Why I Don’t Share Beinart’s Pessimism

How Zionist education, Birthright can strengthen Israel support.

Tue, 12/07/2010
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

Is it true, as Peter Beinart suggested in his widely read New York Review of Books essay in June, that young American Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel because of its allegedly declining commitment to democratic ideals?

Agree with him or not, the former New Republic editor hit a raw nerve among many Jews when he wrote “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” setting off a discussion that continues to stir debate six months later.

In his lengthy essay and in frequent public talks since then, like the one I attended the other night at the 92nd Street Y, Beinart asserts with passion that the organized Jewish community has failed our next generation by refusing to promote what he calls an “uncomfortable Zionism,” one that acknowledges and responds to the pervasive policies of the Jerusalem government he deems troublesome.

“One reason” [for the decline in support for Israel among young American Jews, Beinart wrote], “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.”

The hard numbers about support level are a matter of debate. At the 92nd Street Y event the other night, another panelist, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, said Beinart’s premise is flat-out wrong, and he cited a recent Brandeis University study that found American Jews in their 20s and 30s to be as supportive of Israel as their parents, whose backing is solid.

Beinart said that the Brandeis study is not representative, and that it lumped together Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. If you removed from the equation Orthodox Jews (who tend to be conservative politically and Israel’s biggest advocates), you would find a considerable drop-off in support among the young, he maintained.

There’s a part of me that wishes his primary thesis was right — namely, the belief that large numbers of young American Jews are deeply troubled, for example, by the thuggish, if not racist, policies of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose views seem to be driving the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his former ally and current rival, to the right.

Or that so many of our youth are turned off by the Shas party’s views of Arabs, or women, to the point that they cannot support Jerusalem.

But Beinart’s argument implies a deep understanding of Israeli life on the part of young American Jews. Would that they were so aware of and caring about such details of Israeli social and political trends.

I’m convinced that the majority of young American Jews have never heard of Avigdor Lieberman — or Natan Sharansky, for that matter — and don’t know Shas from Meretz, its ideological and political opposite.

Teaching Modern Israel

I agree with Beinart that a disturbing number of young Jews are distanced from Israel, but I think the primary cause is a falling away from Judaism in general, and apathy, caused by lack of education about modern Israel — its history and ideology, representing the most stirring and successful liberation movement of the 20th century.

Israel’s enemies have succeeded in making “Zionism” a dirty word. But the quest for a national homeland for the Jewish people to provide security, self-determination and freedom is a story we should be telling with pride.

How ironic that our children are well-versed in the tales of the Maccabees’ triumphs so long ago, while we have neglected, in our schools and homes, to transmit the narrative of a modern-day triumph no less miraculous, the revival of the centuries-old dream of a safe haven and state for the long-powerless and persecuted Jewish people.

We tend to take the miracle of the Jewish state for granted, along with the modern-day parallel to the words of the “Al Hanisim” prayer we recite on Chanukah, recounting the “miracles, the redemption the mighty deeds and the victories in battle” of the Maccabees. But not only was Israel’s military victory in 1948 remarkable — a small, ragtag army without sophisticated equipment prevailing over the military might of the Arab world —but the subsequent growth of the Jewish state in terms of its immigrant absorption, economy, education, science, medicine and entrepreneurship is unique.

Certainly Israel has not achieved an ideal state of equal freedom for every citizen, as Beinart points out. But what country has? Not to mention that the Jewish state is still young and has not known a day of peace in its 62 years.

Beinart insists a truly democratic Israeli society can survive only if we speak out against and correct its flaws, and that otherwise diaspora support for Israel will continue to weaken.

His critics on the right maintain that Israel can survive only if it is strong, and prepared to resist the ongoing attempts of the Arabs, and others, to negate its legitimacy and defeat it through territorial and other concessions.

But these arguments are not mutually exclusive; both sides have merit.

To be true to itself, Israeli society must seek to embody the ancient teachings of Jewish morality, giving full equality to each citizen and treating every person with dignity. But first it must fulfill its primary mission — protecting the lives of its people and insisting on the highest levels of security.

The tension between those two ideals is not confined to the pages of a philosophical treatise or debates among diaspora Jews; it’s where Israelis live, every day.

Hopeful Trends

Whatever the precise percentage is of young Jews backing away from support for Israel, it is too high for us to accept. We must redouble our efforts to provide education in a way that gives them the knowledge and moral confidence to be proud advocates, not reluctant defenders, of the Jewish state. (That is the basis for Write On For Israel, the advocacy program of The Jewish Week for high school students, now in its ninth year. www.writeonforisrael.org.)

I was invited to speak to a group of pro-Israel activists at Columbia University this weekend, and their passion and commitment were inspiring. But they are frustrated in encountering campus liberals who refuse to champion the only state in the Mideast that is democratic, treating women, gays and government critics with equality rather than punishment.

