The fate of Israel will be decided in New York — at least that’s what quite a few people in New York seem to think.
From this vantage point, the American Jewish community is the umbilical chord that keeps baby Zionism alive. And for Peter Beinart, this life-support system appears in jeopardy of raising a monster.
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 the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. 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 Jewish 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.
Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC 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.
Like many missions of salvation, there is a large measure of grandiosity in Beinart’s perspective.
As Jerry Haber points out at The Magnes Zionist:
The truth is that Israel never really needed the American Jewish community, as long as it could have the US government. One of the great successes of Israeli Zionism was to convince American Jews that Israel was an American style democracy, instead of a Eastern European ethnocracy with some of the trappings of a liberal democracy. It was founded by Russians, and for the most part, Russians and their descendants have run it. And now with the Russian aliyah, it will be even more Russian. True, Bibi has always thrown in a few Americans, Oren, Gold, etc., as this generation’s Abba Ebans. But there is nothing in common between the ethnic democracy of Israel and the liberal democracy of America. Beinart doesn’t get this; he thinks that the shift rightward is a shift away from Israeli style democracy.
Ross Douthat points out that the trend Beinart is observing has as much to do with the evaporation of the Jewishness of liberal American Jews as it has with Israel’s rightward tilt.
One reason, and perhaps the major reason, that young liberal Jews are less attached to Israel is that Israel has become less liberal. But they also may be less attached to the Jewish homeland because they themselves are simply less Jewish.
In an email exchange, Jeffrey Goldberg asks Beinart whether he considers himself a Zionist (a strange question given that Beinart’s essay clearly presents itself as a passionate defense of liberal Zionism) and Beinart responds:
My grandmother was born in Alexandria, Egypt, then moved as a girl to Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) Congo, now she lives in a third dying Jewish community (albeit the most beautiful in the world) in Cape Town, South Africa. So I really believe that Jews–if not perhaps American Jews—need a Jewish state to go to in time of need. Whenever I waxed too patriotic about America, my grandmother used to say, “the Jews are like rats,” we leave the sinking ship. So yes, I’m a Zionist. I’m close enough to people who still have their bags packed.
And when the sinking ship turns out to be Israel? What then?
For Beinart and his fellow liberal Zionists the one idea that is so unpalatable that it doesn’t even get discussed is that Israel’s rightward shift, far from being an aberration, is, on the contrary, the logical expression of the contradiction inherent in the idea that a state can both support a form of ethnic supremacy and at the same time practice genuine democracy.
Israel’s challenge now as from the day of its creation is whether it wants to be a Jewish state or a democracy. For 62 years it has been perfectly evident that it cannot be both.