Sunday, May 30, 2010

Peter Beinart's cri de coeur in the New York Review of Books about how non-liberal American Jews aren't liberal enough, or something, will be familiar to readers of his small coterie of fellow anguished liberal Zionists, such as Jeffrey Goldberg and Leon Wieseltier. But in practice, it's not substantially different from the critiques of more straightforwardly Israel-bashing liberal Jews such as Joe Klein, Ezra Klein or Matthew Yglesias. The critique, which Beinart follows quite precisely, goes roughly as follows: in the old days--say, before the rise of the Likud party--liberal, secular Israel used to be a comfortable object of affection for liberal, secular American Jews. But today, Israel is less liberal and less secular, and thus increasingly alienates liberal American Jews, who respond with hostility towards Israeli policies and actions. Non-liberal, non-secular American Jews, on the other hand, continue to support and defend non-liberal, non-secular Israel, and this is a moral failing of the first order, given Israel's shocking deviations from secular liberalism.

Now, as a purely objective matter, this argument suffers from multiple serious historical distortions. Beinart's bizarre suggestion that "[f]or several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door" is simply not accurate--during the Oslo years, American Jewish liberals had no problem supporting the Rabin, Peres and Barak governments.

Nor is there any historical basis for Beinart's claim that "comfortable Zionism has [recently] become a moral abdication". The liberal, secular Labor governments of the pre-Likud era, while certainly more liberal and secular, were objectively no less guilty of any of the "crimes" of which the current Israeli state typically stands accused. The annexation of Jerusalem, the establishment of Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza strip, pre-emptive invasions of neighboring territory, the assassination of terrorists--all these predated the first Likud government. And the consequences of these actions for Arab civilians were no less severe back when the lead perpetrators were Laborites.

Of course, back then, that was the whole point. It wasn't, after all, Israel's granola-munching pacifism that thrilled American Jews in 1967, when it turned apparent imminent doom into lightning conquest, or in 1976, when it launched a daring hostage-freeing raid hundreds of miles away in Entebbe. In those days, an unapologetically aggressive Israel was a source of pride, not shame, for American Jews.

But if Israel hasn't changed as much as its critics claim, American Jews have changed a great deal more. It was only during the 1960s that the discriminatory barriers that had previously kept Jews out of the highest levels of the American establishment began to crumble. To an American Jew in 1967, a beleaguered Israel turned conquerer was a fitting symbol for an insecure minority finally winning a chance to conquer the highest rungs of American society. Zionism was thus the rallying cry of the assimilationist, proclaiming that secular, liberal Jews, by shedding their pious, persecuted shtetl identities, could be proud, equal citizens of America, just as secular, liberal Israel, by shedding its diaspora vulnerability, could be a proud equal member of the society of nations.

Today, however, the children of those assimilated liberal Jews have completely arrived. No longer haunted by the sense of apartness that dogged their parents and grandparents, Jews like Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias see themselves as liberal, secular Americans tout court. For them, Zionism--even without the Likudnik/Haredi angle--is an unwelcome reminder of the old sense of otherness that they would rather avoid feeling, now that they have the option.

It is this swing against Zionism among assimilated American Jews that is creating so much conflict in more seriously Jewish liberals such as Beinart, who aren't seeking assimilation into American society as a whole, but rather into the liberal intelligentsia--including its nominally Jewish contingent. Mere anti-Israel animus on the left can't be the explanation--it's nothing new, after all, and pro-Zionist liberal Jews have long resisted its pull and vigorously countered its arguments (including a lonely few, such as Goldberg, Wieseltier and Jonathan Chait, who continue to do so to this very day). In fact, the liberal arguments in defense of Zionism are stronger than ever these days, now that even the Likud accepts a Palestinian state in principle, while Israel's Arab and Palestinian opponents have swung towards a rejectionism that's not only as brutally violent as ever, but also increasingly theocratic, quasi-fascist and nakedly anti-Semitic.

On substantial grounds alone, then, the liberal Zionist's defense against leftist anti-Zionist agitation ought to be far stronger and more confident today than, say, twenty years ago. (In the very issue of the New York Review of Books containing Beinart's essay, an advertisement by a long list of American leftists accuses the Obama administration of war crimes in the Middle East--specifically, the targeting of Al Qaeda civilians for airstrikes by unmanned drones. Yet somehow, mainstream liberals seem to have managed not to collapse in anguish over the alleged incipient fascism of the Obama administration.)

But as I've pointed out before, international political campaigns like the current one against Israel (or the one against South Africa before it, for that matter) aren't motivated by substance, but rather by their symbolic value in the context of other (usually more local) political battles. And now that such a large fraction of assimilated, secular, liberal American Jews have abandoned Zionism altogether--while non-secular, non-liberal American Jews continue to embrace it--it's much more difficult for a self-identified liberal American Jew like Beinart to break ranks with his chosen side in this domestic sectarian conflict.

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