Peter Beinart and the Specter Haunting American Jewry

Since even before its release last month, Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism has been extravagantly denounced and praised. To his everlasting credit, Beinart has described in vivid and uncompromising terms the corrupting and corrosive impact of the American Jewish establishment he so courageously exposed in The New York Review of Books:

At the core of the tragedy lies the refusal to accept that in both America and Israel, we live in an age not of Jewish weakness, but of Jewish power, and that without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else. American Jewish organizations do not deny that Jews wield power, privately, they exult in it. Emotionally, power is what groups like AIPAC sell…. They deny that Jews, like all human beings, can use power not merely to survive, but to destroy. A few years ago, a journalist reported that Malcolm Hoenlein, the influential executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, had a photo in his conference room of Israeli F-15s flying over Auschwitz. It is a photo of a fantasy. Israeli jets never bombed Auschwitz and never will. What they have bombed, in recent years, is the Gaza Strip, a fenced-in, hideously overcrowded, desperately poor slum from which terrorist groups sometimes shell Israel. Hoenlein, in other words, has decorated his conference room not with an image of the reality that he helps perpetuate, but with an image of the fantasy that he superimposes on that reality. In this way, he embodies the American Jewish establishment, which, by superimposing the Jewish past on the Jewish present, is failing the challenge of a new age.

Beinart has offered a powerful indictment of the American Jewish Establishment, to be sure, but he steadfastly refuses to challenge the very legitimacy of that establishment. For the one question that has not been asked is why its loss of the younger generation of American Jews should be regarded as a problematic development in the first place, much less a crisis.

American Judaism, in the main, does not regard itself as a religion in the sense that the term is understood in the modern world. American Jews, in this discourse, are less a religious community than a polity. All of the major denominations of American Judaism are affiliated with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which regards itself as the governing body of the whole American community and has essentially no other purpose than to advocate for the State of Israel. Said “community,” in turn, is regarded to be nothing more than an appendage of the transnational polity called “the Jewish people” of which, according to the official ideology of the State of Israel, it is the collectively held possession as opposed to a state of all its citizens.

When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their 2005 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, it was vulnerable to predictably lurid charges in part because it was not just aimed at the powerful American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The authors also insisted on documenting a much wider phenomenon, and their use of the somewhat vague term “Israel lobby” did not properly elaborate that AIPAC and scores of other politically powerful non-religious Jewish organizations like it are all affiliates of the larger Conference of Presidents. Peter Beinart’s original essay in The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” spoke more directly to this reality and provided the more apt and precise term “American Jewish Establishment,” of which the Israel lobby is merely a part.

It is largely for this very reason that Beinart’s exposure of this establishment has provoked yet unprecedented hysteria from the famously hysterical neoconservative movement. He has been given a megaphone to announce to the world for the first time what informed American Jews have always understood about the neocons — that they, in fact, are the true self-hating Jews, with their pathological hatred of any expression of Judaism’s traditions of social justice and other affronts to the Spartan virtues. In short, he has said everything about the American Jewish Establishment for which Pat Buchanan and Norman Finkelstein were so brutally vilified in years past.

Perhaps no hostile reviewer of The Crisis of Zionism was more hysterical than Daniel Gordis, president of Israel’s Shalem Center, in the Jerusalem Post. Gordis proclaimed, in what can only be considered a deliberate misrepresentation, that “Beinart’s problem, most fundamentally, is that the American liberalism with which he is so infatuated does not comfortably have a place for Jewish ethnic nationalism. … Beinart’s problem isn’t really with Israel. It’s with Judaism.” Beinart responded forcefully:

Gordis wants me to be some deracinated Rosa Luxembourg, cold to my own people and moistened only by the pain of others. Sorry, that’s not the book I wrote because it’s not the person I am. At the root of Gordis’ misrepresentations lies this problem. As he’s written elsewhere, he’s convinced that many young liberal Jews are embracing a brand of universalism that undermines their commitment to the Jewish people. It’s convenient for him to make me the poster child of this phenomenon. … The problem with this analysis is that I actually share Gordis’ concern.

Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” Gordis asked in the June 2011 issue of Commentary. The article began by relating with horror an email sent out by the faculty of Hebrew College, a nondenominational rabbinical seminary in Boston, on the occasion of Israel’s War Memorial Day, asking with respect to the fallen on both sides of the 1948 war, “On this day, what do you remember and for whom do you grieve?” The question apparently never dawned on anyone why American rabbinical students should be commemorating the Memorial Day of a foreign nation to begin with.

