I am super-late to the controversy set off by Peter Beinart’s attack on the “American Jewish establishment” in the New York Review of Books. I finally got around to reading his essay just this weekend. Everything that can be said about Beinart’s essay has been said more than once, so I will limit myself to recapping an essential passage that gives the taste its acid flavor and sweeping accusations.
The only kind of Zionism [these students] found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. [Pollster Frank] Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason 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.
Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age. And it starts where Luntz’s students wanted it to start: by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes.
Beinart doesn’t endorse the old anti-Semitic line that Zionism is racism, but he says it’s only a matter of time. The strange thing about the article is that Beinart’s evidence on this point mostly consists of an attack on the vices of the Netanyahu government. But if Beinart’s argument about is about the failure of the Jewish establishment over the course of “several decades”, how can his evidence consist mainly of the vices of an Israeli government that has been in power less than two years?
If you want to know what everyone’s been arguing, read the whole of Beinart’s essay. If, like me, you are hoping to learn more either about Israeli politics or American Jewish politics, then you can stop reading here.
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