Zionism As Liberalism, Not Tribalism
This is not a paragraph I ever expected my friend and former boss Peter Beinart to write:
Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups likeAIPAC 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 [Frank] Luntz’s students wanted it to start: by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes.
And so he goes on for many thousands of words to talk very frankly about it. (“[T]he Netanyahu coalition is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society: an ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism.”) To get the inevitable out of the way: back when I worked with Peter, the magazine we worked for, for all its professed love of Israel, would never be as frank and as brave and as honest and as morally urgent to publish a piece like this. It would be a hurtful shame if it continues its current pattern and instead either attacks Peter for writing it or dismisses the points he raises. Whatever some of you think about Peter, it takes a brave and reflective man to write this. Don’t hate, congratulate.
Now that that’s out of the way, Peter falls prey to a certain myopia when assessing the political options for the mainstream American Jewish organizations. Their problem is stark: younger generations of American Jews are liberals who greet the growing illiberalism of Israel with discomfort that tribal loyalty doesn’t assuage. (“In their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel” is Peter’s felicitous and, I presume, caustic and personal turn of phrase.) So if those organizations want to maintain their influence without challenging that growing Israeli illiberalism, what to do? Peter:
To sustain their uncritical brand of Zionism, therefore, America’s Jewish organizations will need to look elsewhere to replenish their ranks. They will need to find young American Jews who have come of age during the West Bank occupation but are not troubled by it. And those young American Jews will come disproportionately from the Orthodox world.
Well, no, because there’s a different and vastly more sustainable political option for those organizations, and it’s one that’s been underway for decades. It’s to build more durable ties with conservative evangelical Christian communities, which have attachments to Israel based on millennial, eschatological commitments that are entirely untroubled by liberalism — or, for that matter, Jews and Arabs. All that matters to them is that Jews conquer the biblical land of Israel. So if you’re an organization devoted less to liberalism than to letting Israel do whatever it wants whenever it wants to do it — well, then, Jews are nice, and your Jewish grandkids are nicer. But they’re nothing compared to tens of millions of motivated voters.
Matthew Yglesias insightfully calls this a post-Jewish brand of Zionism, and he’s exactly right. Peter is right that it’s the moral task of Zionist liberals like, well, himself and myself and the J Street generation to save Zionist liberalism. But if you’re Malcolm Hoenlein or Abe Foxman, why should you care what pischers like us think? You’ve got aspirant Republican officeholders tripping over each other to profess their deep faith in Israel.
That should underscore the urgency of the J Street generation. Liberal Zionism is as much an archaic and dying trend in American politics as it is in Israeli politics. What Peter might have more forcefully added in his piece is the hidebound hostility that the mainstream organizations express toward it. Well, what did these self-hating Jews say about Gaza? What did they say about Goldstone? How dare they connect the occupation to anti-American sentiment? Don’t they know Iran is an existential threat and the end of Jewish democracy isn’t! We left-wingers in the Shtetl live amidst a sentiment among our parents and grandparents that tells us that we can take the position that a Jewish democracy and two-state solution is a fine thing. But if we advocate for it too strongly — if we put it in the language of justice; if we see Zionism’s early universalism as demanding Palestinian statehood; if we plead for Israel to abandon its current anti-Jewish course — then we’re merely useful idiots giving aid and comfort to the enemy. To listen to our parents and grandparents in 2010 is to be told that you ought to have a mere superficial attachment to Jewish democracy and Jewish justice after all. And that’s why we don’t listen anymore.
But it’s also true that they don’t have to listen to us. And that’s the more vexing problem.