Indeed, the article at times descends into self-parody, with a signature neocon reference to Neville Chamberlain. Nonetheless, Gordis still got to the heart of the matter:

What is entirely gone is an instinct of belonging, the visceral sense on the part of these students that they are part of a people, that the blood and the losses that were required to create the State of Israel is their blood and their loss. What appears to be, at first blush, an issue of weakening Zionist loyalties is thus actually something far more worrisome.

What Gordis evaded is the fact this is not just a story about students: there already exists a considerable cohort of senior rabbis of this persuasion. In the aftermath of Gaza, an obscure San Francisco-based left-wing protest group called Jewish Voice for Peace was rapidly propelled by the force of events into becoming a national organization, and late in 2010 it announced the formation of a “Rabbinical Council” consisting of over 30 rabbis and rabbinical students. Jewish Voice for Peace has proven unique in seriously questioning, when not flatly rejecting, the first principles of Zionism and the American Jewish Establishment.

I attended a recent talk by Beinart at my Brooklyn synagogue, Kolot Chayeinu, which has significant ties to Jewish Voice for Peace. The rabbi, Ellen Lippmann, though not a member of JVP, has been an outspoken leader of the nearly-as-radical Rabbis for Human Rights, and both the congregation’s president and education director are longstanding supporters. The audience for this talk was mostly middle-aged and older, Beinart’s primary audience seeking reassurance in its progressive Zionism. The overwhelming sense was of preserving a spiritual dependence on the State of Israel in an anti-regime form. But this is by no means representative of the cutting edge of progressive American Judaism.

The current student rabbi at Kolot Chayeinu, Scott Fox, described in an earlier interview the mood lamented by Daniel Gordis on his own campus in New York:

Every year around three people try to tackle the conversation about Israel in their senior sermon. All of these people have been appalled at the changes going on in American Jewish identity. The response to their sermons has been weak. Other than that we rarely talk about Israel, if at all, in casual conversation or in class. There is simply little interest in it.

Fox describes himself as a non-Zionist, explaining, “My Judaism is not the Judaism of a political state and certainly has no connection to the modern State of Israel and its culture and history. For me they are not the Jewish state, but a Jewish state. They are Jewish neighbors who share parts of my identity, but not much at that.” Speaking for himself as well as for the wider American Jewish community as documented in sociological surveys, he hastened to add, “This is not fueled by political strife, or compassion fatigue, or self-hatred; it is simply that American Jews have a deep identity and rich history, and Israel does not factor into that identity.” Of the student body at Hebrew Union College, said Fox, “I would say that we are about one third in favor of the above, one third appalled and fighting vehemently against this trend, and one third ambivalent.  Most of the faculty is in the second category, although there are some who are also ambivalent.  Few, if any, are in favor of these changes.”

This, in short, is the specter haunting American Jewry, or at least its self-appointed leadership in the Israel lobby and the American Jewish Establishment. The mere proposition that Judaism is a religion and not a nationality is irrationally feared and despised by this establishment. There are plainly self-interested reasons for this, including but not limited to those of the Israel lobby. The increasing disaffection with Israel and Zionist ideology is colliding with several other trends in American Jewry that would not necessarily be otherwise related. These include dramatically rising rates of intermarriage; the gradual breakdown of denominationalism that has been largely propelled by the atrophy of the Conservative movement and the growth of unaffiliated progressive congregations; and the rapid decline of the suburban base that most Jewish institutions have been designed to serve for the last half-century.

Peter Beinart leaves no doubt that he is painfully aware of these realities that complicate his liberal Zionist ideal in the present day. Shortly after the publication of the original New York Review of Books essay, Ross Douthat identified the unspoken fear behind the piece as being “ that liberal Jews are (very gradually) following the same trajectory as liberal Episcopalians before them, keeping their politics but surrendering their distinctive cultural and religious identity, and that the demise of liberal Zionism says something, not only about the fate of Israel, but about the fate of secular Judaism in the United States.”

Beinart takes this head-on in the concluding chapters of his book. He convincingly disassembles the skepticism of the “alienation thesis” about young American Jews and Israel and explains that for the bulk of the current generation it is exactly what Douthat described: “they are less alienated than indifferent.” But Beinart also describes the rise of a progressive religious movement in the current generation that is decidedly non-Zionist, with some of its standard bearers even deeply involved in anti-Zionist activism through groups like Jewish Voice for Peace. Beinart upbraids this movement:

It is a lovely dream, and an abdication. Even on purely religious grounds…  Jewish liturgy itself, if taken seriously, requires wrestling with what Jews make of their return to the land of Israel. … Acting ethically in an age of Jewish power means confronting not only the suffering that gentiles endure but the suffering that Jews cause. For Jews who espouse liberal principles, indifference to whether the Jewish state remains a democracy constitutes as deep a betrayal of the bonds of peoplehood as indifference to whether there remains a Jewish state at all. Israel cannot be tucked away in the attic, left to degrade while progressive, committed Jews live their religious and ethical ideals in the United States. A disfigured Jewish state will haunt not only American Zionism but American Judaism. And the American Jews who try to avert their eyes will be judged harshly by history, no matter how laudable their soup kitchens and how spirited their prayer.

