[I realize things have been extremely slow here since my return from Los Angeles last month. Family matters and dissertation writing are taking up most of my time.]
Peter Beinart is one of my favorite journalists. When I subscribed to the New Republic I always looked forward to reading his articles and opinions, even when I disagreed with him. However, in the weeks and months since Beinart left TNR he appears to be abandoning the vital center liberalism he used to champion.
Case in point, a recently penned article for the New York Review of Books. In “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Beinart repeats the sorts of claims about the Zionist movement that are incredibly common among the segment of lefty Jewry that supports J-Street, Peace Now, and the like.
The article begins by addressing an interesting question: why is support for Israel decreasing among young, liberal Jews? The answer provided is, to paraphrase, Zionism has been hijacked by the Orthodox who repulse young liberal Jews away from supporting 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.
I think the idea that universalist concepts (whether Beinart’s liberalism, utilitarianism, a faith in class struggle and class solidarity, or whathaveyou) trump a strong identification and connection with co-religionists or ethnic kin is not supported by history. In the vast majority of cases, the particular takes precedence over the universal. Nevertheless, even if we accept Beinart’s contention that many young American Jews actually hold these opinions the question is why? It is not due to the increasing influence of the Orthodox or the domination of the “right-wingers” Beinart despises.
Entirely missing–besides a short statement about the proclivity of his children to support Israel–is the role of liberal Jewish parents, or, really, parenting in general. Whether we like it or not, a large measure of our worldview, values, sense of right and wrong and so forth comes from our parents, parent or whoever raised us.
Today, many Jewish parents with the exception of the Orthodox are not involved in Jewish institutions. They do not attend synagogues. They do not send their children to Jewish schools. Part of the reason for this is economic. As Jack Wertheimer notes (and I mentioned in a previous post), it costs a lot of money to raise Jewish children.
Another aspect concerns assimilation. Many Jewish families fought hard for their children to assimilate. In far too many cases, assimilation meant less emphasis on Judaism. In some cases, abandoning Judaism altogether. Today we have a situation where many liberal American Jews are more liberal and American than they are Jewish. Their connection to Jewish identity is tenuous at best. Some refer to themselves as “cultural Jews” but it is not at all clear what this actually means.
It is this lack of involvement and connection with the local Jewish community in their towns and cities of residence that leads to a larger disconnect from world Jewry and Zionism. After all, if they are unable to connect with Jews in their own neighborhood, why should we expect them to feel a connection with Jews in Israel?
I realize this is not the case in all instances. I know liberal Jews who are involved in their synagogues and make an effort for their children to get a Jewish education but we are far and away in the minority. Simply stated, if Beinart wants younger generations of liberal Jews to affiliate with the Zionist movement, liberal Jewish parents need to place much more emphasis on Jewish education, religion and identity when raising their children.
Instead of looking at where these connections start, in the family, Beinart places all of his focus on large organizations. He writes:
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.
I am not sure how Beinart thinks liberal American Jews are the ones who will “save liberal Zionism in Israel” when liberal American Jews appear unable to keep liberal Judaism from declining here at home.
Another strange element of this formulation concerns the agency of Israeli Jews, especially when you read Beinart’s reply to ADL head Abe Foxman. Foxman brings up the intransigence of Palestinian leaders as a large reason for the rise of the right in Israel and Beinart contends “there is a strange lack of Israeli agency in Foxman’s story.”
Yet Beinart does precisely the same thing by aruing if liberal Zionism is to be saved, it will have to be saved by liberal American Jews. Liberal American Jews have a role to play but the real heavy and important political work must be done in Israel. Is that not obvious?
I think the reason Beinart places so much emphasis on liberal Jews in the United States is he realizes the liberal-left position he and his allies advocate is now on the margins of political discourse in Israel. I agree there is an ideological divide in Israel, especially between religous and secular, but it is not, as Beinart claims, “among the widest on earth.” While the religious and the secular disagree on many things, the vast majority of Israelis have one thing in common: the notion that Israel is defined as a democratic and Jewish state. There was also overwhelming support for Israel’s actions in Gaza.
The article makes it clear that Beinart loathes the Israeli right, in particular PM Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman. But he fails to mention that Leiberman is a secularist and has criticized the religious right on numerous occasions. When it comes to Netanyahu’s ideas and beliefs, Beinart refers to a book Bibi wrote seventeen years ago! Surely he realizes that Bibi’s ideas, like Beinart’s, have changed over the years. And when he asks “what concessions?” Israel has made, well, Gaza comes to mind and we can see what that “land for peace” offering got Israel. A Hamas government that wants to see Israel destroyed. Not an “end to the occupation” but the end of Israel. Sometimes I wonder if the people who write these sorts of things live on the same planet as the rest of us.
