Peter Beinart in New York Review of Books:
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 seen.
The philanthropists wanted to know what Jewish students thought about Israel. Luntz found that they mostly didn’t. “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.
Luntz’s 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 their lives
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 where Luntz’s students wanted it to start: by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes.
Marc Tracy at Tablet:
What prompted the essay? Why now, when you previously have not written much about Israel?
Having kids definitely played a role. I think it made me think about not just my Zionist identity, but what kind of Zionism was available to them. And the more I thought about that, the more I began to worry. I also think that we all operate at intellectual levels and emotional levels, and for me I just decided … There was this story in the New York Times about the Gaza War, about the house in Gaza where they found the children whose parents were dead. What you may find, if you do have kids one day, you are affected at an emotional level more strongly by certain things, in a way you may not be entirely prepared for. I think that’s a good thing, it’s primordial. I know people develop all kinds of shrewd and sophisticated and clever ways of explaining anything that happens, but when I read the story I just thought I was not in the mood to try in some clever way to explain it away. And the fact that I felt I was supposed to just sickened me a little bit.
That’s not to say there are never gonna be civilian casualties in war. But knowing the people who are running Israel now. … The amazing thing about Netanyahu’s book, which is a pretty long book, is there is not a single word of human empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians or Arabs. It was for me such a chilling book in its willingness to essentially. … there was something so inhuman about it, I felt. I just felt like that wasn’t something that I wanted to apologize for.
Why did you publish the essay in the New York Review of Books, which has a reputation of being distinctly left-wing, particularly on the question of Israel?
In all honesty, it was originally supposed to be New York Times Magazine. I don’t have any ill will, but there was a stylistic disagreement, not an ideological one.
There are not very many places anymore where one can write long, serious essays. Secondly, although my piece is a piece about liberal Zionism—I don’t believe in a binational state—Jeff Goldberg is my friend, but I disagree with him when he says NYRB is an anti-Israel. It publishes some of the most important people on the Israeli left. … We should draw inspiration from those people who share our values in Israel. If you’re going to tell me the New York Review of Books is an anti-Israel publication, that just makes no sense. I don’t think I’m anti-Israel. I think people throw around these terms way too promiscuously.
But doesn’t this make it easier for those who disagree with you to simply dismiss the piece given where it appeared?
I did think about that. You’re right: People will say that. And I think it’s a little bit silly. I wrote 5000 words. If you disagree with what I said—and there are reasonable disagreements—if you just say, ‘Oh well, it’s in the New York Review,’ that’s a sign that you’re looking for an opportunity not to engage with it. Tell me where I’m wrong! I can think of counterarguments.
Ben Smith at Politico:
Peter Beinart’s new essay indicts American Jewish organizations — AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents first of all — for, as he sees it, apologizing for an extremist and racist Israeli right. It will cost him friends, and start a conversation, particularly in the shrinking space occupied by liberal, Zionist* voices like his, Jeffrey Goldberg’s, and Jonathan Chait’s.
Jonathan Chait at TNR:
In its intellectual style, Peter’s piece reminded me of another attention-grabbing essay he wrote – “A Fighting Faith,” his 2004 manifesto in TNR urging Democrats to purge their anti-interventionist wing. Both essays exude an almost masochistic “tough love” toward groups which Peter (and I) feel affinity, urging them to adopt positions that Peter (and I) share or else face political annihilation. Both also suffer from analytical shortcomings – Peter’s latest less so than his last one – that leave me a bit intellectually queasy.
First, both reflect Peter’s highly idealistic conception of the world, in which political setbacks are the consequence of a failure to confront difficult truths, and intellectuals themselves hold a decisive place in the course of events. Peter’s 2004 essay argued that liberals had lost the presidency, and would continue to lose the presidency, because they had failed to confront the anti-war tendency within their base:
[L]iberals don’t have a sympathetic White House to enact liberal anti-totalitarianism policies. But, unless liberals stop glossing over fundamental differences in the name of unity, they never will.Likewise, his current piece places the blame for the lack of Zionist passion among secular Jews upon the failure of the Jewish leadership to confront Israel’s right-wing lurch:
This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s.You can see the polemical imperative of such warnings. But a bit of reflection makes clear that they bear little relationship to reality. Democrats managed to sweep the two elections that came after “A Fighting Faith” without undergoing anything like the rigorous ideological cleansing Peter prescribed. 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. Sometimes virtue must be its own reward.
