Among American Jews, Zionism Is in Retreat
As Its Irrelevance to Their Lives Becomes Clear
Allan C. Brownfeld
THE CRISIS OF ZIONISM
by Peter Beinart,
There can be little doubt that the philosophy of Zionism — Jewish nationalism —is in retreat among American Jews. Zionism holds that Judaism is not a religion of universal values, but an ethnicity. It believes that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews and that those living outside of Israel are in “exile.” Zionists urge emigration to Israel, “aliyah,” as the highest Jewish value.
Most American Jews, quite to the contrary, believe that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality. They believe that they are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim. While they wish Israel well, they do not believe that it is their “homeland.” They believe themselves to be fully at home in America. This is nothing new. As early as 1841, at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski declared: “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.”
In the years since the end of World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, many American Jews had a brief flirtation with the Zionist idea. Even the Union for Reform Judaism declared that, somehow, “Israel,” rather than God was “central” to their religion. More recently, however, we see that identification with Israel is declining among American Jews, particularly young people.
“Israel Is Out”
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (June 26, 2012), Rabbi Eric Yoffie, formerly the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, noted that, “I spoke a few weeks ago with someone who works with American Jewish organizations in planning programs for their meetings and conventions. ‘Israel is out,’ he told me. The demand for speakers about Israel or from Israel has dropped dramatically over the last decade. American Jews are simply interested in other things.”
In a widely discussed book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart, a prominent liberal, former editor of The New Republic, Orthodox Jew and self-declared Zionist, argues that Zionism has turned its back on what he believes are its own ideals.
Beinart laments that the American Jewish organizational establishment promotes “victimhood” while wielding power and that the State of Israel does much the same thing. “Perpetual victimhood,” he writes, “is not a narrative that can answer the two great Jewish challenges of our age: how to sustain Judaism in America, a country that makes it easy for Jews to stop being Jews, and how to sustain democracy in Israel, a country that for two thirds of its existence has held the West Bank, a territory where its democratic ideals do not apply.”
The Israel which young American Jews observe is quite different, in Beinart’s view, from the mythical Israel embraced by their parents: “For 44 years, twice a college student’s life span, they have seen Israel control territory in which millions of Palestinians lack citizenship. And since the 1980s, they have seen Israel fight wars not against Arab armies, but against terrorists nestled amid a stateless and thus largely defensive Palestinian population. Thus, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates democratic ideals and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because it stands on the brink of destruction.”
What is needed, Beinart argues, is “… a new American Jewish story, built around this basic truth: We are not today’s permanent victims. In a dizzying shift of fortune, many of our greatest challenges today stem not from weakness but from power. If non-Orthodox American Jewish life withers in the coming generation, it will be less because gentiles persecute Jews than because they marry them. And if Israel ceases being a democratic Jewish state, it is less likely to be because Arab armies invade the West Bank than because Israel permanently occupies it.”
Jewish tradition, Beinart believes, offers no simple lessons for how to wield power, and the lessons it does teach can sometimes be hard for modern liberals to stomach: “… it is striking that when describing the previous two times that Jewish sovereignty failed — the Kingdom of Judah’s destruction by the Babylonian empire around 586 BCE and the Hasmonean dynasty’s destruction by the Romans more than 500 years later — our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse. Again and again, Jewish texts connect the Jewish right to sovereignty in the land of Israel to Jewish behavior in the land of Israel. In the words of Jeremiah, ‘If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.’”
Concerned About the Future
Even Zionism’s primary architect, Theodor Herzl, was concerned about how the experiment he promoted would evolve. In his book Altneuland (Old-New Land), the book’s hero, presidential candidate David Littwak, admits, “There are other views among us.” The foremost proponent is Rabbi Geyer, who seeks to strip non-Jews of the vote. Herzl modeled Geyer on an anti-Semitic demagogue in his native Austria, thus raising the specter that once Jews enjoyed power, they might persecute others in the same way they were persecuted. The novel ends with the campaign between Littwak’s party and Geyer’s. “You must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance and love of mankind,” one of Littwak’s supporters tells a crowd. “Only then is Zion truly Zion.” In his final words, the outgoing president declares: “Let the stranger be at home among us.” After a fierce contest, Littwak’s party wins. Geyer leaves the country, and in the novel’s epilogue, Herzl implores readers to make his Zionist dream come true.
