Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” has generated considerable attention and controversy within the American Jewish community. I can recall few articles that have so quickly stimulated such vehement praise and criticism.
Despite all the attention this article has engendered, I fear it has become something akin to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: commonly cited, yet few have actually read it and even fewer understand it. For upon inspection, Beinart’s piece is little more than the common progressive assault on Zionism:
If only Israel would embrace more democracy, be more concerned about the rights of the Palestinians, and give back all of the West Bank, then we could enter a new era where Zionism would be a beacon to our children. A new, invigorated progressive Zionism would be embraced by alienated, young liberal and progressive Jews on our campuses and make peace not only a possibility but also a reality. Soon we will be dancing in the streets with Hamas, Hizbollah, and the Al Asqa Martyrs’ Brigades. Alienated Palestinian-Israelis (as they now prefer to call themselves) will rush out and sing HaTikvah instead of meeting with Hamas, spying for Hizbollah, and covering themselves in sack cloth and ashes on Israel Independence Day.
For Beinart, the younger generation is not embracing Zionism because Zionism has become a monolith controlled by an authoritarian AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and a right-wing Jewish-American establishment. From Beinart’s perspective: there is no dialogue on Zionism; no criticism of Israel is permitted.
Beinart is simply Walt and Mearsheimer circumcised. Beinart’s conclusion about the Jewish establishment astonishes those of us who constantly run up against the actual Jewish establishment, whose vision of Zionism is to the left of even his.
Indeed, the real failure of the Jewish establishment has been its embrace of and commitment to something even more extreme than Beinart’s naïve progressive vision.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Jewish Film Festival showcases anti-Israel propaganda; Berkeley Hillel sponsors Kesher Enoshi to promote divestiture from Israel and partner with the rabidly anti-Zionist Students for Justice in Palestine; the New Israel Fund sponsors speakers who are unrestrained in their Israel bashing; progressive congregations will not show Obsession because it is too pro-Israel; and a Berkeley Jewish congregation actively debates whether news of Israel should be omitted from its newsletter because it offends its progressive members.
The generation of young Jews on campus is not controlled by AIPAC’s alleged Zionist monolith, but is immersed in an environment dominated by progressive Jews who are as anti-Israel as they are anti-American.
From Hillel to the classroom, the progressive vision dominates. Whatever problems exist in the Middle East are Israel’s fault, be it Arafat’s looting of the Palestinian treasury or the surge of West Bank honor killings. If the Israel Defense Forces have one of the lowest rates of rape among the world’s militaries, then it is because the inherent racism of Israelis prevents them from raping Arab women.
If you are a Jewish student on an American campus, you are repeatedly and inexorably made to feel alienated from Zionism, if not Judaism, by other Jews. Beinart ignores this. Instead he parades a conspiracy theory of omnipotent Zionists stifling his vision for a progressive Zionism on campus. In reality, what stifles Zionism is the anti-Zionist progressives that control the campus narrative and play an increasingly prominent role in Jewish communal organizations.
And that narrative is, of course, detached from reason. What would come of the actual implementation of Beinart’s desires? To whom does one give the West Bank? Fatah’s leader Mahmoud Abbas is in the sixth year of a four-year term and has no legitimacy. He does not represent Hamas, whom the Palestinians have elected. His Fatah party can barely win a student election at Birzeit University, in his own backyard.
Does one give the West Bank to Hamas, whose charter calls for the eradication of Jews?
Gaza was Israel’s major test case of yielding completely to the Palestinians. Giving land for peace produced a deluge of Katyusha rockets and Grad missiles, which was responded to with a bloody incursion. Why would yielding the West Bank to the Palestinians produce a different result?
Israel is a society under siege. As such, it must balance freedom with order and concerns for democracy with concerns for security. To compare democracy in Israel with some idealistic — utopian — vision is an exercise in the absurd. Israel faces hostile countries on its borders and a large Arab population whose leaders increasingly express allegiance to those who would destroy the Jewish state. If you want to understand Israel, perhaps it would be best not to compare Israel to some democratic ideal, as Beinart does, but to America before and after September 11, 2001. Before the Patriot Act and after the Patriot Act. Or Britain before and after a series of pub bombings led to the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Beinart’s essay resonates with progressive and even liberal Jews because his is the kind of departure from political reality that so characterizes the fictional world progressives and liberals have created. His self-indulgent, leftist rant neither understands the nature of Jewish communal organizations nor the existential threat Israelis face everyday.