Second, Peter can over-react to the most recent political setback, all the better to lend urgency to his call to arms. 2004 was not just another electoral setback, but a harbinger of existential crisis for the Democratic Party:
Two elections, and two defeats, into the September 11 era, American liberalism still has not had its meeting at the Willard Hotel. And the hour is getting late.In the same vein, Peter now paints Israel as falling almost inexorably into the grip of the far right. “The Netanyahu coalition,” he writes, “is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society.” There is certainly some truth to this – Russian immigration and the higher Orthodox birthrate have altered the face of the Israeli electorate. On the other hand, it was not that long ago that left-of-center parties governed Israel. Demography does not work that rapidly. Though he concedes that Israeli government can move in and out of power quickly, the tone of his essay has the same two-minutes-to-midnight urgency. I hope that, just as he rethought the stridency of “A Fighting Faith,” he’ll eventually look back on this piece as somewhat overwrought.
Finally, and most seriously, the stridency and clarity of Peter’s argument comes at the cost of shaving off the rough edges of reality that would otherwise intrude. Just as he once all-too-quickly dismissed the flaws of George W. Bush’s foreign policy for the good of urging Democrats to move rightward, he seems to have again temporarily blinded himself to counter-argument. Peter, for instance, twice writes that Palestinians “wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders.” It’s an odd contrast with his description of the Israeli polity, every problem with which he portrays as reflective of a deep cancer on the Israeli soul. Moreover, if you examine the respective public opinion, it’s not actually true – most Palestinians want to undo the Jewish state altogether, while most Israelis accept the need for a two-state solution.
Ben Smith has helped me figure out the source of the claustrophobic feeling I’ve been experiencing lately. It turns out that it occurs when you’ve been locked in a small room (decorated, ambivalently, in blue and white) with Peter Beinart and Jon Chait and…. well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Who else is still out there arguing that you can be liberal and Zionist at the same time, meaning, pro-Israel and anti-occupation? There’s Leon Wieseltier, of course, but who else? Tom Friedman is in the same camp (and has been there for a long time) but he pays only intermittent attention to the problem.
I’ve only read through Beinart’s essay quickly (though not so quickly that I haven’t already exchanged a couple of e-mails with him about it) and I think it is in many ways analytically valid, if unsympathetic to some of the existential challenges faced by Israelis. But the essay’s placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart’s goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it. Who is he trying to convince? Timothy Garton Ash? Peter should have published this essay on Tablet, or some other sort of publication not associated with Tony Judt’s disproportionate hatred of Jewish nationalism.
To get the inevitable out of the way: back when I worked with Peter, the magazine we worked for, for all its professed love of Israel, would never be as frank and as brave and as honest and as morally urgent to publish a piece like this. It would be a hurtful shame if it continues its current pattern and instead either attacks Peter for writing it or dismisses the points he raises. Whatever some of you think about Peter, it takes a brave and reflective man to write this. Don’t hate, congratulate.
Now that that’s out of the way, Peter falls prey to a certain myopia when assessing the political options for the mainstream American Jewish organizations. Their problem is stark: younger generations of American Jews are liberals who greet the growing illiberalism of Israel with discomfort that tribal loyalty doesn’t assuage. (“In their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel” is Peter’s felicitous and, I presume, caustic and personal turn of phrase.) So if those organizations want to maintain their influence without challenging that growing Israeli illiberalism, what to do? Peter:
To sustain their uncritical brand of Zionism, therefore, America’s 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 Orthodox world.