“As a vision of the Zionist future,” writes Beinart, “Altneuland has its problems. While Herzl believed deeply in equality for individual Arabs, he could not imagine an Arab national movement demanding a state in Palestine of its own. (His rival, the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-am, knew better, insisting that, ‘This land is also their national home … and they have the right to develop their national potential to the best of their ability.’) … ‘We don’t want a Boer state,’ wrote Herzl in his diary, expressing revulsion at racist Afrikaner nationalism. ‘But a Venice!’”
Treatment of Indigenous Arabs
The indigenous Arab population of Palestine has, Beinart notes, not been treated in the humane manner advocated by either Herzl or Ahad Ha-am. In the 1948 war, he points out, Zionist forces committed abuses so terrible that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared himself “shocked by the deeds that have reached my ears.” In the town of Jish, in the Galilee, Israeli soldiers pillaged Arab houses, and when the residents protested, took them to a remote location and shot them dead. Similar atrocities occurred with some frequency.
“During the war,” writes Beinart, “roughly 700,000 Arabs left Palestine and irrespective of whether most left their homes voluntarily of were forced out, Israel refused to let them return … A year after it eliminated its most flagrant discrimination against its own Arab citizens, Israel made itself master of millions of Palestinian Arabs who enjoyed no citizenship at all. Suddenly, Rabbi Geyer had a kingdom of his own.”
Beinart laments the treatment of non-Jewish residents of Israel. The Or Commission, tasked by the Israeli government with investigating the conditions for Arab Israelis in 2003, found that, “Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory.” This is especially true, Beinart shows, when it comes to social services. In part, because of restrictions on Arab access to Israeli public land, Arab citizens today own less than 4 percent of Israel’s land even though they constitute almost 20 percent of its population. A 2010 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Israel spends one third more per Jewish Israeli student than per Arab Israeli student.
Beyond this, Beinart declares, “Israel’s flag features a Jewish star, its national anthem speaks of ‘the Jewish soul,’ and its immigration policy grants Jews, and only Jews, instant citizenship.”
Israel’s theocracy is something not envisioned by Herzl: “As Herzl makes clear … there is nothing in the Zionist project that requires Israel to cede control over marriage to clerics, thus forcing Jews who marry in Israel to be married by a rabbi and Christians or Muslims to be married by a minister or imam. Instituting civil marriage, and thus giving Arabs and Jews the right to marry inside Israel across religious lines, would not only mean greater liberty for Israel’s Arab citizens but for its Jewish ones as well. … For the past 44 years, on the very land on which Palestinians might establish their state — the state that could help fulfill the liberal Zionist dream — latter-day Rabbi Geyers, secular and religious alike, have forged an illiberal Zionism that threatens to destroy it.”
Much space is devoted by Beinart to the growth of racism in Israel and the manner in which American Jewish leaders ignore it. He laments that, “As painful as it is for Jews to admit that race hatred can take root among a people that has suffered so profoundly from it, the ground truth is this: occupying another people requires racism, and breeds it.”
The polling on Israeli Jewish attitudes toward Arabs is, Beinart declares, “shocking.” Seventy percent of Jewish Israelis, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, oppose appointing Arab Israelis to cabinet posts. A survey by the Friedric Ebert Foundation found that 49 percent of Jewish Israelis aged 21 to 24 would not befriend an Arab. (Among Arab Israelis of the same age, 19 percent said they would not befriend a Jew). Fifty six percent of Jewish Israeli high school students, according to a survey by Tel Aviv University’s School of Education, do not believe that Arab citizens should be allowed to run for the Knesset. And a poll by the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University reported that 44 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that Jews should avoid renting apartments to Arabs.
