Monday, May 17, 2010

Beinart and the Future of Liberal Zionism

Peter Beinart has written an interesting essay in the New York Review of Books, accusing the American Jewish Establishment of being stuck in entrenched positions, detached from reality, and not seeing the handwriting on the wall: Israel is becoming (has become) a rightwing, ultranationalist country supported by illiberal orthodox, Russian nationalists, and abandoned by liberals and progressives. Let's face it -- the only American liberals who support Israel today are over sixty. He cites the poll that says that 56 percent of Jewish Israeli high school students -- and more than 80 percent of religious Jewish high school -- would deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset.  Yet, as Beinart shows, none of this affects the American Jewish establishment who repeat the mantras of the hasbara crowd. He worries whether there will be any progressive Zionists left in the next generation (apparently, he has not heard of J-Street U, or he thinks it is insignificant.)

All this is not new to readers of this blog. And for those who live in Israel, the death of the Zionist left is ten years old. So while I am glad that somebody mainstream like Beinart is speaking out, and I am also glad he chose to do it in the New York Review of Books (the journal hated by what I shall call the A.K.Z or the Alte Kakke Zionists), he still gets some things wrong, and that is what I would like to focus on.

First of all, and most important, he accepts the liberal Zionist dogma that there was a humane, universalistic Zionism embodied in the State of Israel, via the Labor party and the Zionist left. This is false.  Yes, there was a humanistic Zionism -- the Zionism of Buber, Magnes, Einstein, Arendt, Kohn, Ernst Simon -- but it died with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The Labor Zionism of Ben Gurion had the voice of Jacob but the hands of Esau, and that is why Israel became for its first sixty three years, an Esau represented to the world by Jacobs like Abba Eban. Oh, perhaps it is a bit more complicated than that; in fact, the Zionist left had both Jacob and Esau. But because he falls for this division, Beinart makes a huge mistake when he puts Barak on the side of Einstein and not on the side of Netanyahu.  He never asks the question why Barak joined a coalition with Bibi in the first place. Were Beinart to live in Israel, he would have placed the Labor party, and its Mapai predecessor, in the chauvinistic center a long time ago. After all, it was Oslo which put the settlement enterprise over the top; Barak, whose absurd offer to the Palestinians at Camp David (about 18% of historical Palestine, around 89% of the West Bank, virtually nothing in Jerusalem, and no return of refugees) should have been met not with a counter-offer by Arafat but with a show of disgust.) And most of all, Beinart doesn't realize, after criticizing those who criticize the Israeli human rights groups, that there is virtually no difference between Labor, Kadima, and Likud on that score. The man who effectively stopped an independent investigation of the Gaza War was the man who had the most to lose from such an investigation, Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

In other words, by not recognizing that the differences between right and center-left in Israel are miniscule, that the Old Left has fallen apart, not just because of demographic trends, but because once the consensus coalesced around certain principles, there was nothing for it to stand up for. 

This bring me to Beinart's second misreading. He sees hope in the younger generation of Israeli human rights activists, such as those who protest the eviction of Palestinian families (not family, as he mistakenly writes) from Sheikh Jarrah. He writes:

For several months now, a group of Israeli students has been traveling every Friday to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where a Palestinian family named the Ghawis lives on the street outside their home of fifty-three years, from which they were evicted to make room for Jewish settlers. Although repeatedly arrested for protesting without a permit, and called traitors and self-haters by the Israeli right, the students keep coming, their numbers now swelling into the thousands. What if American Jewish organizations brought these young people to speak at Hillel? What if this was the face of Zionism shown to America’s Jewish young?

What Beinart doesn't get is that most of the young people who protest at Sheikh Jarrah either a) do not define themselves as any sort of Zionist; b) have no qualms in joining hands with activists who are non-Zionists, or simply pro-Palestinians; c) see themselves not as advocating a more humane form of Zionism, but as people protesting injustice. Has he seen the t-shirt of the activists? "Nothing can be holy in an Occupied City." Does he want those t-shirts sold at Hillel, with the message that the annexation of Jerusalem is illegal, that Jerusalem is an occupied city, and that East Jerusalem must be the Palestinian capital?" Or how about the chant, "From Sheikh Jarrah to Bilin, we shall liberate Falistin." And why doesn't he get it? Because the face of Sheikh Jarrah that he sees is the face of Yossi Sarid, David Grossman, Moshe Halbertal, all good old fashioned liberal Zionists, and all A.K.Z.'s who have been supporting the kids of the next generation.

