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Bashing AIPAC, Peter Beinart Takes On Unswerving Zionist Zeal

3 years ago
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There was a time when to be young, Jewish and affiliated in the United States was also to be unequivocally, passionately, unapologetically Zionist. A zeal for the State of Israel went hand in hand with Jewish identity in the post-war era -- especially the post-Six Day War era.

Israel was David and the Arab world was Goliath and only by the grace of God and our donations of money and military assistance did Israel continue as a sheltering home, an ingathering of the exiles, a place, finally, for the Jews of the world to cease their wandering and find a home. Even those of us born in the 1970s grew up in houses where Israel was the shining beacon on the hill. We had family in Israel, we aspired to volunteer, work, study or even live in Israel. We felt protecting Israel was akin to protecting our family; that Israel was a part of us.

That time has passed, argues Peter Beinart (New America Fellow, CUNY professor, former editor of the New Republic and, full disclosure, a longtime friend and colleague from my own days at the New Republic) in a provocative new essay published Monday in the New York Review of Books. Increasingly, young and liberal Jewish Americans, Beinart writes, are echoing murmurs that have been rising for years from college campuses across the country and abandoning their parents' fealty to the Holy Land.

Beinart's piece pins the blame for this shift on the mainstream Jewish organizations that insist on Israel's blamelessness even while the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has corroded the core of Israel's democracy. Young liberal Jews, he writes, are increasingly not finding a place for themselves in unswerving Zionism.

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.

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 States -- so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel -- is the great American Jewish challenge of our age. And it starts . . . by talking frankly about Israel's current government, by no longer averting our eyes.

Beinart, many will remember, was for the war in Iraq before he was against it, and helmed the New Republic while it took some aggressively, and sometimes unpopular, pro-Israel (and other) positions (the magazine endorsed Joe Lieberman for president, for one).

At least partly as a result of those hawkish years, the NYRB piece is written with the zeal of a convert, a recitation of events known to many who call themselves liberals, who still love Israel but have long struggled with the compromises the state has made, and the threats to the democracy that have come from suppressing Arab rights both within the state and in the occupied territories. Beinart lists toe-curlingly worrisome Israeli actions -- the members of Knesset who have called for expelling Arabs, the percentage of high school students who would deny the rights of Arabs to be elected to Knesset, and more.

Indeed, as worried as he is about Orthodox hegemony in Israel and the influence it has on American Jews, he might have added one more piece to his puzzle: undermining rights of the Arab minority and privileging the Orthodox in the State of Israel doesn't merely compromise the rights of outsiders. It has created an environment ripe for Jew-on-Jew violence as well. Religious pluralism has suffered, secularity has suffered; the rights of women and of gay men and lesbians -- in the only state in the Middle East where such things should be a given -- falter when theocrats dominate.

Beinart's piece and his harsh recriminations of the influence of the Orthodox in Israel and America reminded me of the day after the Labor Party's Ehud Barak was elected prime minister in 1999. I was walking in Machane Yehuda, the large, open-air food market in Jerusalem, with a male friend with a shaved head and wearing a tight black T-shirt and dark-green square glasses – in other words, and artsy Tel Aviv type. We were feeling good about Labor winning the election and the prospects for peace, when a young haredi (ultra-Orthodox) man ran up and punched him in the chest. "Shva-esrei shas!" he hissed. "17 -- Shas" -- Shas, the ultra-orthodox Sephardi Party had won 17 seats in Knesset. The message was: Your man may be prime minister, but we will wield influence. Indeed, it is Shas that has remained in power, in a coalition government, and Labor that has fallen on hard times.

In a conversation Monday morning, Beinart called the vision of Israel promoted by AIPAC an "Epcot" Israel that masks the divisions and flaws of the state -- but also shields young Americans from their "inspiring" counterparts in Israel who are challenging the status quo.

"Groups like AIPAC say 'Israel is a democracy' as a way of saying 'therefore, it should be exempt from criticism,' " said Beinart. "What is at stake is democracy. Yes, Israel is a democracy, but there are powerful elements that don't have democratic values. The divide is between people who look at the West Bank and see the land and those who see the people on the land. If you see only land, it erases the humanity of those who live on the land. Then all kinds of ugly things become possible. If you see human beings, that roots you in a certain kind of common humanity."

Beinart's story (well-worth reading in its entirety) has lit up the blogosphere, as he knew it would. (Some say his timing is linked with his new book -- "The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris" -- which comes out next month.) The "pro-Israel, pro-peace" group J Street crowed, "Peter has provided a vital wake-up call and a framework for understanding the choice confronting the community's traditional leadership." Steve Clemons of the Washington Note called it a "defining piece" and "compelling." Tablet magazine did a run-down of all the coverage.

But Jeffrey Goldberg, at the Atlantic, called publishing the piece in the New York Review of Books -- which has been known to publish pieces that are, at best, anti-Zionist -- "semi-tragic." And yet he acknowledges there are few American Jews writing in this gray zone -- pro-Israel and pro-peace, yet concerned about the fabric of Israeli democracy. In an e-mail he writes:

"I don't know where we all went. A lot of the people I grew up with, in a left-Zionist youth movement, long ago abandoned the idea that Israel is a righteous project. It's been 43 years since the 6 Day War. I think leftists are having a more difficult time than ever before telling themselves that settlements are a temporary aberration. It just seems as if people can no longer strike a balance: That Israel is the Jewish homeland, but it is not without sin. . . . There is a tension between the occupation and democracy, obviously. There are two standards of justice on the West Bank; the Arabs who live outside the Palestinian autonomous areas fall under Israeli military justice, and the Jewish settlers who live a short distance away from those Arabs fall under Israeli civil justice. That's a tension that can't last forever. And yes, the problem is this all-or-nothing approach: Israel sins, of course, but it is not the only country that sins. Young American liberals can be pretty naïve about the world, and of course, they hear it over and over again on campuses, that Israel is a singular evil, which is, of course, a libel. It's hard to withstand the pressure sometimes."

I asked Beinart what prompted his conversion to a position that will surely be roundly rejected by his former employer, Marty Peretz, at the New Republic.

"I think there was an evolution and I think partly it had to do with having kids and thinking more about the Zionism that was available to them," he said by phone. "When you have kids you are also affected, sometimes, in a more emotional way by certain things then you are before and I think I was very affected by the story in the New York Times about a house in Gaza which had been shelled and the parents were dead and the children were still alive. They were found alone after several days . . . I can't quite describe it. . . . I have kids that age." For a moment, he searched for words. "When you have children," he said, finally, "you are accountable."

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