Rick Perlstein writes: In the suburban Midwestern Reform Jewish world I was raised in, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, grown men built plastic scale models of Israeli tanks and F-15 jets and displayed them throughout the house, dangling the warplanes from bedroom ceilings with fishing line. My dad, who had a replica Uzi sub-machine gun on his office wall, wore a tiepin that read, in Hebrew letters, Zachor, which means “remember.” What was meant to be remembered was the “six million,” the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, a number seared into all of our souls – at home, in Sunday school, at religious services, and at the Jewish Community Center summer camp in the Wisconsin North Woods, where we began each morning by raising the Israeli and American flags side by side.
This all felt right and proper. What didn’t sit so well (with me, at any rate) was the catechism that accompanied the injunction to remember. It held that the next six million, just like the poem says, were still getting ready to die, right here in River City – or in Australia, in Timbuktu, in our own Milwaukee, or anywhere else Jews were granted the privilege – the temporary, conditional privilege — to live. The one safe haven: Israel, whose formidable tanks and planes would hold the line against the eliminationist contempt in which most of the world held us. The message provided a kind of quasi-spiritual ballast to our acquisitive upper-middle-class lives; but as an morally precocious little dude I found it all so far from observable reality, it made me want to puke.
All of which background made Peter Beinart’s recollections, in his powerful new book The Crisis of Zionism, seem very familiar – which felt uncanny, because I thought I had been alone.
As an adult, I’ve always found the stereotype that Jews are liberal a curious one; my parents’ circle was predominantly conservative, not just on Israel but on most political issues. Most of all, they were intensely (and this is a word I remember repeating in my own angry adolescent dialogues with myself) tribal. What I didn’t fully comprehend, until now, was why. Beinart unearths a story of 1970s politics that was unknown to me – except as I so intimately lived it – showing that at the root of this sense of embattled tribalism was a transformation worked by the leaders of right-leaning American Jewish organizations, who traded in their founding (liberal) aspirations to universal justice for a wagon-circling parochalism. [Continue reading…]