The extreme racism of Rabbi Meir Kahane has, Beinart shows, become respectable in contemporary Israel. “In 1988, after Meir Kahane advocated the forced ‘transfer’ of Israel’s Arab citizens from the country,” he writes, “his party was banned. In 2010, in a speech before the United Nations, Israel’s foreign minister, the former Kahane disciple Avigdor Lieberman, proposed ‘right-sizing the state’ by ‘moving borders to better reflect demographic realities.’ In other words, redrawing Israel’s border so as to exile hundreds of thousands of its Arab citizens against their will. When asked about his foreign minister’s proposal, Benjamin Netanyahu said Lieberman’s speech had not been coordinated with him, but did not disavow its substance.”
Beinart shows that opinions which were once considered dangerous enough to ban political parties advocating them, have now become mainstream. “Population transfer,” warns liberal Knesset member Dov Khenin, “has turned from a nightmare into an operational plan.” In 2009, Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center, an Israeli think tank with close ties to the Netanyahu government, declared that while on the surface there are almost innumerable reasons to denounce transfer … the picture is not nearly so one sided as it is often portrayed … population transfers do not need to be catastrophic for those moved’ … A 2010 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis want their government to encourage Israel’s Arab citizens to leave … The Israelis most committed to liberal democracy see Herzl’s dream slipping away. And here in the U.S. the most powerful leaders of the Jewish establishment insist on seeing almost nothing at all.”
At the core of the problem, according to Beinart, is “the refusal to accept that both in America and Israel we live in an age not of Jewish weakness, but of Jewish power and that without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else … By discussing power only as a means of survival, the American Jewish establishment implicitly denies that Jews can use power for anything but survival. They deny that Jews, like all human beings, can use power not merely to survive but to destroy. A few years ago, a journalist reported that Malcolm Hoenlein, the influential executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, had a photo in his conference room of Israeli F-15s flying over Auschwitz. It is a photo of fantasy, Israeli jets never bombed Auschwitz and never will. What they have bombed, in recent years, is the Gaza Strip, a fenced-in, hideously overcrowded, desperately poor slum from which terrorist groups sometimes shell Israel. Hoenlein, in other words, has decorated his conference room not with an image of the reality that he helps perpetuate, but with an image of the fantasy he superimposes on that reality. In this way, he embodies the American Jewish establishment, which, by superimposing the Jewish past on the Jewish present, is failing the challenge of a new age.”
In the aftermath of the Six Day War, Beinart declares, “American Jewish liberalism and organized American Zionism began drifting apart … When Israel won a shocking, lightning victory, American Zionism hit fever pitch.”
As Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens and the inhabitants of the occupied West Bank drew criticism, what the American Jewish establishment did, Beinart explains, was to redefine anti-Semitism: “American Jewish leaders hit upon an explanation: the world was turning against Jews because it no longer saw them as victims. In 1974, Benjamin Epstein, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), co-authored The New Anti-Semitism, a book whose argument proved so influential that in 1982 his successor, Nathan Perlmutter, echoed it in a book entitled ‘The Real Anti-Semitism in America’. Epstein’s argument was that for a period after World War II guilt over the Holocaust kept anti-Semitism at bay. But with memories of the Holocaust fading, anti-Semitism had returned, largely in the form of hostility to Israel, because Israel represented Jewish power. ‘Jews are tolerable, acceptable in their particularity, only as victims,’ wrote Epstein and his ADL colleague Arnold Forster, ‘and when their situation changes, so that they are either no longer victims, or appear not to be, the non-Jewish world finds this so hard to take that the effort is begun to render them victims anew.’”
Thus, at the very moment that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip made it essential for American Jews to confront the ethical challenges of Jewish power, American Jewish leaders began insisting that to even acknowledge the misuse of Jewish power was to deny Jewish victimhood and thus victimize Jews anew.
“The argument caught on in the 1970s,” notes Beinart, “victimhood especially as a strategy for defending Israel, supplanted liberalism as the defining ideology of organized American Jewish life.”
