Navigate to News section

In U-Turn, Beinart Slams Israel, AIPAC

Warns Zionism is increasingly for the Orthodox

Marc Tracy
May 17, 2010

This is what we’ll be talking about all week. Prominent liberal journalist Peter Beinart has predicted that Zionism among young American Jews is increasingly the exclusive reserve of the insensitive, illiberal Orthodox. Moreover, he blames this trend on AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and the rest of the establishment. These organizations, by insisting on all-but-unquestioned support for Israel and its governments’ policies, have served, he argues, as “intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”

Here is the essay’s crux: “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.”

Beinart is one-time editor of the staunchly pro-Israel New Republic. He prominently supported the Iraq invasion and specifically chastised fellow Democrats who didn’t. He has since repudiated that support, but even so, it is not a little surprising to see a one-time genuine hawk calling Israeli “new historian” Tom Segev “fearless.” (Under his leadership TNR endorsed Joe Lieberman in the 2004 Democratic primaries. Joe Lieberman!)

And even that is not as jarring as Beinart’s choice of venue. The New York Review of Books is the premier outlet for essays that are critical of Zionism; it famously published Tony Judt’s repudiation of Zionism in 2003. Tellingly, this is Beinart’s first contribution to the journal. Among other things, Beinart’s decision is designed to reassure you that, no, you’re not misreading it, and, yes, his piece really does represent a genuine shift for him. It also means Beinart chose to trade a certain amount of credibility with those who disagree with his conclusions in exchange for solidarity with those who do. Not to be overly cynical, but Beinart’s new book is out in two weeks.

Beinart’s essay may not garner quite the controversy that Judt’s did, but older American Jewish liberals won’t enjoy being told that their strong support for Israel is illiberal. They will make some immediate counterpunches, and will also take issue with Beinart’s handling of the relevant research, which may not suggest a permanent generation gap on the question of Israel (more on this in a bit).

The left will applaud Beinart, although he remains a Zionist—there are no better prizes for them than once-hawkish Jewish apostates. Meanwhile, J Street may be a little afraid to embrace him, even though his critical, liberal Zionism seems like a good match. (Beinart conspicuously does not mention the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group.)

The Orthodox? Well, they won’t be too happy, and few will blame them. (Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue. Awkward!)

Quick prediction: The sentence that will attract the most ire is, “Not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as well.” It will be very easy for critics to mention Walt and Mearsheimer as an inspiration.

After the jump: A couple key paragraphs and the anticipated counter-arguments. I’ll round-up the responses in the afternoon, assuming any writers or bloggers decide to respond to Beinart’s essay. (That was a joke.)

Here are what we in the journalism business call the nut grafs:

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. And it starts where Luntz’s students wanted it to start: by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes.

So what will the rebuttals say?

• At the center of the essay is the contention that young American Jews feel less of an affinity to Israel than their elders, which is based on a couple cited reports. The essay’s critics will accuse Beinart of ignoring subsequent research that called those reports into question, and of abusing the reports’ conclusions. They will point to reports from past decades that suggest that young American Jews always feel less of an affinity for Israel—they grow into it.

• Beinart attacks those who undermine human rights organizations’ work uncovering alleged Israeli abuses. His caveat: “Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not infallible.” Many will find that quite the understatement.

• Beinart’s allegation of Israeli illiberalism ignores the historical and geopolitical contexts in which Israel operates, his critics will say. The liberalism of the bien pensant American Jewish intellectual is a little easier to come by than the liberalism of the embattled Israeli prime minister. Of course, this is part of why the victimhood narrative is important.

• This technically has no bearing on the substance of the piece, but … Beinart has a new book coming out. It’s his first since 2006’s The Good Fight, which argued for muscular liberalism. I have not read his new book, but something called The Icarus Syndrome could only offer fuller regret for his one-time hawkishness. An essay such as this is just the sort of thing to both get attention generally and endear him to the left specifically.

• The choice of venue makes it all too easy for the right to pounce. So easy, in fact, that one must conclude that Beinart isn’t addressing this to the right: It is aimed primarily to energize the left and, in addition, to put the notion in the heads of those who espouse a critical Zionism that they may be running out of time.

• Many, many other things that I’m missing right now, but which I don’t doubt I’ll be reminded of as the day goes on.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.