Beinart And 'The American Jewish Establishment'

Peter Beinart's timely polemic on the "American Jewish Establishment" works as planned; and as a knowledgeable columnist-friend emailed me, it deserves to be something of an event, since Beinart is young, thoughtful, a former Marty Peretz mentee, a former booster of the Iraq War--in short, the kind of apostate the Church of AIPAC can't ignore. Who can disagree, moreover, with the piece's main message, which is that America's Jewish leadership is seriously out of step with the great majority of especially young American Jews? (Actually, I made much the same case in Harper's almost two years ago, sketching out how J Street might organize around the netroots and prestige of Jewish supporters in the Obama Campaign.)

Yet Beinart's argument seems flawed to me in its basic framing, and I raise the issue, not to pick nits, but because he inadvertently perpetuates a kind of comfortable American Jewish presumption about how organized American Jews naturally claim privileged participation in Israel's future not only as globalist democrats but as Jews. It offends--dare I say?--the cultural Zionist in me, implicitly promising a kind of Jewish organizational life in America it could never deliver on. If we buy into Beinart's argument, that is, we'll not understand, first, why liberal American Jews would naturally have drifted away even from an Israel that Pete Seeger could still rhapsodize about; and, second, why the American Jews who feel most passionate about Israel are not only bound to be orthodox, but why they both connect to, and threaten, what's most precious about Israel in ways American liberals cannot.

TO MAKE HIS case, Beinart defaults to the words of Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, whom I greatly admire, and whose formulations seem yanked into a context I'm not sure he'd approve of. Ezrahi, Beinart says, believes that "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.

As Ezrahi and others have noted, this latter, liberal-democratic Zionism has grown alongside a new individualism, particularly among secular Israelis, a greater demand for free expression, and a greater skepticism of coercive authority. You can see this spirit in “new historians” like Tom Segev who have fearlessly excavated the darker corners of the Zionist past and in jurists like former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak who have overturned Knesset laws that violate the human rights guarantees in Israel’s “Basic Laws”...
But in Israel today, this humane, universalistic Zionism does not wield power. To the contrary, it is gasping for air.

For Beinart, then, this is the choice; for Ezrahi I'd bet it is more complex. There is bad Zionism, a kind of reactionary nationalism rooted in pessimism and a sense of victimization, and, a good Zionism, rooted in enlightenment, progress, and individualism. In both cases, "Zionism" is a statement about what is good for the Jews, that is, a judgement about potential political arrangements. (In neither case is it about what, if anything, is potentially beautiful about Judaism.) The vast majority of American Jews--so Beinart continues--are enlightened and liberal like their parents, and therefore natural supporters of the good Zionism. But the American Jewish Establishment (don't we still love the ominous vagueness of the word "Establishment"?) has, for its AIPACish reasons, been trying to force feed them on the bad Zionism. The result has been pathetic:

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...Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.

NOW, ONE MIGHT argue that Beinart's psychological archetypes--distrustful vs. progressive, etc.--can be useful in explaining the personalities and even tribes that dominate current Israeli politics (like Ezrahi, I have used them to some extent myself). But these archetypes are of no help in understanding the rival Zionisms that created the state and still have significance in debates about its fate. Nor do they help us to understand what are the serious ways American Jews might yet connect to Israelis.

Actually, the real distinction, from the beginning, was between Zionists who thought in terms of rescue and Zionists who thought in terms of cultural revolution. The former, "political Zionists," tended to focus on the psychology of powerlessness, depict the militant state as a kind of therapy, counting on Antisemitism to define Jewish identity. For them, all Jews (including Diaspora Jews) were nationals, because their efforts at assimilation would lead to disaster. The latter, "cultural Zionists," tended to focus on modernizing a failing Hebrew religious vernacular, which they considered their patrimony, and loved and hated in equal measure. They thought assimilation of Western Jews into liberal society was perfectly possible, if not inevitable. That would be the disaster. They saw the state as custodian of a unique cultural opportunity, which could be inclusive of anyone coming to the land and participating in the revolutionary national life.