Use of Holocaust
The use of the Holocaust as an argument against criticism of Israel slowly evolved. In 1960, when Israel arrested and tried Adolf Eichmann, the ADL insisted that the trial was “not a case of special pleading for Jews because what happened to the Jews of Europe … can very well happen to other peoples.” But in the 1970s, writes Beinart, “American Jewish organizations began hoarding the Holocaust, reselling it as a story of the world’s eternal hatred of Jews, linking it to criticism of Israel. In 1973, the ADL embarked on a ‘new international mission’ to combat ‘Arab anti-Israel propaganda,’ and four years later created a Center for Holocaust Studies. In 1980, the ADL’s Oscar Cohen advised the National Conference of Christians and Jews to link its Holocaust programming ‘to Israel and the dangers which confront it.’ The following year, as part of its bid to prevent the Reagan administration from selling AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, AIPAC sent a copy of the novel Holocaust to every member of Congress.”
Peter Beinart’s assessment of American Jewish organizational life is harshly critical. When it comes to Israel, he writes, there are today two kinds of mainstream American Jewish organizations: “Those whose tolerance for the occupation is warping their historic commitment to democratic ideals and those with no commitment to democratic ideals at all. The ADL has created a widely praised curriculum aimed at fostering awareness of genocide. But in 2007, the organization refused to back a congressional resolution declaring that Turkey had committed genocide against the Armenians — a decision the ADL’s own New England regional director called ‘morally indefensible’ … for fear doing so would undermine relations between Turkey and Israel. Abe Foxman has eloquently condemned anti-Muslim bigotry. But in 2010, when that bigotry ran wild during the debate over a plan to build a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center, he concluded that the religious freedom of Muslims must bow to the sensitivities of anti-Muslim bigots.”
Don’t Criticize Israel
American Jews should not criticize Israel, states the ADL’s Foxman, because they do not live there and “do not bear the consequences of their opinions.” This, Beinart points out, is “a reticence that only applies to one side. If American Jews don’t live in Tel Aviv or Sderot, neither do they live in Ramallah or Gaza City. Yet American Jewish groups constantly demand that Palestinian leaders change their policies, even though American Jews would not endure the consequences of those policy shifts either. In fact, American Jewish leaders have spent recent decades criticizing government policy in a bevy of countries where American Jews do not live, from the former Soviet Union to Syria to Iran. If taken seriously, the claim that American Jews must live in a country in order to publicly criticize it, this would eliminate all public moral judgment of politics outside the U.S.”
In 2009, an ADL ad in The New York Times declared that “settlements are not an impediment to peace.” Beinart reports that, “The ADL did not even acknowledge that in 2002 and again in 2009, the Arab League — representing every Arab government — declared that it would recognize Israel if Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines and reached a ‘just’ and ‘agreed upon’ settlement of the Palestinian refugee issue. Not only did the ADL not mention the Arab League offer in its ad, it doesn’t mention it in the 89 page ‘Guide for Activists’ it issued in 2010 … In 2009 (American Jewish groups) condemned the White House’s decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland because she had criticized Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza … What neither AIPAC nor the ADL mentioned was that Robinson had helped expunge the language about racial discrimination from the Durban Conference’s final report thus angering Syria and Iran. Nor did they mention that after discovering that an Arab nongovernmental organization at the parallel NGO forum across the street was displaying anti-Semitic cartoons, Robinson offered an impassioned public denunciation of anti-Semitism, declaring, ‘When I see something like this, I am a Jew.’ For these reasons, and others, seven Israeli rights groups issued a joint statement in Robinson’s defense. But in their attacks on her, AIPAC and the ADL didn’t mention that either.”
Critics Labeled “Anti-Semitic”
All too often, anyone who criticizes Israel is labeled “anti-Semitic” by American Jewish organizations. Beinart declares that, “The claim that Andrew Sullivan, Bill Moyers, Jimmy Carter and the leaders of Amnesty International are anti-Semitic is absurd. After all, if they really hated Jews, wouldn’t they express their hatred in some other form than criticism of Israeli policy? But for prominent American Jewish leaders, any harsh criticism of Israel that is not accompanied by equally harsh criticism of other countries constitutes anti-Semitism.”
