Author: Kampeas, Ron
Date published: May 27, 2010
Journal code: JWEX
Peter Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue, once edited The New Republic (the closest thing to a smicha for Jewish policy wonks) and backed Sen. Joseph 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 differentiy 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," said Beinart. "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 oran "anti-universalistic Zionism that has strong elements in Israel, and in the Orthodox community for which I have strong affection."
His essay has had an impact, unleashing a stream of responses. It is also being examined in the uppermost precincts of organized U.S. Jewry.
"Everyone's read it, and everyone is talking about it," said Marc Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center.
Central to his point is this from the essay: "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 younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are libefal. 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 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."
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.
For the most part, talk over Beinart's essay has been friendly, with combatants avoiding the sort of dueling take-no-prisoners charges of dual loyalty and anti-Semitism that sometimes marks such exchanges.
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 of the essay 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," said Kirchick.
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 and Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
"In theory, mainstream American Jewish organizations still hew to a liberal vision of Zionism," he writes. "On its Web site, AIPAC celebrates Israel's commitment to 'free speech and minority rights.' "
Beinart says that 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."
Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent at the Atlantic, and Leon Wieseltier, Beinart's former colleague at The New Republic, eluded 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 his omissions: He mentions only in passing 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 on the online Daily Beast, another of his employers, argues that he skirts over the Palestinians because he is writing about and for Jews.
As for Netanyahu, Beinart argues that his acceptance of Palestinian statehood came under intense American pressure.
Shmuel Rosner, a blogger for The Jerusalem Post who has focused for years on relations between Israel and U.S. Jewry, questions whether Beinart's statistical analyses 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 that 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, he added, " JewishIy engaged young adults" seem to be turned off by their perception that debate over Israel is not welcomed in communal circles.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency