Goldblog vs. Peter Beinart, Part II

Part Two of my conversation with Peter Beinart. Part I is here. More, I hope, after Shavuot:

Jeffrey Goldberg: It's interesting to me that you, an Orthodox Jew, don't answer the question about Zionism in any sort of theological way whatsoever. Anti-Semitism to me is not a good enough answer to the question of "Why Israel." I'm not Orthodox, but I do feel a spiritual connection to our homeland. Without this connection, can Israel's location in what was Palestine be justified? Shouldn't it have been built in Bavaria?

Peter Beinart:
I didn't call myself an Orthodox Jew; I said I attend an Orthodox synagogue. But anyway, it's a reasonable question. I feel a spiritual connection through Jewish observance--when I'm in shul, on Shabbat, even through kashrut. And I feel a spiritual connection to Jewish people--a certain delight at certain Jewish idiosyncracies, at a sense of global peoplehood. I'll never forget my grandfather coming from Cape Town to Newton, Massachusetts and looking at an apartment building filled with Jewish names and saying "I know everyone here." It was schmaltzy, but he meant it and it moves me to think back on that. My spiritual connection to the land of Israel is, in all honesty, weaker. Perhaps that's why I don't feel the sense of potential loss at giving up Hebron that some people genuinely do. My love of Israel isn't about the land; it's my endless wonder at a society in which Jews from around the world were thrown together, a museum of the dazzling variety of world Jewry, in which people separated for millennia forged, and reforged, the bonds of peoplehood. That's what chokes me up about Israel--that and what those Jews have built.

JG: You don't seem too interested in the forces that seek the elimination of Israel -- and here I mean Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Israel is a democracy, with freedom of speech, in a part of the world in which gays are murdered for being gay; in which cartoonists are condemned to death; in which press freedom is practically nonexistent. Israel struggles to survive in this harsh atmosphere. Sometimes it does this deeply imperfectly. For instance, in its attempt to stop Hamas from firing rockets at its own civilians, it killed many Palestinian civilians. But does this really compare to the genocidal rhetoric, and actions, of Israel's enemies? Do these things really compare to the building of apartments for Jews in Jerusalem? This is a question, in case you haven't figured this out yet, about the New York Review of Books, where you published your article. It's also a question about proportionality, about the unseemly interest the left takes in Israel's moral failings. Can you name another country, facing the same types of enemies, that does a better job protecting individual rights and freedoms while at war with a foe that seeks its physical elimination?
PB: First, on the New York Review of Books. I disagreed with Tony Judt's essay in 2003 arguing for a binational state. That should be evident from my essay, which is all about saving liberal Zionism. But I think its wrong to call The New York Review anti-Israel. Among the Israelis it publishes are Amos Elon, David Grossman, David Shulman and Tom Segev.  Margalit recently won the Israel Prize. I'd like to hear which among them is anti-Israel. In fact, The New York Review is one of the few American publications that gives space to those Israeli intellectuals fighting to maintain Israel's liberal democratic character, the very voices that I argue American Jews desperately need to hear. In general, I think American Jewish leaders and commentators have become far too promiscuous about throwing around words like anti-Israel. In my mind, you're anti-Israel if you want Israel to disappear as a Jewish state. Being a harsh critic is something very different, and even if you believe someone is insufficiently attentive to Israeli security, that merely makes them wrong, not anti-Israel, unless you can prove that they are inattentive because they would not mind if Israel ceased to exist as a Jewish state.

There certainly are leftists (and for that matter) rightists who focus so disproportionately on Israel's failings as to raise questions about their true motives. I'm not sure what that has to do with my essay. I'm writing about American Jewish groups whose mission is ostensibly to sustain Israel as a democratic Jewish state, and to sustain Zionism in the United States. I think they're failing on both fronts.

JG: Yes, there are leftists (and rightists) who focus so disproportionately on Israel's failings as to raise questions about their true motives. But I'm asking you something else: Are Israel's failings, in fact, so terrible, especially given the line-up of enemies Israel is facing? I'm asking you to confront reality, not your Utopian vision of what a Jewish country should be. The reality is that there are organizations and countries trying to physically eliminate the Jewish state. Even with this existential problem, Israel still manages to be the freest and most democratic state in the Middle East, and one that even grants its Muslim citizens the right to build minarets and wear burqas, unlike many countries in Europe. Again, I'm asking about proportionality. Another way of asking this is, what has changed for you? Except for the appointment of a very unpleasant and right-wing foreign minister, very little (the settlements, etc.) is actually that different than it was five or ten years ago, except that Israel removed its settlements from Gaza and got rockets in return. So what has changed for you, except the adoption of the apartheid narrative by the far-left?

PB: I'm not asking Israel to be Utopian. I'm not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I'm not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I'm actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel's security and for its status as a Jewish state. What I am asking is that Israel not do things that foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, because if it is does that it will become--and I'm quoting Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak here--an "apartheid state."

