Some Jewish leaders are already dismissing former New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s harsh treatise on American Jewish leadership because of its venue: the New York Review of Books, a high-toned outpost for the Israel-is-always-wrong crowd.
That would be unwise. Even while we disagree with some of Beinart’s analysis, his essay points to critical challenges facing Jewish leaders as our community, like the nation as a whole, becomes more bitterly polarized and as Israel faces growing pressures, both internal and external.
Beinart asserts that the mainstream pro-Israel community here turns a blind eye to increasingly undemocratic impulses in Israeli society regarding its treatment of Israeli Arabs and attitudes toward Palestinians. “For several decades,” he writes, “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.”
We must find ways to bridge the widening gaps between Jews with very different perspectives on Israel’s future, or risk a potentially calamitous decline in connection to the Jewish state and activism on its behalf.
Jews on the left will find support in Beinart’s analysis for their argument that groups like AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, do not reflect the real views of a dovish majority. Jews on the right will see confirmation of their conviction that liberal, secular Jews simply don’t care as much about Israel as do more observant, politically conservative Jews.
One takeaway point underlying Beinart’s analysis: dissent is not treason. American Jewish groups, out of a laudable passion for Israel and an understandable fear about its future, are increasingly intolerant of dissent — and we’re not talking about dissent that questions Israel’s right to exist, but dissent about the best way for Israel to achieve the peace and security its citizens seek and deserve.
That, as Beinart points out, is part of the estrangement of younger Jews from an Israel cherished by their parents. He favors a more open pro-Israel movement that encompasses criticism of Israeli policies as well as the support most pro-Israel groups feel is their obligation.
Truth is, there is plenty of healthy debate in our community about every aspect of Jewish life, and especially Israel. There is, sadly, less historical knowledge about Zionist history and modern Israel’s struggle for survival in a hostile Middle East, especially among younger people whose memories do not include the creation of the state, the Six-Day or Yom Kippur wars, the heroism of Entebbe, etc. Instead they know about the Rabin assassination, intifadas, unresolved military conflicts and increasing attempts to de-legitimize the State of Israel.
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.
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