Liberal Zionism debates what Judaism should be in the 21st century

I’m coming late to this essay but there’s a long piece in the New York Review of Books by Peter Beinart talking about the failure of American Jewish elites and the wider Zionist community to understand the real effects of blind backing for Israel. Arabs are openly loathed and yet liberal, American Jewry is walking away:

In the American Jewish establishment today, the language of liberal Zionism—with its idioms of human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromise—has been drained of meaning. It remains the lingua franca in part for generational reasons, because many older American Zionists still see themselves as liberals of a sort. They vote Democratic; they are unmoved by biblical claims to the West Bank; they see average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders; and they are secular. They don’t want Jewish organizations to criticize Israel from the left, but neither do they want them to be agents of the Israeli… right.

These American Zionists are largely the product of a particular era. Many were shaped by the terrifying days leading up to the Six-Day War, when it appeared that Israel might be overrun, and by the bitter aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when much of the world seemed to turn against the Jewish state. In that crucible, Israel became their Jewish identity, often in conjunction with the Holocaust, which the 1967 and 1973 wars helped make central to American Jewish life. These Jews embraced Zionism before the settler movement became a major force in Israeli politics, before the 1982 Lebanon war, before the first intifada. They fell in love with an Israel that was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology of occupation. And by downplaying the significance of Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas, American Jewish groups allow these older Zionists to continue to identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth, an Israel that now only exists in their… memories.

But these secular Zionists aren’t reproducing themselves. Their children have no memory of Arab armies massed on Israel’s border and of Israel surviving in part thanks to urgent military assistance from the United States. Instead, they have grown up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril. Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is… fake.

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.

This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood—a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967—strikes most of today’s young American Jews as… farce.

For a major American publication, relatively strong stuff, if a little late to the party. Sure, Beinart’s essential message is to save liberal Zionism, a belief that Israel is essentially good but has been corrupted by the post-1967 occupation, though it’s a start (and was going to appear initially in the New York Times magazine, apparently).

It’s curious that Beinart relatively accurately details the myopia of the American Zionist establishment (echoed in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, all seemingly incapable and unwilling to address the profound costs of the Nakba and ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza) without really delving deeply into true democracy for the country. Here’s Beinart with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg:

I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian. I’m not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state. What I am asking is that Israel not do things that foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, because if it is does that it will become–and I’m quoting Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak here–an “apartheid state.”

What a revealing few sentences. The care for Palestinians is really very secondary to securing his liberal, Zionist pedigree. Beinart is clearly troubled by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians but remains torn between allowing all citizens of Israel and Palestine equal rights – something he enjoys in the US – and abiding by his Zionist beliefs.

This internal struggle is something I’m hearing from Jewish students here in New Zealand. Yesterday during a talk at Victoria University in Wellington, a number of young Jews, around 25, were clearly pained about some aspects of Israel’s behaviour but kept on asking how it was possible to be so critical of Israel as a Jew. They talked about the two-state solution and Palestinian rights like they were automatically going to happen soon enough as opposed to the reality of a nation moving in the opposite direction. Such Jews have spent many years hearing pro-Israel propaganda from family and friends but something doesn’t now feel right. They hear and see news about Gaza and occupation and they almost can’t believe Israel is doing such awful things, in their name.

Beinart’s essay is an attempt to almost explain how torn Jews such as himself have become. That’s encouraging and welcome but it simply isn’t enough. Palestinians are under occupation and his major worry seems to be “saving” Zionism from being known solely (as opposed to now?) as a brutal and intolerant ideology.

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