If he does get it, then he will have to understand that it is no longer acceptable for the younger generation of progressives to take the A.K.Z. line, i.e.,  to be against the settlements or opposed to the Occupation, and yet give knee-jerk support to a government like the  Barak-Bibi-Lieberman government, or even Olmert-Livni.  If you are liberal and you support that Israeli government and demonize the Chomsky left, then you are no true liberal -- you are Zionist who has checked your liberalism at the door. The frummies won't bother with you, and  Israel doesn't need you (except to be the court Jews for Democratic administrations)

And this brings me to the last misstep of an article.  Israel doesn't need liberal Zionists any more. It said as much when it tried to marginalize J-Street. The truth is that Israel never really needed the American Jewish community, as long as it could have the US government. One of the great successes of Israeli Zionism was to convince American Jews that Israel was an American style democracy, instead of a Eastern European ethnocracy with some of the trappings of a liberal democracy. It was founded by Russians, and for the most part, Russians and their descendants have run it. And now with the Russian aliyah, it will be even more Russian. True, Bibi has always thrown in a few Americans, Oren, Gold, etc., as this generation's Abba Ebans. But there is nothing in common between the ethnic democracy of Israel and the liberal democracy of America. Beinart doesn't get this; he thinks that the shift rightward is a shift away from Israeli style democracy. He is still back in the eighties with Aharon Barak's constitutional revolution (he fails to realize the importance of former Chief Justice Barak as an architect of the Israeli occupation).

Still, Beinart gets enough to arouse the ire of the A.K.Z.'s  It is about time that they all realize that most progressive Jews, the ones who voted in droves for Obama, will not care about Israel, and bringing to Hillel the Sheikh Jarrah activists, or Breaking the Silence. or Combatants for Peace (who have gone to college Hillels) won't make the progressives more Zionistic -- especially when they see that this sort of liberal Zionism is so passe for the human rights groups.

In the next generation, if you are a pro-Israeli who stands for human rights, you will reject the chauvinistic center of Israel and ally with the next generations of Chomskys and Finkelsteins and Judts.  You will see that their anti-Israel sentiments are against that chauvinistic center, not against a more progressive Israel.  Beinart doesn't see this now.

But the next generation will.


Unknown said...

Bless you, my friend for seeing things so clearly. Liberal Zionists, as you say, are living in a blinkered reality. Their fantasies & nostalgia are toxic, not to themselves, but to anyone who buys into them not knowing better.

How could we expect much better fr. a former New Republic-an editor?

Unknown said...

If there were Beinarts however misguided with influence in 135 CE instead of misguided R'Akiva's following some terrorist triumphalist dreamer from the former Yugoslavia (Bar Kosovo), then perhaps Zionism would have been unnecessary.
We had to rebuild Judaism from the burnt ground up after that disaster-- God (and history) is very loathe to give miraculous second chances to those who learn not from the first-- so we may have even a harder task next time.

Anonymous said...

would like to wish you a chag sameach

may this be the last shavuoth we all have to spend in chutz laaretz

next year in yerushalaim

and yes, that even includes the liberal zionists

Bernard said...


But how many years will it take?

In the meantime the agony of the Palestinians goes on and on.

willyrobinson said...

'And this brings me to the last misstep of an article... One of the great successes of Israeli Zionism was to convince American Jews that Israel was an American style democracy, instead of a Eastern European ethnocracy with some of the trappings of a liberal democracy. It was founded by Russians, and for the most part, Russians and their descendants have run it.'

I'm not sure that I accept this. I don't say that in a hostile way, but if you have the time to expand on the specifically Russian character of Israel 60 years ago I'd be very interested in what you have to say.

I accept the term ethnocracy - I think it's useful to observe the Knesset as an extermely tribal House, and would go so far as to say that the split in the ashkenazy vote among 3 or more parties nominally of the left and right (rather than a single ethno-centric party) allows a misreading by those who wish to see what they want to see.

I also accept that the massive recent Russian Aliyah has changed Israel to a huge extent (as any massive influx must).

However, ashkenazy does not equal russian, but a Europe-wide tradition as I understand it, and the presence of specifically Russian leaders at the birth of Israel may be as unhelpful to a greater understanding as the presence of specifically jewish leaders at the birth of the communist revolution for example.

I would say that Russia is, by unhappy coincidence (ie unhappy history), a very ultranationalist/tribal place right now. But so then is the US - my point is that tribalism is a human condition and does not belong to any one country.

Reading back over your piece, perhaps you're making a temporary conflation: ashkenazy = russian to some extent, in order to show Beinart that those who have arrived from Russia recently are not so far removed from the existing population?

You can see that I simply dont quite get what it is you're trying to say here. I love the blog though - w

Stephen Duke said...

I think the one plank both Beinhart and you have missed out on is that liberal zionism is dying because liberal (reform/conservative) Judaism is dying.

Demographic studies show that liberal Jews are not very good at reproducing themselves; in fact they are appallingly bad in this respect. Over 4 generations 85% of secular, reform and conservative Jews will assimilate and be indistinguishable from the goyim. The descendents of today's liberal-zionists may well be critical of Israel but the overwhelming majority of them won't be taking this stance as self-identifying Jews. This doesn't mean that their views are unimortant but simply that they won't be a section of the diaspora Jewish community who hold this view.

In contrast modern orthodox Jews on their own make up for these disappearing Jews and ultra orthodox reproduce at a rate of 7 per couple. If these trends continue then in the future the overwhelming majority of diaspora Jews will be pro-Israel and strongly so.