 2000 they tried a solution of ending the conflict, which included withdrawing from 90 percent of the territories and eliminating the majority of settlements. They got a big no and suicide bombs.
In 2005, they withdrew unilaterally from Gaza with the intent to do likewise in the West Bank because they saw no partner for peace. They got Hamas and rockets against their civilians. In 2008, with a different Palestinian interlocutor, they went back to a full and better offer for a Palestinian state and got nothing again. So after all that, is it surprising that the public in the last election said, nothing works, lets hold on until theres real change on the other side?
Theres no evidence, contrary to Beinart, that theres a fundamental change in Israel away from peace and away from concessions. What there is is a justified cynicism about the willingness of the other side to end the conflict and a confusion about what real options Israel has regarding its dilemma of how to withdraw and still have security.
The lesson that Beinart and the administration should draw from all this is not what kinds of pressures should be put on Israel to change the situation. Israel has taken initiatives and will be ready to do so again when the time is ripe.
The issue is what can be done with a divided Palestinian leadership and with at best a passive if not destructive Arab world, to bring about that long-awaited change in which the Palestinians fully accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state. That should be the goal so that when Israel once again moves toward a new initiative, for the first time there will be a Palestinian side, supported by the Arab states, ready to say yes, a yes that will finally change the lives of Israelis and Palestinians for the better.
Abraham H. Foxman
New York City
Peter Beinart replies:
Abraham Foxmans letter illustrates the problem my essay tries to describe: an American Jewish leadership that publicly defends the Israeli government, any Israeli government, rather than defending Israeli democracy, even when the former menaces the latter.
Obviously, as Foxman suggests, the Palestinians are not blameless. Yasser Arafat deserves historys scorn for not responding more courageously to the chances for peace at Camp David and the much better ones put forward by Clinton in December 2000. And the election of Hamas was a tragedy, for both Israel and the Palestinians. But to suggest that Palestinian and Arab behavior fully explains the growing authoritarian, even racist, tendencies in Israeli politics is to don a moral blindfold, a blindfold that most young American Jews, to their credit, will not wear.
Firstly, Palestinian rejectionism cannot explain Avigdor Liebermans crusade to humiliate, disenfranchise, and perhaps even eventually expel Arab Israelis, the vast majority of whom want nothing more than to be accepted as equal citizens in the country of their birth. Lieberman is not a marginal figure. He was Benjamin Netanyahus chief of staff; he heads Israels third-largest party; he serves as foreign minister; and when Israel held mock elections in ten high schools last year, he won.
Nor are his views marginal. In 2008, in a poll cited by Yediot Ahronot, 40 percent of Jewish Israelis did not believe that Arab Israelis should be allowed to vote. Among Jewish Israeli high school students surveyed this March, the figure was 56 percent. We cannot wish this away, and we cannot blame it all on Israels foes. When do American Jewish organizations plan to start forcefully opposing Lieberman and the forces he represents? When he becomes prime minister?
Secondly, Palestinian rejectionism does not explain Netanyahus deep-seated hostility to a Palestinian state. Foxman praises Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert for their willingness to concede such a state in East Jerusalem and almost all of the West Bank. (Olmerts was never a formal offer, and came when he was already a lame duck, but he deserves credit for it nonetheless.) But if Foxman genuinely supports those offers, why does he not criticize Netanyahus opposition to them? Netanyahu, after all, spent the Barak and Olmert years opposing a Palestinian state. And even last year, when under intense American pressure he verbally endorsed the concept, he simultaneously added two conditions that make a peace deal virtually impossible: that Jerusalem remain united under Israeli sovereignty and that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
In the real Israel, as opposed to the imaginary one that American Jewish leaders conjure, there is no consensus on a Palestinian state. There are Israelis who believe that such a state is a demographic and moral necessity. And there are Israelislike Lieberman, Effi Eitam, and the leaders of Shaswho are doing their best to make a Palestinian state impossible, for instance by ringing East Jerusalem with settlements. American Jewish leaders cannot profess solidarity with the first group while serving as intellectual bodyguards for the second.
There is a strange lack of Israeli agency in Foxmans story. It is true that Palestinian leaders in the West Bank are weak, and that this makes a peace settlement harder. But their weakness flows in part from their inability to stop settlement growth. (Even this year, despite Netanyahus freeze, his own transportation minister boasts that the construction momentum in Judea and Samaria is the same as when it was at its peak.) It is true that the Palestinians are divided. But when the Saudis brokered a national unity government in February 2007, Israel and the US did everything they could to torpedo it, including reportedly urging elements in Fatah to try (unsuccessfully) to seize power militarily in Gaza, thus overturning the election that Hamas won.
The ADL was founded to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all. What I have always admired about that statement is its suggestion that to truly defend Jewish dignity, one must also defend the dignity of other vulnerable groups. At home, the ADL still honors that mission, working valiantly, for instance, against racial profiling in Arizona. But how can an organization that is so vigilant in opposing bigotry in the US be so complacent about a government shaped by men like Lieberman, Effi Eitam, and Ovadia Yosef? How can it not take its rightful place in the struggle on behalf of Palestinians evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah?
When it comes to Israel, the ADL too often ignores the interconnectedness of Jewish and non-Jewish dignity. After all, the same sort of settler fanatics who burn Palestinian olive groves also assassinated an Israeli prime minister. The same ultra-Orthodox hooligans who burn Christian holy books also attack Jewish women trying to pray at the Western Wall. And the same Israeli government that demonizes Israeli Arabs also demonizes Israeli human rights groups. To be for ourselves, we must also be for others. I hope the ADL will live that ethic again.
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