Beinart, Chait, and that Disappearing Zionist Feeling

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Peter Beinart has a new essay (in the New York Review of Books)  about the slow death (or possibly not-so-slow death) of Zionist feeling among young, liberal Jews, caused mainly by what he perceives to be the American Jewish establishment's acquiescence to the spread of official intolerance in Israel. This is how Ben Smith in Politico summarizes it:

Peter Beinart's new essay indicts American Jewish organizations -- AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents first of all -- for, as he sees it, apologizing for an extremist and racist Israeli right. It will cost him friends, and start a conversation, particularly in the shrinking space occupied by liberal, Zionist* voices like his, Jeffrey Goldberg's, and Jonathan Chait's.

(Smith's asterisk leads to this statement, which seems reasonable to me: "There's no perfect phrase for the group; I'd initially said "liberal, pro-Israel," which drew reasonable objections from people to their left who consider themselves pro-Israel; "liberal Zionist" may draw similar objections. But there's clearly a strain of thought on the American center-left, associated with the Democratic Party, which is at risk of extinction here.)

Ben Smith has helped me figure out the source of the claustrophobic feeling I've been experiencing lately. It turns out that it occurs when you've been locked in a small room (decorated, ambivalently, in blue and white) with Peter Beinart and Jon Chait and.... well, that's the point, isn't it? Who else is still out there arguing that you can be liberal and Zionist at the same time, meaning, pro-Israel and anti-occupation? There's Leon Wieseltier, of course, but who else? Tom Friedman is in the same camp (and has been there for a long time) but he pays only intermittent attention to the problem.

I've only read through Beinart's essay quickly (though not so quickly that I haven't already exchanged a couple of e-mails with him about it) and I think it is in many ways analytically valid, if unsympathetic to some of the existential challenges faced by Israelis. But the essay's placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart's goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it. Who is he trying to convince? Timothy Garton Ash? Peter should have published this essay on Tablet, or some other sort of publication not associated with Tony Judt's disproportionate hatred of Jewish nationalism.

In any case, I will try to rise above such pettiness (wish me luck) and focus on the core of Beinart's argument, which is this:

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.

Peter and I will be having an e-mail exchange over this and other points in his essay, and Goldblog will post the entire exchange tomorrow, with any luck.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/05/beinart-chait-and-that-disappearing-zionist-feeling/56810/