A chief goal of advocates on campus, and elsewhere, is to point out Jerusalem’s acceptance of a two-state solution and continued willingness to suggest and carry out compromises for a true peace, in contrast to the refusal of its neighbors to do either.

I share Peter Beinart’s concerns about the support, or lack of it, from young American Jews going forward. But there are positive signs he ignores. His essay makes no mention of the longstanding consistent backing for Israel among all Americans — including our youth — which continues, based on a recognition that Israelis are more like them in terms of culture, democracy and morality than are those in the Arab world.

Beinart also makes no mention of the widespread and significant impact of Birthright Israel on its young participants, most of whom come home identifying more strongly with the Jewish state. With the real possibility that in the next few years the majority of diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 will have experienced Israel first-hand on these 10-day visits, a tipping point will be reached, and with it the prospects of dramatically increasing support for Israel among our youth.

The impact of young Jews experiencing Israel’s triumphs and challenges in a personal way could be transformative, for them and for American Jewry.

For now, we can’t ignore the trends that find Israelis more wary of their neighbors and of a peace deal. But we need to understand that the wariness, and weariness, comes in the face of years of Palestinian violence, demonization and the refusal even to acknowledge the Jews’ historical ties to the land.

Chanukah reminds us of the possibility of miracles, but in the meantime Israelis are dealing with their harsh reality with resilience and restraint.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

 

