June 8, 2010
I love Peter Beinart. The last time we had breakfast, in Washington, D.C., about a year and a half ago, our conversation got so lively that I think someone asked us to quiet down. We don’t see eye to eye on everything, but I’ve been moved by his compelling logic and sense of fairness in the many opinion pieces he has written over the years.
Not so with his latest, much-discussed piece, titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in The New York Review of Books. The essay is sprawling and cleverly written; you feel you are reading something important that is revealing a big truth.
My problem, though, is that once I got over the drama, I found myself asking questions like, “What exactly does he want the Jewish establishment to do?”
For example, one of Beinart’s key points is that a major reason for the alienation of liberal Jews from Zionism is the fact that the Jewish establishment has failed to criticize Israel’s behavior on liberal issues, like its treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
Let’s unpack that argument. Let’s imagine a liberal Jew in his 20s who hasn’t gone on Birthright, doesn’t go to shul and knows little about Israel. During Israeli Apartheid Week on his college campus, he sees pictures of Israeli soldiers portrayed as “Nazi baby-killers.”
Through the media, he sees Israel as the world’s most brutal occupier and favorite piñata: U.N. condemnations, global calls to boycott, accusations of crimes against humanity, Goldstone reports, the works.
If he does a little homework, he might come across a recent report from the Reut Institute describing a global movement afoot to delegitimize the Jewish state.
Now, what does Beinart think we should do to bring this liberal Jew closer to Zionism? Have someone from the Jewish “establishment” come on campus and educate him about how Israel is mistreating its Arab citizens? Is he serious?
Tough love is one thing, but showing tough love for Israel to those who have no love for Israel in the first place isn’t tough love. It’s just pouring oil on the fire.
Beinart loses me not when he criticizes Israeli democracy, but when he tries to pull a fast one by telling me that this criticism will help make alienated liberal Jews more sympathetic to the Jewish state.
His argument ignores some inconvenient facts. One of these facts is pointed out by Shmuel Rosner on The Jerusalem Post’s Web site. Beinart quotes Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California, Davis, as saying that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders, with many professing a ‘near-total absence of positive feelings.’ ”
However, as Rosner notes, the study itself contradicts a key component of Beinart’s thesis:
“Political identity, for the general population, has little bearing upon feelings of warmth toward or alienation from Israel. Whatever conclusion one may draw from the actions of political elites, or the writing of intellectual figures, left-of-center political identity (seeing oneself as liberal and a Democrat) in the general population exerts seemingly little influence on the level of attachment to Israel.”
The major factor in being alienated from Israel, it turns out, is intermarriage. The more distant you are from your Jewish heritage, the more distant you are from Israel.
Nevertheless, let’s give Beinart the benefit of the doubt and continue with his argument on the liberal value of criticizing Israel. Beinart is incredibly good at criticizing Israel. He’s like Muhammad Ali: Move like a butterfly, sting like a bee. He’ll cherry-pick the best facts and sources, bob and weave away from inconvenient context, and, by the time he’s done, Israel might as well be a banana republic.
Beinart ignores the crucial context that Israel is a country under permanent siege and in a state of virtual war, surrounded by terrorist entities sworn to its destruction, and that it still manages, however imperfectly, to maintain a civil society — a society that boasts, among other things, the freest Arab press in the Middle East. He complains about the treatment of Israeli Arabs and Arab members of Knesset (MK) who coddle with Israel’s enemies, but like a Likud MK said recently: “Imagine a member of the Taliban being a member of Congress.” It makes me wonder: How tolerant would Beinart be if 6,000 Hamas rockets had fallen on his quiet suburb?
I’m not talking here about whitewashing Israel’s mistakes; I’m talking about context. Appreciating this context might have led Beinart to a different approach toward his own goal. After all, if you want to appeal to a liberal Jew who has heard mostly poison about Israel, wouldn’t you want to start off with some positive “liberal context” to break the ice? Wouldn’t you want to tell the story, for instance, of the Palestinian homosexual who had to flee to Israel to have his rights protected?
In Beinart’s world, however, the magic tonic for the revival of liberal Zionists is not context but criticism. Get bigwigs like Abe Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein to publicly criticize Israel’s democracy and liberal Jews will be more likely to flock to the Zionist tent. Where’s the evidence for this? He never says.
He does say that the Jewish establishment’s failure to criticize Israel’s democracy is a major reason why liberal Jews have “checked their Zionism at the door.” But how does he know that the opposite isn’t true — that piling on establishment criticism on top of the world’s hyper-criticism would have chased even more liberal Jews away?
