The last word on Peter Beinart and the American Jewish leadership
05/28/2010 - 09:39
James Besser

 Can you stand a few more comments and questions about Peter Beinart's controversial article on “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in the New York Review of Books?

It seems to me that on the question of whether big pro-Israel groups reflect the views of the broader Jewish community, Beinart is right, but so are some of this critics.

The distinction is this: big groups like AIPAC and the Presidents Conference probably do reflect the views of a majority of the Jewish, pro-Israel activist community – those who are actively engaged in advocacy on behalf of Israel, who work to support Israel in their communities and on Capitol Hill and who donate to Israel-related causes, although it is important to note there is a not-insignificant minority of activists who take a more dovish position.

But Beinart is right in asserting that these organizations probably don't reflect the views of American Jews in general – a majority of whom are not involved in any pro-Israel activism.

Many of these Jews care about Israel, but they don't belong to pro-Israel organizations, they don't lobby for Israel and their votes aren't generally shaped by candidates' views on Israel.

This group is far more likely to line up with groups like J Street, if they line up at all around the question of Israel.

There are other factions, as well – including  far-Left activists who no longer support the concept of a Jewish state and non-involved Jews who simply don't care about Israel, period. We don't have data, but my guess, based on years of talking to Jews across the commitment spectrum, is that the former group is miniscule, the latter a little bigger, but not a major slice of the Jewish-American pie.

What this all means is hard to figure out.

To many of my right-of-center friends, the answer is simple: Jews who don't care about Israel tend to support the doves because Israel's security just isn't important to them. Those who care enough to get involved, they say, inevitably gravitate to the right.

To many of my left-of-center friends, it's not that they don't care, it's either that they don't agree with the view Israel is facing new existential crises, the engine that drives so much pro-Israel activism, or they dislike the direction Israel is heading – and the way the major pro-Israel groups support policies they believe are destroying their version of the Zionist dream.

Yes, some of of this is simply assimilation, the drift away from all Jewish involvement, as Beinart admits in his interview with Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt this week.

But there are also plenty of Jews who are simply not willing to swallow the “Israel is always right” stance of the major groups and their reluctance to criticize what they see as extremist leadership in Jerusalem. They don't accept that premise when it comes to American policy, so why should they go mute when it comes to Israeli policy?

There's something else going on here, as well: a growing pro-Israel religious divide.

Increasingly, non-Orthodox, less affiliated Jews see the pro-Israel cause dominated by those who apply a religious litmus test to the concept of Zionism – a test most American Jews can't pass.

Increasingly pro-Israel hardliners see the doves as not real Jews; if they were real Jews, they'd see things the way Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman do, and reject any negotiations over Jerusalem. They argue: if the “J Street crowd,” as they almost invariably refer to the doves, don't care enough about Israel to give their time and money to the cause of the Jewish state, why should we even listen to them? They're just assimilated Jews, anyway; the fight against J Street is just another front in the long war over “who is a Jew.”

I understand their point about commitment. But shouldn't the goal here be to build the broadest pro-Israel movement possible, one that encompasses Jews across the religious, political and commitment spectrum and one that can compensate for our tiny presence in the American electorate?

The real meaning of Beinart's piece, it seems to me, is that the establishment Jewish groups are moving in the direction of narrowing this movement and excluding more and more Jews. Long term, that could be a serious problem for an Israel that will continue to depend on strong U.S. support for years to come.

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