Beinart also promotes the ultra-lib line that Im Tirtzu is a “right-wing” group, when the organization has repeatedly claimed it is centrist. His main concern is Im Tirtzu and others have been calling for a closer regulation of foreign funded NGOs. I wonder why? I guess I should just be glad he did not call them fascist.
Besides conservative politicians and Im Tirtzu, Beinart’s real bogey men are the “ultra-Orthodox population” that are having too many babies in his estimation, a “settler-movement that is growing more radical” and, even worse, finding representation in the army and political bureaucracy and lastly, a “Russian immigrant community” that hates Arabs.
Perhaps most indicative of Beinart’s lean way over to the left is his contention that “the world’s most respected human rights groups” such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been targeted by American Jewish organizations. Respected by who? Beinart’s loony left friends? Human Rights Watch has a long history of singling out Israel while Amnesty International compared Gitmo to the Soviet Gulag where tens of millions were murdered. These organizations have very little credibility at this point, especially among Israelis.
He is also critical of Jewish organizations supposedly “patroling public discourse” and preventing criticism of Israel. Is this really the case? Not in the places I have studied or taught. Not in the lefty political organizations I have participated in. Being anti-Israel is a politically correct prejudice in many liberal circles, including Jewish ones. In fact, it is conservative Zionists who are prevented from speaking on college campuses these days. As Noah Pollak notes:
Beinart’s imputation that critics of Israel within the Jewish community and elsewhere have been rendered mute and ineffective by the power of politically conservative Jews and the Washington lobby they supposedly control. Beinart suggests a great burden to bear in becoming an Israel critic: “The hardest thing I’ve ever written,” he said in announcing his essay on his Twitter feed.
Please. As the astonishingly polite reaction to his article over the past week has demonstrated, there are few postures today from which it is more comfortable and advantageous to call out one’s anguish and concern than as a Jewish critic of Israel. The ranks are full of people who have made careers out of being contemporary prophets, traveling the land to warn the Israelites that their arrogance and sin is inviting catastrophe. The key difference is that the biblical prophets were often despised and persecuted figures, whereas the prophets of today enjoy the embrace of a vast array of institutions, foundations, and publications.
How hard it must be for Beinart to ally with his employer, the New America Foundation, and Haaretz, Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, the New York Review of Books, the Nation magazine, the New York Times editorial and op-ed pages, Time magazine, the American Conservative, the American Prospect, Mother Jones, the entirety of the British and European media, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’tselem, J Street, J Call, the New Israel Fund, Richard Goldstone, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, the European Union, the British Foreign Office, the European Council, scores of NGOs, Walt and Mearsheimer, Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim, Tony Judt, Tel Aviv University, every Middle East Studies department, George Soros, the Ford Foundation, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter, Andrew Sullivan, Noam Chomsky, Mondoweiss, and … well, you get the picture.
The sad truth is that Peter Beinart isn’t any kind of trailblazer or whistleblower, and he most certainly has not earned himself any trouble by coming out as an Israel-basher. He is someone who has rather belatedly fallen completely and predictably into line with the demands his ideological compatriots make for orthodoxy when it comes to their increasingly passionate interest in assaulting Israel and championing the Palestinian cause. In Beinart’s work, we are not witnessing an act of courage but rather a spectacle of conformity.
I agree with Pollak and am tempted to take it a step further. When I first read the reactions to Beinart’s NYRB piece I thought his change of heart reflected a real shift in his worldview. Fine. I might disagree with his perspective but these sorts of shifts happen all the time. Heck, my political positions have changed over the years as well. But the cynic in me sees he has a new book to promote, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, leading me to beleive his new found uber liberal pose is just that. A political repositioning for the purpose of selling more books to his target audience.
Michael Weiss (The New Criterion) has this to say.
One last comment, Beinart’s idea that conservatives view Jews–and by extension Israel–as “permanent victims” is way off the mark. In fact, most conservative Jews are happy and gracious for the opportunity to attain success that America has offered to the Jewish people and the military and economic power of Israel. Obsession with the powerless and the notion that being a victim makes you a “good guy” is a trait associated with the left, not the right.