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There are a few other dimensions to the equation that should be noted. There is a huge and consistent disconnect between what our youth are taught in religious schools and day schools about Israel and the state that it is. Much is taught about the wars, intifadas, and terrorism in general. Many of our youth and/or their parents think Israel is a dangerous place. It is somewhat analagous to foreigners visiting NYC with fear that they will be mugged or killed. While Israel has not seen a week of peace in 62 years, defense is a given there and life flourishes regardless. We don't teach enough of the latter and too much of the former. Second, as the Israeli economic miracle has blossomed, we haven't learned how to engage Israel well in our communities. When Israel was a young state, a significant amount of American Jewish support was financial as well as increasingly political. Now that Israel's economy is in many ways stronger than our own, we haven't figured out how to stay engaged and partner in a way that insures that our descendants will continue to be supportive and help to insure Israel's survival despite this changing dynamic. Third, on a worldwide level, we are losing the media war. Think of the most recent absurd contention from Egypt; i.e. that Mossad was potentially responsible for the shark attacks in the Red Sea. It is the "blood libel" revisited as reported by Reuters. We have become much better at identifying these biases in the news media and often successfully obtaining retractions, apologies, and better behavior moving forward. We have not figured out how to place Israel in a for more positive light worldwide. With minor exception, Israel is generally viewed as a pariah and this also weighs on support by our young people. We live in an global world with instant access to information.
This whole discussion is misguided. Between 1972 and 2006 the number of people in the U.S. who consider themselves Jewsih decreased by about one-third. (The Association of Religion Data Archives siad the reduction was more like a half, but I believe that number is somewhat overstated.) Thus, the issue isn't Israel; this issue is that we are losing Jews in large numbers, not (thank God) because someone is killing us, but because we can't compete with the other choices (particularly the "secular" ones) to retain our members. The discussion about what Beinart said and what Rosenblatt thinks about it is another nail in our coffin; it dissipates our energy, and we don't have nearly enough to begin with. We need to stop thinking about what interests us and start thinking about what interests the people we are trying to retain (notably the young). Now for the writer who said how great it will be because we are losing only non-Orthodox, so we will be left with (excuse the expression) a purer group of Jews, I think it would be good if he or she looked at the demographics. The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) showed that there were only about 297,000 Orthodox Jews above the age of 18. Orthodox Jews make up only about 10% or so of America's Jews. I know the Orthodoxc think they are successful with kiruv efforts, but actually, the NJPS said that there is no evidence that they are. While it is probably true that the higher birthrate among the Orthodox means that over time, there will be more of them, they'd have to have a very high birthrate over a protracted period to make up for the 90% of Jews that the writer would be so happy to be rid of. If we want anything like a meaningful Jewish presence in America a hundred years from now, we need to stop entertaining ourselves thinking about what we are excited about and start thinking about how to retain young, non-Orthodox Jews.
with all due respect, i think your editorial missed the point of the most basic of beinart's observations. you mentioned the specific policies that, perhaps, you yourself as a middle-aged member of the establishment could concede a concerned jew might question; you did not apparently understand that the disconnect of which beinart speaks is so much more basic. you feel that the average young adult probably knows nothing of the policies of specific ministers - you are probably right about that. but that does not mean their distaste is unfounded or nonexistent. you have drawn that conclusion based on your inability to confront the fact that the very basis of zionist rule is what is being questioned. after sixty years, a new generation is saying, WAIT A MINUTE, WHY IS THIS RIGHT? it's with the morality of any nation to deny a group of its own citizens equal rights, with the supremist view of jews as being more entitled to the land than the arabs, even with the right of the prevailing majority to brutalize fellow jews who are more religious than they are; your generation may own the viewpoints on specific ministers and their policies, because you see yourselves as part of the system. but if you were forty years younger, a child of vastly changed alchemy in a whole new world, you do not see yourself there, you are one step back and your issues are coming from a different place.
My last reply was in response to a poster named "abe". The way it appears does not make that apparent. Can you either delete my last post or add a line to the beginning stating that this post is in response to "abe". Thanks!
I don't know what planet Beinart lives on. No Jew I know unthinkingly supports every Israely action. Neither does AIPAC or any other committee. That's a strawman argument unbecoming a college freshman, so why does Beinart have such contempt for us to make such an argument? While I am at it, I am going to suggest another theory. Jews are becoming less connected to Israel because they are less willing to make unprincipled exceptions for Israel. Liberal parent breed radical children, who are at war with their heritage, or who redefine it out existence. Having a real life nation-state for Jews, which must act in unpleasant ways to exist, is an affront to their utopian vision of how Jews, Americans westerners ... should act. For the radicals, it is even worse, since they side with Arabs out of bowdlerized anti-colonialism. Through out the Western world, educated elites have contempt for nationalism, religion and tradition. How long did we think that Jews in America and Israel would make an unprincipled exception to this group think for Israel? Anyone who saw the way that the left turned on Israel in the 1960's should understand this.
It is not Israels job to educate the diaspora. Israel's job is ti keep open the gates. Just in case. The diasporas job is to keep Israel strong. It is the only insurance company the Jews in diaspora can trust. I don't want to go into the problems in Israel. The growing population of parasites has to be stopped. This is a much bigger danger than the assimilation of the Jews in the diaspora. If we lose the security of Israel we all can kiss; you know what. Not so long ago many assimilated Jews found that they are Half-Jews, Quarter-Jews, One-Eight of a Jew, and so on. They shared the same boxcars. We have to get pragmatic and not to fiddle around with our bellybuttons.
Beinart is right - with the exception of the Orthodox, American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal - and anti-Israel. The good news is that these people are intermarrying and will not be at all Jewish in a generation or two, leaving mostly authentic Jews. Fewer but Jewer.
One advantage of your approach is that it would cut down on expenses for Jewish outreach organizations. In fact, if we follow your logic, we should probably close down most of them and send their funds to orthodox day schools and kollel's. Going even further, the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements should also close their doors. Admittedly, I am not serious about what I just wrote. Your view is a pessimistic one and one I do not agree with. If you only wish to live in a ghetto with the most fundamentally-oriented "torah true" Jews then your idea has merit. I for one prefer a vibrant and pluralistic community and think there is much to be gained by trying to reach out to all Jews in regards to Israel (see Birthright Israel and my previous comment here). Lastly, being liberal and anti-Israel is not at all a linked duo. I, and many other people I know, are very very pro-Israel (even if we don't agree with everything that happens there or every Israeli government action) and liberal and we do not see any conflict between liberalism and being pro-Israel.
Towards the end of Gary Rosenblatt's column he mentions the "widespread and significant impact of Birthright Israel". I fully agree with Mr. Rosenblatt and suggest that in a future column he advocate that the government of Israel, the Jewish Federations, and philanthropists increase their funding so that every qualified applicant to the program can be accommodated. This program is the best "bang for the buck" long-term investment for many reasons. Many are turned away due to lack of funding and advocating for increased funding would be a worthwhile topic for a future column.
I love the grenade that Beinart tosses, "that the Brandeis study is not representative, and that it lumped together Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews." Why don't we take out passionate conservative Jews as well, take out students that went on Muss, Nativ, and Young Judea year course. Take out birthright participants, and MASA alumni and you will see that young Jews are conflicted about Israel. Perhaps this has little to do with Israel and more to do with the state of Jewish education and identity transference in America? We can alter Beinart's figures the other way. Let's take out those whose parent's are intermarried, take out those who never went to Hebrew school, or had any substantive Jewish educational experience. Let's take out the unaffiliated and those who have no interest in identifying with Judaism aside from an occasional bagel. When we do this, I think we will see that American Jewry's connection to Israel is stable. The only thing that is changing, is how we define Judaism. It is one thing to respect vegetarians. It is another thing when they throw out all the meat from the fridge.
Great comment! Thank you for your insight. I speak from experience when I concur that the issue is more about an identify crisis, search, confusion, disillusionment, or all of the above. When a young person is questioning or searching for their jewish identity, this process can become complicated when Israel, currently one of the most unpopular places in the world, becomes part of the search. I am 37 and have been living in Tel Aviv since 2006. Originally from Texas.

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