What’s ironic is that at the beginning of his piece, Beinart cites evidence that contradicts his own theory. He discusses focus groups among American Jewish college students in 2003 that showed how alienated they were from Israel. He then mentions an ad they were shown that was “one of the most popular.”
Did that ad criticize Israel? No, it gave information: “Proof that Israel wants peace,” with “a list of offers by various Israeli governments to withdraw from conquered land.” In other words, instead of piling on the criticism, the ad gave alienated Jews some important context about the peace process that presumably might lessen their shame about Israel.
The fact that the ad was so popular might actually be a sign that these Jewish students are craving more context that shows Israel’s side of the story — and that Jews like Beinart are just not hearing that part of their message.
Because he so downplays context, it’s not a shock that Beinart is relentless in calling for more criticism of Israel on the peace process. As Jonathan Tobin wrote recently on the Commentary blog, “it’s only by pretending that 17 years of Israeli concessions never happened that [Beinart] can hold on to the falsehood that the lack of peace is due to Israeli intransigence aided and abetted by American supporters.”
Which brings me to this question: Does Beinart really believe there’s not enough criticism of Israel in Jewish America? What’s he been reading? The voices of influence today aren’t just old-school establishment machers like Foxman and Hoenlein, who I doubt are Facebook friends with alienated liberal Jews anyway. The new world of influence also includes the multitude of voices in the social networks, in the blogosphere and in the established Jewish media, like The Forward, The Jewish Week and this newspaper, as well as in progressive Web sites like Tablet and Juicy — all places where you’ll find plenty of Jewish criticism of Israel.
Go to any event from J Street, the Progressive Jewish Alliance or the New Israel Fund, or hang out at any of the social activist spiritual communities that have sprouted over the last decade, and you’ll see lots of friendly venues for liberal Jews who want to criticize Israel and oppose its policies.
Yes, it’s true that many defenders of Israel — especially since the Second Intifada and the Hamas rocket attacks that followed the Gaza disengagement — don’t do much Israel-bashing. They’re too busy trying to push back against the onslaught of hypocritical and disproportionate global criticism that is poured almost daily onto the Jewish state. Maybe that’s their way of fighting for the liberal values of fairness and balance. Anyhow, if they won’t do that dirty work, who will? Beinart?
Like many Jews, these Israel defenders are reluctant to second-guess the democratic choices of their Israeli brethren, who have to live with the life-and-death consequences of their decisions. If Beinart himself is so keen on improving Israel’s democracy, instead of beating up on pro-Israel groups like AIPAC, why doesn’t he talk to those Israeli voters and try to convince them to vote for Meretz? Or better still, why doesn’t he work through any of the numerous human-rights NGOs or any other groups whose missions coincide directly with his? Not every Zionist needs to play the same instrument.
Beinart’s own instrument is to criticize Israeli democracy, criticize establishment types for not criticizing Israeli democracy, and then hope that in the end, that symphony of criticism will attract more liberal Jews to come under the Zionist tent. Good luck. Whatever power there is in criticizing Israel, it surely won’t seduce a Jew tainted by anti-Zionist propaganda to take a second look at Zionism, let alone enter the tent.
To have any chance with those alienated Jews, Beinart needs to go back to that popular ad he mentioned from the college focus groups. That ad was neither criticism nor propaganda: it was context — context that provided information to balance out the anti-Israel venom the students are routinely exposed to, while recognizing that Israel is still a messy and wonderful work in progress.
As part of that work in progress, Beinart can also point, with pride, to the many liberal Jewish groups in Israel who are using the Israeli legal system to defend the rights of Arabs and other minorities.
If all of that “context” helps alienated Jews care more about Israel, he can then introduce them to the Israel activist community so they can pick their own instrument, whether it be joining J Street, AIPAC or a human-rights NGO.
Of course, if he believes in the research he quoted, Beinart must also try to rekindle in those liberal Jews some kind of connection to their Jewish heritage.
In any event, all of these issues are multilayered and complex, and Beinart shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Issues like Jewish alienation from Israel, the evolving role and nature of the Jewish establishment, the character of Israel’s democracy and the revival of liberal Zionism in America are infinitely more textured and complicated than what Beinart reduces them to. But complexity doesn’t make for hypnotic prose. Alarmism and finger-pointing do.
By largely abandoning nuance and context in favor of dramatic impact, Beinart has made a lot of noise and put a big part of the Jewish community on the defensive. But in the process, he has ignored less divisive approaches to our common problems and discouraged a deeper understanding of complex issues.
In my mind, I consider that a failure. And I say this with the same tough love that I know he has for Israel.