My colleague Peter Beinart has just published in the New York Review of Books what will be for his career a “defining piece” that challenges key Israel-focused institutions to change up their game or face a bleak future.
In “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Beinart works through data that show that the American Jewish community has become increasingly divided, that the younger generation is more open and tolerant about Israel-Palestine possibilities than their parents, but more disconcerting — those affiliated with the leading institutions of Zionism are more illiberal and intolerant of those possibilities.
Beinart paints a compelling picture of the problems in the Jewish establishment today and challenges leading Zionist institutions to recreate themselves and to work to balance their increasingly inflexible, strident membership with younger American, tolerant liberals.
Here is a clip of his piece, which should be read in full:
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.
Since the 1990s, journalists and scholars have been describing a bifurcation in Israeli society. In the words of Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, “After decades of what came to be called a national consensus, the Zionist narrative of liberation [has] dissolved into openly contesting versions.” One version, “founded on a long memory of persecution, genocide, and a bitter struggle for survival, is pessimistic, distrustful of non-Jews, and believing only in Jewish power and solidarity.” Another, “nourished by secularized versions of messianism as well as the Enlightenment idea of progress,” articulates “a deep sense of the limits of military force, and a commitment to liberal-democratic values.” Every country manifests some kind of ideological divide. But in contemporary Israel, the gulf is among the widest on earth.
This article will no doubt create a storm of debate in the field. Let’s hope that it stays civil and reasonable.
– Steve Clemons