Pro-Israel, with questions: Beinart pins his
thesis to the synagogue door
1 out of 1
- Peter Beinart has
pundits and Jewish officials debating his recent essay asserting an
increasing American Jewish alienation from Israel.
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
“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
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
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
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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