Responding to Beinart II


The debate rages on over Peter Beinart’s essay blaming the Israeli government and U.S. Jewish groups for the increasing alienation that many American Jews are feeling toward Israel.

Over at the Forward, editor Jane Eisner describes the essay as "thoughtful" and spot-on in identifying an alarming trend. But she says there is plenty of blame to go around:

Beinart’s essay is alarmist to a fault, and, in our opinion, doesn’t take into account the responsibility that Palestinians and the entire Arab world bear in further isolating Israel and sometimes leaving it no choice but to, say, build a security barrier to protect its citizens. His central thesis, though, seems sadly true: “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.”

But the task of reconciling this tension between love for Israel and attachment to traditional liberal values such as human rights, religious pluralism, equal citizenship and territorial compromise has not been abandoned. It is being fully explored on our pages and in our blogs, in works by J.J. Goldberg, Leonard Fein, Yossi Alpher, Jay Michaelson and many others. More broadly, the wish to resolve the tension has fueled political movements such as J Street, and myriad efforts on the religious and cultural scene, here and in Israel, to express those liberal values in non-traditional venues and idioms.

If young American Jews are disengaging from Israel — or connecting to it from a more politically right-wing, religiously Orthodox perspective — the fault lies not only with AIPAC and other organizations that too often confuse dissent with disloyalty. Responsibility also lies with a more potent establishment: the parents, schools and synagogues who should be teaching the next generation to speak Hebrew, practice ritual, grapple with Jewish text and access a tradition built on dialogue and debate.

To be a fully realized 21st century Jew, one must engage with Israel in some fashion. But too many families and communities have failed to provide the tools to do that in a meaningful way, substituting easy rhetoric for the hard task of real commitment. Young people see through that sleight-of-hand and either search for a more authentic version of Judaism in the growing attraction to Orthodoxy, or merely shrug and walk away.

The New York Jewish Week and the Orthodox Union offered similar-sounding responses, each going out of the way to praise Beinart and his essay for kicking off an important discussion, but finding much to disagree with in his essay.

The Jewish Week:

… Tolerance for dissent is well and good, but it’s hard to see how pro-Israel groups can be effective in their most important mission — defending Israel and promoting strong U.S.-Israel relations — while also serving as forums for debate over Israeli policy. That is especially true in 21st-century America, where ferociously focused lobbying, not nuanced debate, is what drives public policy.

In addition, Beinart seems to ignore the impact years of terrorism and Arab rejectionism had on a Jewish leadership that saw so many peace moves met with suicide bombers, not a willingness to negotiate.

Beinart worries about the increasingly Orthodox cast of American Zionism. But that shift reflects a hard reality: drift from commitment is not a factor in that community, as it is in so many other parts of the Jewish world.

But it is also true that “liberal Zionism,” as Beinart puts it, is a proud tradition among American Jewry, and care must be taken not to write it outside the pro-Israel mainstream as Israel and its supporters face difficult new challenges. In our zeal to defend an embattled Jewish state, it is too easy to forget that Zionism has been a diverse, contentious movement from the beginning, and that active debate has always been part of its strength.

And there is little doubt the “Israel can do no wrong” approach of so many Jewish groups is profoundly unappealing to many progressive Zionists, especially among the young, who must also be made to feel part of a vital, vibrant pro-Israel movement.

There is much we reject in Beinart’s biting analysis, but he raises issues we cannot afford to ignore.

The O.U.’s Washington office:

Peter seems to think that any resentment among Jews (Orthodox, establishment or otherwise) toward Arabs is nothing other than invidious racism. It is reasonable however to suggest that among those most passionate about and most closely connected to Israel, resentment toward Arabs stems from the same factors that make many Israelis resent those who have demeaned the Jewish connection to the land and waged wars — of terror and others — against it incessantly. The best antidote to all that, in Israel and among American Jews — liberal, Orthodox or other — is Arabs acting more like Ghandi and less like Che Guevera.

There will surely be much more to discuss here.

Kudos to Peter Beinart for getting it going.

Unlike the above troika, James Kirchik appears to find no value in Beinart’s essay, claiming its based on a faulty study, simplistic take on the Israeli political scene and major blind spots relating to Israeli peace efforts and Arab intransigence:

Like his latter-day opposition to the Iraq war, Beinart is late to joining the anti-"Jewish establishment" bandwagon. But for all his hand-wringing about the rightward turn in Israeli politics, he offers few suggestions as to how American Jews can alleviate the situation other than the pious instruction that they demonstrate concern "by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes." He concludes his essay by quoting approvingly the words of former Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg — a man who has compared Israel to pre-Nazi Germany, suggested revoking the law of return (which allows diaspora Jews to become Israeli citizens), and called upon all Israelis to obtain foreign passports. If this is what Beinart means by "talking frankly" about Israel, one wishes he were as vigilant about those seeking to destroy it.

In case you missed it Monday, check out our first round-up.

Recommended from JTA