As Abraham Foxman puts it, “Most of the current attacks on Israel and Zionism are not, at bottom, about the policies and conduct of a particular nation-state. They are about Jews … When other countries and people pursue policies that are similar (or far worse than) those of Israel, do the critics condemn them? If so, do they condemn them with the same fervor as they condemn Israel? If not, it’s hard to deny that anti-Semitism explains the discrepancy.”
To this argument, Beinart provides his own assessment: “A Jew might do so because he simply cares more about Israel than about other countries. Take, for example, me. If Egypt fails to become a democracy, I will consider it unfortunate. If Israel ceases to be a democracy, I will consider it one of the great tragedies of my life. Foxman never contemplates that disproportionate criticism of Israel’s policies might reflect a disproportionate attachment to Israel itself. An American might pay more attention to Israel’s misdeeds because the U.S., as Israel’s foremost benefactor, is so deeply implicated in them. … There is still anti-Semitism in the world and it should never be tolerated … But in their effort to inoculate Israeli policy from criticism, American Jewish organizations have stretched anti-Semitism’s definition to the point of absurdity.”
The attempt to silence Israel’s critics as anti-Semitic, Beinart charges, is a form of “moral promiscuity” which “constitutes terrible abuse of the authority that Jewish leaders enjoy as a result of the history of Jewish suffering. It constitutes a kind of desecration, analogous to taking a sacred object and putting it to profane use. But most of all, it represents an unwillingness to accept that the world has changed, that although Israel still faces threats and anti-Semitism still exists, Jews today wield power, both in Israel and the U.S. With power comes the temptation to abuse it, and using the charge of anti-Semitism to shield Israel from criticism is the best way that Israel does exactly that.”
The philosophy which dominates the thinking of Israel’s current leadership, in particular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is that of Revisionist Zionism which, Beinart believes, turns its back on Judaism’s humane and prophetic tradition. Revisionism’s leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, writes Beinart, did not like the Jewish belief “that they carried a moral message to the world. In his telling, the story of Jewish history went roughly like this: Once upon a time, when they still lived on their land, the Jews had been warriors, renowned for their fierce resistance to the empires of the day … The problem began, according to Jabotinsky and the Revisionists, with the prophets. Abba Achimeir, one of Jabotinsky’s most militant disciples, was particularly hostile to Isaiah, who challenged the Judean kings to ‘seek justice, relieve the oppressed.’ The Revisionists … often scorned those passages suggesting that Jews were tasked with a special ethical mission. ‘The Bible says ‘thou shalt not oppress a stranger for ye know the heart of the stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt,’ wrote Jabotinsky in 1910. ‘Contemporary morality has no place for such childish humanism.’”
Benjamin Netanyahu inherited his Revisionist philosophy from his father. In 1939, Jabotinsky cabled the 36 year old former editor of a Revisionist newspaper in Palestine, Benzion Netanyahu, and summoned him to New York. Netanyahu complied and, until Jabotinsky’s death the following year, worked as his private secretary. Beinart writes that, “Jabotinsky’s influence permeates Netanyahu’s writing. First, the yearning to recover the lost glory of Jewish militarism. ‘The prowess of Jewish youth in Palestine should serve as a warning that the blood of the old warrior race is still alive in the Jewish people,’ exulted an unsigned Zionews editorial during the time Netanyahu served as editor.”
Examples of Racism
Benzion Netanyahu’s writings are filled with examples of “racism,” Beinart shows: “In an essay in 1943, he called Arabs ‘a semi-barbaric people, which lacks any democratic traditions and is fired by religious fanaticism and hatred for the stranger.’ Later, during Netanyahu’s editorship, an unsigned editorial in Zionews described the Arabs as ‘Ishmael, the wild man of the desert.’ Netanyahu conjured the same image 66 years later, when asked by MAARIV why he didn’t like Arabs. ‘The Bible finds no worse image than this of the man from the desert,’ the old man replied. ‘And why? Because he has no respect for any law. Because in the desert he can do as he pleases. The tendency toward conflict is the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence. His personality won’t allow him any compromise or agreement … His existence is one of perpetual war.’”
