WASHINGTON (JTA) -- Peter Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue, once edited The New Republic (the closest thing to a smicha for Jewish policy wonks) and backed Sen. Joe Lieberman’s quixotic 2004 bid to become the first Jewish president.
Which is why he’s always been counted among the Washington pundits who defend Israel, Zionism and the right of American Jews to lobby for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
Beinart also frets about how Jewish his kids will be.
Which is why he worries about how Israel behaves, how it is perceived and what it means for American Jewry. And why, he says, he published a lengthy essay in last week’s New York Review of Books arguing that American Jews are becoming alienated from Israel and blaming U.S. Jewish groups for refusing to criticize the Israeli government’s perceived rightward shift.
“Having kids makes you react differently to things,” Beinart told JTA, speaking of what brought about his 5,000-word (not counting several subsequent rebuttals to rebuttals) encomium.
“It made me think more, not about my own Zionist identity, but about what Zionism was going to be available to them,” Beinart said. “I began to grow more and more concerned about the choice they would make, which would have been agonizing for me to watch unfold” -- between an American universalism stripped of Zionism or an “anti-universalistic Zionism that has strong elements in Israel, and in the Orthodox community for which I have strong affection.”
Beinart’s essay has had an impact, unleashing a stream of responses. It is being examined as well in the uppermost precincts of organized U.S. Jewry, and has become fodder for lunchtime chats, insiders say.
“Everyone's read it and everyone is talking about it,” said Marc Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
The essay comes as dovish and leftist groups in Israel and the United States are beginning to push back against the conventional wisdoms that define organizational American Jewish attitudes about Israel. The most prominent case is the rise in recent years of J Street, but there are other examples: B’Tselem, the human rights group, recently exported an Israeli staffer to direct its Capitol Hill operation.
Officials of Ir Amim, an Israeli group that counsels accommodating some Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem as a means of keeping the peace in the city, are touring the United States this week. They are sounding out Jewish leaders about how to make the case for a shared city to an American Jewish polity where dividing the city is something of a third rail.
For the most part, the debate has assumed something of the tone of an earnest, friendly exchange, with the combatants avoiding the sort of dueling take-no-prisoners charges of dual loyalty and anti-Semitism that sometimes marks such exchanges.
In large part that’s because of Beinart’s biography and standing. Even his critics admit that Beinart -- unlike other critics of U.S. Jewish support for Israel who have cast it as an anomaly at best and dual loyalty at worst -- cannot be shooed away.
James Kirchick, like Beinart an alumnus of The New Republic, said in a critique published on Foreign Policy’s Web site that Beinart’s arguments could not be dismissed.
“Beinart has never been part of American Jewry's leftist faction; up until recently, he was a prominent spokesperson for the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party,” Kirchick said.
Beinart’s synagogue door declaration of independence from what he says is establishment Jewish orthodoxy (small o) is framed in the politest of terms, although he names names: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“In theory, mainstream American Jewish organizations still hew to a liberal vision of Zionism,” he writes. “On its website, AIPAC celebrates Israel’s commitment to ‘free speech and minority rights.’
Beinart says the Conference of Presidents declares that " 'Israel and the United States share political, moral and intellectual values including democracy, freedom, security and peace.,’ These groups would never say, as do some in Netanyahu’s coalition, that Israeli Arabs don’t deserve full citizenship and West Bank Palestinians don’t deserve human rights. But in practice, by defending virtually anything any Israeli government does, they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”
The response, on the record from the pro-Israel commentariat and off the record from some of Beinart’s targets: He’s moved on. Once an Iraq war supporter, he is now affiliated with the New American Foundation, the liberal-realist think tank that is home to a number of pronounced critics of traditional American pro-Israel orthodoxies.
Shmuel Rosner, a blogger for The Jerusalem Post whose focus for years has been on relations between Israel and U.S. Jewry, wondered whether Beinart hadn’t made it a little too personal.
“It is a story worthy of telling, with careful attention to detail, with open mind,” Rosner wrote. “A story more interesting than the personal misgivings one Jewish liberal is trying to impose on the community as a whole.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent at the Atlantic, and Leon Wieseltier, Beinart’s former colleague at The New Republic, chided Beinart for publishing his essay in The New York Review of Books, which has published material questioning the validity of a Jewish state. In response, Beinart has noted that it also has published tough defenses of Israel -- and that it is an apt forum for a writer trying not only to reconcile Zionism with liberals, but liberals with Zionism.
More substantive complaints had to do with Beinart’s omissions: He mentions only in passing the Palestinian responsibility -- through the failure to contain terrorism and incitement -- for frustrating the peace talks, and also does not substantially treat the existential threat implied by Iran’s current rulers. He also focuses on Netanyahu’s 1993 book “A Place Among the Nations,” which severs the Palestinians from his vision of a peaceful Middle East instead of the prime minister’s more recent pronouncements acceding to a two-state solution.
Beinart, in follow-up essays in the online Daily Beast, another of his employers, argues that he glances by the Palestinians because he is writing about and for Jews.
“My piece never claimed to offer an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Iranian conflict.,” he wrote. “Rather, it was a plea for American Jewish organizations to take sides in Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians, and thus help save liberal Zionism in the United States. Those American Jewish organizations, of course, don’t need to be encouraged to criticize Iran and the Palestinians.”
As for Netanyahu, Beinart argues that his acceptance of Palestinian statehood was only grudging and came under intense American pressure.
Rosner also picks over Beinart’s statistical analyses, wondering if they hold up. The research, Rosner says, shows that American Jews who believe in trading land for peace -- and who conceivably would be at odds with its current government -- nonetheless describe themselves as attached to Israel, whatever its current political posture. Kirchick notes that attachment to Israel has traditionally increased with age.
Steven M. Cohen, one of the sociologists whose work Beinart cites in his essay, thinks Beinart is right to say younger Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel, but wrong to blame it on politics. Instead, he argued in a response published by Foreign Policy, the main factor is intermarriage -- more specifically, the “departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic ‘groupiness,’ of which Israel attachment is part.”
That said, Cohen added, “Jewishly engaged young adults” are turned off by their perception that debate over Israel is not welcomed in Jewish communal circles.
“If Israel is to retain the engagement of the coming (and present) generation of American Jews,” he wrote, “organized American Jewry will need to provide a third alternative -- one that combines love of Israel with a rich and open discourse on its policies and politics.”
Whatever the dimensions of the threat, even some of Beinart’s named targets -- speaking off the record -- agreed that a crisis was imminent and that he raised worthwhile issues.
“Is my diagnosis as dour as his is? No, I'm probably not as pessimistic as Beinart is,” said one such official. “But anybody's who's not worried about” disaffection among younger Jews, “whether they believe his thesis or not, is fooling themselves.”
Beinart’s best point, this official said, is that young Jews are not as prone to see themselves as victims as the establishment is.
“The most correct part of his analysis, the challenge for us, is a Jewish community that is changing,” the official said. “We have viewed ourselves as having been powerless and weak, but we have evolved into a community that is powerful and strong.”
Plenty of previous debates over Israel and the pro-Israel lobby have descended into name calling and generated plenty of hostility. Not this time, according to Beinart.
“In all honesty, the thing I worried about most was the reaction of some of our friends because a lot of the people whose friendship I really value are significantly to my right, which isn't surprising at an Orthodox synagogue. But I mostly worried for nothing,” Beinart wrote in an exchange with Goldberg. “There's been a lot of disagreement, but nothing the least bit malicious. It's made me realize how remarkable and unusual a community we live in, in fact. I think I may even have smoked out one or two hidden doves.”
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