And in today's Israel--this Beinart does not see, it seems--you can detect the strains of political Zionism in both the right and left, reactionaries and peaceniks. Hardliners talk about Iran and pal around with AIPAC types. (Think of people like Bibi's brain, Uzi Arad.) Political Zionists in the peace camp, for their part, talk rather about demography. (Some, like Kadima's Haim Ramon, came to the J Street conference.) Both focus on Israel as a Jewish majority state, and are not too bothered by what Jewish means, for they assume the rest of the world will remind them. They are frantic about Israeli Arabs. They think of diaspora Jewish organizations as various political assets to be mined.

The cultural Zionists, however, are almost all on the democratic left, for they think of "Israeliness" as a work-in-progress, requiring critical thinking and democratic spaces, distinct from, even transcendent of, traditional Halachic life. Ironically, cultural Zionists have natural sympathy for diaspora orthodoxy the way a synthesis has a natural sympathy for a thesis. They suppose the Hebrew culture resilient enough to provide a home for all strains of Jewish religious imagination, strong enough to compete in the world, and eclectic enough to assimilate others. They are not afraid of Israeli Arab assimilation into a Hebrew republic. Interestingly, they have no problem with diaspora Jews--indeed, all people everywhere--holding the Israeli state to democratic standards. But they find diaspora Jews arguing about joint responsibility for Jewish civilization pretentious.

WHERE IS BEINART in all of this? Clearly, he fits in a corner of the political Zionist map. He told Jeffrey Goldberg: " grandmother used to say, 'the Jews are like rats,' we leave the sinking ship. So yes, I'm a Zionist. I'm close enough to people who still have their bags packed." He takes for granted that American Jews constitute a distinct "community," replete with communitarian institutions and an "Establishment"; that the most important question to be asked about it is, Who will lead it, people with reactionary or liberal attitudes?, sort of the way you ask questions about elections to the Knesset. Halachic Jews, in this context, are a dangerous influence--as Beinart implies "a potential bonanza" for bad Zionism--since they are increasing in number relative to young liberal Jews: "The 2006 AJC poll found that while 60 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews under the age of forty support a Palestinian state, that figure drops to 25 percent among the Orthodox."

It seems not to have occurred to Beinart that American Jewish life is not a parallel political universe to Israel but actually vindicates the cultural Zionist prophesy (much as Germany arguably vindicated the political Zionist one); that America proves the inevitable debasement of Jewish cultural life in modern liberal societies, and the impossibility of sustaining a serious community life there. In America--Beinart shows but does not acknowledge--assimilation is so advanced and congenial that if one is not Halachic to some degree there is no real point to any affiliation with Jewish community life at all.

Oh, sure, if you are of a certain age, you can be vicariously excited taking sides in that great distant drama, about the Jewishness of Israel, or the unity of Jerusalem, or whatnot; you can, like Goldberg, ironically count Jewish home-run hitters the way our parents, less ironically, counted Nobel Prize winners. But as I myself argued in the New York Review more than 30 years ago, the preoccupation of American Jews with whether Israel's "narrative" is good or bad--the preoccupation with Israel altogether--is not so much resistance to assimilation as a symptom of it.

Beinart cannot see, in other words, that there really can be no American Jewish Establishment other than the one we have; that the alternative to an Establishment "defending Israel" is not one liberally critical of Israel but the evaporation of secular communal institutions altogether. Groups like J Street are not a solution to the benevolent diaspora crisis cultural Zionism anticipated. They can, and should, rally American Jewish liberals (along with non-Jewish liberals) around a foreign policy vision much like the one President Obama set out at West Point this week: to be pro-peace is to be pro-Israel, and so forth. They can, as democrats, insist on democratic values. But J Street cannot provide "identity." When I walked around the J Street conference, I felt vaguely dizzy hearing, again and again, about tikkun olam.

The point is, if American Jews are going to connect to Israel they had better learn its language, not just its "narratives." If they are not inclined to, fine. If they wish to advance democratic values in Israel as anywhere, great. But Israelis will be forgiven for sensing that American Jews cannot have a real politics without real political institutions (as opposed to "major organizations") and that the Anglo-liberalism in which most American Jews marinate distances them from the culture of Israel, which has great strengths. Even Israeli liberals will be forgiven for connecting more intuitively, if tensely and antagonistically, to American Jews steeped in Halacha. At least with Halachic Jews, there is something to punch against and make poetry from.