Well, no, because there’s a different and vastly more sustainable political option for those organizations, and it’s one that’s been underway for decades. It’s to build more durable ties with conservative evangelical Christian communities, which have attachments to Israel based on millennial, eschatological commitments that are entirely untroubled by liberalism — or, for that matter, Jews and Arabs. All that matters to them is that Jews conquer the biblical land of Israel. So if you’re an organization devoted less to liberalism than to letting Israel do whatever it wants whenever it wants to do it — well, then, Jews are nice, and your Jewish grandkids are nicer. But they’re nothing compared to tens of millions of motivated voters.
Matthew Yglesias insightfully calls this a post-Jewish brand of Zionism, and he’s exactly right. Peter is right that it’s the moral task of Zionist liberals like, well, himself and myself and the J Street generation to save Zionist liberalism. But if you’re Malcolm Hoenlein or Abe Foxman, why should you care what pischers like us think? You’ve got aspirant Republican officeholders tripping over each other to profess their deep faith in Israel.
That should underscore the urgency of the J Street generation. Liberal Zionism is as much an archaic and dying trend in American politics as it is in Israeli politics. What Peter might have more forcefully added in his piece is the hidebound hostility that the mainstream organizations express toward it. Well, what did these self-hating Jews say about Gaza? What did they say about Goldstone? How dare they connect the occupation to anti-American sentiment? Don’t they know Iran is an existential threat and the end of Jewish democracy isn’t! We left-wingers in the Shtetl live amidst a sentiment among our parents and grandparents that tells us that we can take the position that a Jewish democracy and two-state solution is a fine thing. But if we advocate for it too strongly — if we put it in the language of justice; if we see Zionism’s early universalism as demanding Palestinian statehood; if we plead for Israel to abandon its current anti-Jewish course — then we’re merely useful idiots giving aid and comfort to the enemy. To listen to our parents and grandparents in 2010 is to be told that you ought to have a mere superficial attachment to Jewish democracy and Jewish justice after all. And that’s why we don’t listen anymore.
But it’s also true that they don’t have to listen to us. And that’s the more vexing problem.
Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:
This is an excellent, well-argued piece by Peter Beinart about the moral failure of Jewish-American leaders with regard to Israel’s hard-right turn. I would hope that the leaders of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League etc etc would read it and think about it carefully, and that it forces those who have refused to debate these issues–how unJewish!–to start a real dialogue.
But I’m sure that it’s only a matter of hours before someone calls Beinart anti-Israel or a self-hating Jew. How sad.
Come on, Joe! There is real debate all the time in the Jewish community, even within the ADL! I’ve been to national meetings of the ADL when actual debate broke out! I belong to the biggest and most established Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., and one of beloved rabbis is a leader of the hard-left group Rabbis for Human Rights, and you know what? No one cares. Liberal critics of Israel and the organized Jewish community are going to have to let go of this particular meme. (Please see my post on a related subject, the taboo that won’t shut up.) We live in an age when cartoonists — cartoonists! — are threatened with death for drawing pictures of the Muslim prophet, and yet an unseemly amount of space on the Interwebs is given over to condemning Abe Foxman for writing hostile press releases. It is not an act of bravery — physical bravery, spiritual bravery, intellectual bravery — to criticize Israel, not ever, and certainly not today.
By the way, I just asked Peter Beinart if he’s been called an Israel-hater or a self-hater today. His response: “Actually no one has. It’s been the biggest shock — and happiest one — of the piece. I don’t think my grandmother has read it yet, though.”
Philip Klein at AmSpec:
The problem, however, isn’t with leading Jewish organizations that defend Israel, but with liberalism. As sickening as it sounds, Jewish liberals see their fellow Jews as noble when they are victims being led helplessly into the gas chambers, but recoil at the thought of Jews who refuse to be victims, and actually take actions to defend themselves. It isn’t too different from American liberal attitudes toward criminal justice or terrorism, where morality is turned upside down and the lines between criminals and victims become blurred, and in certain cases, even reversed.