There is no question that the Zionist legacy will unavoidably haunt any progressive Jewish future in America or anywhere else. But to the contrary, it is the abnormal relationship between American Jewry and Israel, from which a growing number of young rabbis are recoiling, that is in such great measure responsible for the unfolding tragedy. It might be asked in response to Beinart’s challenge: is the rich American Jewish social justice tradition, the legacy of Meyer London, Rose Schneiderman, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer really supposed to be reduced to assisting in Washington bureaucratic wrangling on behalf of the loyal opposition of a foreign country, as the closely aligned J Street has essentially asked?

Beinart’s alternative is an idealized liberal Zionist tradition of the civil rights era. But liberal American Judaism in the 1950s and ’60s was ultimately defined less by the civil rights movement than by the garish Scientology-style demands for financial obeisance to the United Jewish Appeal, denounced by a few unbowed anti-Zionist rabbis as a new form of Baal worship. Here is where Beinart’s profound unseriousness comes into view, which many critics detected in his 2006 Cold War liberal-revivalist manifesto The Good Fight. For the historical hero of The Crisis of Zionism, Rabbi Stephen Wise, an arch-defender of the Soviet Union up to his death in 1949, was as antithetical a character to the narrative of the first book as could be asked for.

This abiding ideological commitment, indeed, was largely why, in the years leading up to the founding of the State of Israel, Wise was marginalized by Abba Hillel Silver, a zealot for the first principles of Jewish nationalism who could forge alliances with such unlikely figures as Sen. Robert Taft. Yet after 1948, Silver himself was marginalized for such heterodox opinions as opposing the 1956 Suez War at the expense of the foremost disciple of Stephen Wise, Philip Bernstein, who as a founder of AIPAC set the organization’s belligerent and maximalist tone from the beginning. Indeed, one suspects that if they were alive today, Wise would be with the neocons and Silver with J Street.

This history betrays much of the wishful thinking in Beinart’s narrative, undermining his distinction between the “historically liberal” American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League with the “non-liberal” AIPAC and American Jewish Committee. One of the “exiles” from the American Jewish Establishment Beinart profiles is Philip Klutznick, who was roundly ostracized for advocating a two-state solution (to the point of writing in defense of AIPAC “scalping” victim Sen. Charles Percy) in the 1970s, but in 1960 was one of the critical operatives who thwarted a proactive stand on the Palestinian refugee problem by candidate John F. Kennedy. In the words of the great philosopher of our generation, Homer Simpson, “Everything’s perfect about the past except how it led to the present.”

To be clear, the Israeli predicament is a tragedy of epic proportions. When Beinart and other more conscientious progressive Zionists speak of a genuine two-state solution based on the 1949 armistice line, they speak of what Israel should have accepted in the 1950s. Even for a moment in the 1990s, a two-state solution on Israel’s terms could have come off, with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat the only men with even a prayer of being able to sell such a deal to their respective peoples. But through it all has been the fatal conceit that Israel could not simply be a nation-state unto itself but must define itself as the possession and representative of the whole transnational “Jewish people.” Ultimately, one senses that Beinart and many of those he speaks for are more interested in saving Zionism for themselves than in saving Israel as a Jewish state.

Whether or not they have the literary talent, and even the haziest historical knowledge, to articulate it, both the indifferent and assimilating majority and the religiously committed progressive minority of the rising American Jewish generation understand that this historic American Jewish idolatry of the State of Israel has been the problem, not the solution. What they seek from the State of Israel is, as Yitzhak Rabin might have said, a divorce, not a marriage.

In offering a romance for the left-liberal-tinged American Zionism of the early statehood era, Peter Beinart repeats and indeed celebrates the refusal to make the choice that it is in all likelihood far too late to make now: whether to content itself to be a normal nation-state, even a “Jewish” one, or to insist that it is still the possession and representative of an imagined transnational entity, of which the other major component is one of the most politically powerful socio-cultural groups in the world’s sole superpower.

Author: Jack Ross

Jack Ross is the author of Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism and is currently working on a complete history of the Socialist Party of America.