For Benjamin Netanyahu, Beinart notes, “It is always 1938. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, Netanyahu called Peres ‘worse than Chamberlain.’ In A Durable Peace, Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly compares the West Bank to the Sudetenland, which the Nazis cleaved from Czechoslavakia en route to overrunning the entire country. Dismantling Jewish settlements, he argues, would mean a ‘Judenrein’ West Bank and a ‘ghetto-state’ within Israel’s 1967 borders. If it is 1938, then Jews have no moral responsibility except to survive. … One of the most remarkable features of A Durable Peace is Netanyahu’s tendency to approvingly quote imperialists expressing racist views of Arabs. He quotes Winston Churchill as saying, ‘Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine.’ He cites Col. Richard Meinertzhagen, Britain’s chief political officer in Palestine after World War I, as opining, ‘The Arab is a poor fighter, though an adept at lootings, sabotage and murder.’”
Sadly, in Beinart’s view, “American Jewish politics remains dominated by an establishment that defines support for Israel more as support for the policies of the Israeli government than as support for the principles in Israel’s declaration of independence. But the American Jewish establishment is dying, literally. The typical large American Jewish organization is run by a man in his sixties, who when he meets his large donors, is among the youngest people in the room … All have built their careers on stories of Jewish victimhood and survival. None accept that we live in a new era in Jewish history, in which our challenges stem less from weakness than from power … Young American Jews are far less likely to build their identity around victimhood … For the most part, young Jews are not redefining American Zionism. They are abandoning American Zionism.”
Larger Orthodox Role
Beinart fears that the Orthodox will come to play an ever larger role in American Jewish organizational life as others drift away from the Israel-centered policies of Jewish groups. “There is ample evidence,” he writes, that Orthodox institutions “indulge” in “bigotry,” even “when it incites violence. The Orthodox Union is arguably the preeminent Modern Orthodox organization in the U.S. In June 2010, its representative in Israel posted an essay on its website entitled Reflections on a True Gadol (great person), which lovingly eulogized the late Israeli chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu. Left unmentioned was Eliyahu’s ruling that since God gave Jews the entire land of Israel, settlers have the right to steal Palestinian crops. Eliyahu, a close associate of Meir Kahane, also declared, ‘A thousand Arabs are not worth one yeshiva student.’ When a tsunami struck Southeast Asia in 2004, he said God was punishing Asian governments for supporting Ariel Sharon’s proposed evacuation of settlements in Gaza. None of these statements received even a pro forma condemnation from the Orthodox Union official, who praised Eliyahu’s ‘love and care toward every other Jew in the world,’ without so much as acknowledging his respect for — indeed, hatred of — those non-Jews who live under Israel’s domain.”
The embrace of racism and extremism within the Orthodox Jewish community in the U.S. is described by Beinart in some detail. In 2007, the Israel Day Concert in Central Park, an event cosponsored by the National Council of Young Israel, featured as its keynote speaker retired Israeli general Effie Eitam, who the year before had publicly proposed disenfranchising Israel’s Arab citizens and physically expelling most Palestinians from the West Bank. He extolled the settlement’s yeshiva, which he called ‘a beautiful center of Torah and Tefillah (prayer)’ and praised its leader, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, for teaching ‘students for many years that every Jew must be mutually responsible for every other Jew.’ He neglected to mention that Shapira is at the epicenter of the ‘price tag’ policy in which settlers respond to Israeli government restraints on settlement growth by terrorizing their Palestinian neighbors. Nor did he mention that Shapira, in a 2009 book … declared it religiously permissible to kill gentile children because ‘of the future danger that will arise if they are allowed to grow into evil people like their parents’ … American Orthodox officials proved brazenly indifferent to Israel’s commitments to all of its people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.”