In the case of Israel, what changed over time was that Israel went from a state that exemplified Jewish victimhood (a role that Jewish liberals are comfortable with) to one in which Jews were actually in a position of power, which liberals are not comfortable with. Meanwhile, Palestinians, aided by the media, effectively exploited Jewish liberals by portraying themselves as the real victims, and Israel as the oppressors. I experienced this first hand once when I went on a Birthright Israel trip (which is a paid trip for American Jews to travel to Israel). At one point, we went to the cemetery at Mount Herzl, which is sort of Israel’s equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery, and is located by Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust Museum. While stopping at the cemetery, we were asked to offer our feelings standing in a cemetery honoring fallen Israeli soldiers, and the first American Jew who commented was this liberal girl who reflected, “All I can think about is how many Palestinian graves there are.”
Israel, right now, is surrounded by terorrist groups dedicated to the nation’s destruction. Palestinian society teaches its children to aspire to slaughter Jews much in the same fashion as the Nazis indoctrinated their young. Suicide bombers who die in the act of killing Jewish civilians are celebrated as heroes. It’s a culture that glorifies death and uses women and children as human shields to gain sympathy from the international community — and especially liberal Jews. And the terrorists are receiving aid from Iran, a radical nation that vows to wipe Israel off the map within the context of seeking a nuclear weapon.
Yet against this backdrop, all liberal Jews want to do is to pin the blame on Israel’s efforts to defend itself, and engage in the magical thinking that more Jewish concessions will create peace and security. By doing so, they are helping the enemies of the Jews who are intent on finishing the job that Hitler started. While Israel has no shortage of critics, when Jewish liberals attack Israel, it’s that much more damaging, because Israel’s enemies can say, “See, even Jews admit that Israel is the oppressor.”
While I would never suggest that Jews who happen to be politically liberal would want a second Holocaust to happen, I do think that by participating in a campaign to defang Israel and prevent it from taking the actions necessary to defend itself, that Jewish liberals are making things significantly easier for those who do want to carry out a second Holocaust.
Luckily, though, there are a lot of Jews in Israel who are determined not to let that happen.
Whether Klein finds it sickening or not, the more important point here is that this doesn’t seem to be true. I can’t speak for liberal Jews, but my guess is that what causes them to recoil is the thought of fellow Jews imposing inhumane, unjust policies on people under their power. If it were simply a matter of self-defense, rather than one of sustained occupation and the attendant humiliations and degradations visited on a subject people, there would be far less criticism because the government’s policies would be much easier to justify. Nationalists here in the U.S. insist on uncritical support for our policies abroad because they see this as an expression of loyalty to their country “right or wrong,” and “pro-Israel” hawks insist on offering the same kind of uncritical support for Israeli policies regardless of their merits or their consequences.
Of course, nationalists typically have a defective understanding of loyalty and a distorted understanding of patriotism, and hawks have a similarly defective understanding of what constitutes real, effective support for an ally. Encouraging a government in its worst habits and instincts, remaining silent in the face of its abuses and focusing all of their energies on attacking dissidents and critics are not the acts of friends or supporters. They are instead the acts of the blindly loyal who ultimately contibute to the ruin of the state they claim to defend.
P.S. As Beinart’s essay makes clear, it is the hard-line Israeli politicians who constantly invoke the history of Jewish victimhood to justify what they want to do. On the whole, it is “pro-Israel” hawks in the U.S. who grossly exaggerate the vulnerability and weakness of Israel’s position in the region to justify aggressive policies vis-a-vis Israel’s neighbors and other Near Eastern states. The trouble isn’t that Jewish liberals are uncomfortable with the power of Israel, but that “pro-Israel” hawks refuse to acknowledge the disparity between the power of the Israeli government and its enemies and the disparity in power between Israelis and Palestinians. On the whole, Jewish liberals seem to be willing to accept responsibility that wielding such power requires. In the meantime, “pro-Israel” hawks prefer an Israel that wields power under the constant protection of invoking victim status whenever someone criticizes the Israeli government’s abuses of power.
This disagreement often falls across generational lines. As Beinart says, young Jews do not remember Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria massing forces in the run-up to the Six-Day War. They do not remember a coalition of Arab forces streaming across the Sinai on Yom Kippur in order to catch the Jewish state by surprise. Their understanding of Israel was not forged watching the weak and threatened state improbably repel the attacks of potent adversaries.