In what Beinart calls the “Orthodox global village” created by modern communications and transportation, these toxic currents are imported to the U.S. and then reexported back to Israel. Thus, in 1994, after Brooklyn-born settler Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Meir Kahane, massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron, he became a hero among a radical fringe of Israeli settlers. A year later, after extremist Orthodox rabbis in Israel and the U.S. speculated that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin might be a traitor to the Jewish people punishable by death under Jewish law for his willingness to cede parts of the West Bank to the Palestinians, a National Religious Israeli, Yigal Amir, took Rabin’s life. More recently, Rabbi Herschel Schachter of Yeshiva University was caught on video in 2008 advising yeshiva students in Jerusalem: “If the army is going to give away Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), then I would tell everyone to resign from the army — I’d tell them to shoot the ross hamemshala (prime minister).”
Beinart writes that, “It is no coincidence that Schachter, in addition to musing about shooting the prime minister … has in recent years said that ‘the neshama (soul) of the Jew and the neshama of the non-Jew are made of different material’ and that God ‘forbids us to display any interest in any other religion … We may not study works of or about any other religion, watch films about them, or study any pieces of religious art.’ … If the illiberal Zionism of young Orthodox Jews seems increasingly likely to define organized American Jewry in the coming years, it is partly because so many other young American Jews feel so little Zionist attachment at all … These young Jews are building a vibrant American Judaism that averts its gaze from the Jewish state … They do not see engagement with Israeli politics as a path to spiritual or moral fulfillment, and they are finding fulfillment in other ways.”
Path to Peace
The path to Middle East peace, Beinart points out, has long been clear: “… the Palestinians abandon their claim to the 78 percent of mandatory Palestine inside the green line in return for a state on the 22 percent that constitutes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with minor adjustments. It is a bargain that would have made most of Israel’s founders — who in 1947 accepted a partition plan that gave Israel a mere 55 percent of the land — cry with joy. Yet the organized American Jewish community pretends that Israel can continually transgress that bargain without bringing the entire two state paradigm crashing down and, with it, Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state … The less democratic Israel becomes, the less liberal-minded American Jews will support it …”
In The Kuzari, written around 1140, the medieval Jewish philosopher Judah Halevi imagined a dialogue between a rabbi and a pagan king. At one point, the rabbi extols the morality of the Jews. Unlike the Christian world — which according to Jewish tradition is called Edom (red) because it is soaked with blood — the Jews, he declares, have held themselves to a higher standard. But the king is unconvinced. Jewish morality, he insists, is merely the byproduct of Jewish weakness. “If you had the power,” he responds, “you would slay.”
Peter Beinart concludes that, “In Israel, we have the answer to the king. We can finally know whether the ethical traditions that so often made diaspora Jews the conscience of their nations can survive … Since 1967, Israel has taken a grave turn away from that principle … Israel is a great test of Judaism in our time…”
Emperor Is Naked
Peter Beinart has written an important book and has been excoriated for it by most of the organized American Jewish community. He is guilty, it seems, of reporting that the emperor, rather than wearing new clothes, is naked. By embracing an “Israel, right or wrong” philosophy, American Jewish leaders — who, in fact, represent no one but themselves — have turned their backs on Judaism’s universal moral and ethical values.
Still, Beinart is animated by a belief in his own kind of Zionism, believing that Jews are an ethnic group rather than adherents to a religion of universal values — at home in New York or London or Paris as well as in Jerusalem — and he seems to maintain that Israel is, indeed, the Jewish “homeland.” He believes that the original Zionists were believers in genuine democracy and that the current state of Israel has departed from their idealism.
Beinart has not properly confronted a contrary thesis — for which there is abundant evidence — that Zionism was flawed from the beginning, not only ignoring the indigenous population of Palestine, but rejecting the dominant spiritual history and essence of Judaism.
This book has opened a heated debate about the real nature of Zionism and its effect upon American Jewish life. It is good that Zionism’s excesses are being challenged, but these excesses, in reality, were inherent in the Zionist idea itself, an idea which a silent majority of American Jews have always rejected. •
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues. The author of five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President.