The absence of such definitional memories has contributed to a new analysis of the Israeli situation. Today, Israel is far, far, far more militarily powerful than any of its assailants. None of the region’s armies would dare face the Jewish state on the battlefield, and in the event that they tried, they would be slaughtered. Further stacking the deck is America’s steadfast support of Israel. Any serious threat would trigger an immediate defense by the most powerful army the world has ever known. In effect, Israel’s not only the strongest power in the region, but it has the Justice League on speed dial.
That is not to say that the Jewish state is not under threat. Conventional attacks pose no danger, but one terrorist group with one nuclear weapon and one good plan could do horrible damage to the small, dense country. That threat, however, is fundamentally a danger born of the Arab world’s hatred of Israel. It follows, then, that hastening the peace that will begin to ease that hatred makes Israel safer. Exacerbating the tensions that feed it, conversely, only makes the threat more severe.
And to many of us, it looks like Israel is making the threat more severe. Its decision to pummel the city of Gaza from the air in a misguided attempt to punish Hamas. The ascension of Avigdor Lieberman and the return of Benjamin Netanyahu. Neither an overwhelming assault certain to kill many Arab civilians or a political movement that seeks to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs — whose respected position in Israeli politics has long been a point of pride for Jews — seems likely to begin the long process required to get back to the place where peace is conceivable.
David Goldman at First Things:
Liberalism assumes that clever and and enlightened people can engineer happy outcomes for everyone. The notion that some peoples fail of their own deficiencies is anathema to liberalism, whose premise is that enlightened intervention can solve all the problems of any society. That is what Jewish college students are taught.
It certainly is getting harder and harder to be both a liberal and a Zionist. To support a Jewish state on purely secular grounds is the conceit of generations that long ago faded away. There is no more illiberal notion than the Election of Israel. To a generation whose heart bleeds for every endangered species, the prospect that peoples may perish of their own cultural failings is an unthinkable, horrendous, nightmarish proposition.
Nonetheless Israel’s position is stronger than ever in the hearts of Americans. The Orthodox may be fewer in number, but more young Americans are spending time in Israel, studying in Israel, and moving to Israel than ever before. The rapid growth of the young Orthodox Jewish population is making an impact on Israeli demographics (which are in excellent condition due to a fertility rate of nearly 3), and will make an increasing impact over time. Skullcaps are multiplying on American college campuses, and many of them sit on heads that spent a year before college at an Israeli yeshiva.
In absolute numbers, the support of young American Jews for Israel is stronger than it ever has been. Zionism is in no danger. The entity that is in trouble is Jewish liberalism.
I will leave the debate over the justice of Beinart’s portrait of both Israel and its American supporters to his fellow anguished liberal Zionists, Jeffrey Goldberg and Jonathan Chait. What I wonder is whether the trend that Beinart describes — the diminishing bond between secular American Jews and the state of Israel — was more or less inevitable, no matter what policies were pursued in Israel and what kind of attitudes American Zionist organizations struck. Benjamin Netanyahu and Abe Foxman may have accelerated the process, but it’s hard to imagine that the more secular, more assimilated sections of the Jewish-American population wouldn’t have eventually drifted away from an intense connection with Israel anyway, in much the same way and for many of the same reasons that Italian-Americans are less attached to both Italy and Catholicism than they were in 1940 or so, or that Irish-American are far less interested in the politics of Eire and Northern Ireland than they used to be.
Peter Beinart in The Daily Beast
UPDATE: Jamie Kirchick at Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy’s discussion of the article
Peter Beinart in The Daily Beast
Noah Millman at The American Scene
UPDATE #2: Peter Beinart and Eli Lake at Bloggingheads
Noah Pollak at Commentary
UPDATE #3: Beinart in Forward
David Frum at FrumForum
UPDATE #4: Eric Alterman in The Nation
Chait responds to Alterman
UPDATE #5: Jack Shafer at Slate