And foreclosing the possibility of a Palestinian state is exactly what the current Israeli coalition wants to do. You ask what has changed. First, year after year of settlement growth at triple the rate of the Israeli population (including this year, since in practice, Netanyahu's "partial freeze" has led to no slowdown of building, and in any case he has said it will not be renewed after September). The more the settlements expand, the more settlers--including fanatical settlers--take over parts of the Israeli bureaucracy and become integral to the Israeli army and rabbinate, all of which makes the prospect of removing them without outright civil war more remote. These people have already murdered an Israeli Prime Minister, and they routinely use violence against Israeli troops and Israeli leftists, not to mention Palestinians. Their young "hilltop youth" are so extreme that they actually scare the settler old guard. "When will the state of Israel wake up and realize that it is facing a real threat from an enemy within," those words are not from a dove, they are Ben Dror Yemeni, the hawkish editor of Maariv last year. And it's not just the growth and increased radicalization of the settlers, it's the emergence of a political coalition determined to protect them and make a Palestinian state impossible.

Netanyahu's hostility to a Palestinian state defines his entire political career (his utterly transparent mouthing of the words under U.S. pressure notwithstanding). But what has changed since his last stint in office is the coalition around Netanyahu. Because they have been bribed by housing and other subsidies, Shas and the Ashkenazi haredi parties are now invested in the settlement project as well. That wasn't the case in the 1990s. Nor had Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu emerged as Israel's third largest party. So what is new politically is the emergence of a coalition of three parties (three of Israel's five largest): Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud, all basically devoted to foreclosing a Palestinian state and with a pretty fundamental disregard for democratic values. I genuinely believe that the more impossible a Palestinian state becomes, the more mainstream ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians--and perhaps Israeli Arabs--will become. That's the significance of Effi Eitam, and of Lieberman's endless efforts to strip Arab Israelis of their rights, and of the polling data I quote which shows how open Israelis, especially young Israelis, are to the idea. Jeffrey, the people in Israel who share our values, are saying this every day. To read Haaretz is to sense their desperation. Akiva Elder, Gideon Levy, David Grossman, they make me sound tame. Your piece in the New Yorker on the settlers was the most powerful thing any American has ever written on the subject, and it burned with outrage. Things are much worse now, and yet I don't sense that outrage anymore. What has changed with you?

JG: Nothing has changed with me. I still believe the settlers are the vanguard of binationalism (i.e., their project endangers the idea of Israel as a Jewish democracy) and I worry, as do you and David Grossman (I don't put myself in the same camp as Gideon Levy, by the way), about the intolerance of Avigdor Lieberman. But the world is bigger than just crazy Jews. The world has its share of crazy Muslim extremists -- the ones, for instance, who are pointing 40,000 rockets at Israel from Lebanon right now -- and they are not pointing these rockets at Israel in order to bring about the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. They are seeking the physical destruction of 5.5 million Jews in their historic homeland. I take this seriously, and I think you should take it seriously, as well. Avigdor Lieberman is less of an immediate threat to the future of Israel than Hassan Nasrallah. Also, another, not unrelated point: Our Israeli cousins do, in fact, support a two-state solution (Jon Chait points this out in his response to you) but they are dispirited by the outcomes of Camp David and the Gaza withdrawal. You don't have to be an Israeli extremist to believe that the Arab side is not especially enamored with the ideas of peace and compromise, despite the existence of Salam Fayyad and other Palestinian moderates.  Perhaps we here in America should take these Israeli concerns more seriously, and have more respect for the hard-earned experience of Israelis. And a small note: the biggest vote-getter in the last election was the moderate Kadima party, which chose not to join the Likud in a center-right coalition. You make it seem as if the Israeli people voted for fascism. They didn't. You also make it seem, by the way, that Ha'aretz is some sort of centrist project. It speak for maybe four or five percent of Israelis. A disproportionate number of our friends in Israel are in the Ha'aretz camp, it is true, but it is still not representative of the non-crazy Israeli middle. 

One more question (well, maybe they'll be one more after this): I've read the 2008 report you refer to indirectly your piece, the one you implied suggested that young, non-Orthodox American Jews are growing distant from Israel. It actually doesn't say what Stephen Cohen and others think it says. "Jewish attachment to Israel has largely held steady for the period 1994-2007," is the way the report puts it. I've been to those enormous, borderline-unpleasant AIPAC meetings -- they draw thousands of people under the age of 45, and not all of them are Orthodox, not by a long shot. And studies show that the tens of thousands of Jewish young adults who visit Israel each year on Birthright trips come back with strong and durable pro-Israel feelings. Finally, let's not forget that fifteen to twenty percent of young, non-Orthodox Jews in America are growing up in Russian- and Farsi-speaking homes, and these folks are not Ha'aretz readers. So the question is, outside the left-wing blogosphere, are you really so sure that we're seeing a collapse in young adult support for Israel?

PB: I do take the threat of Hassan Nasrallah seriously. I'm not against any Israeli use of force, if there's a real chance that it will make Israelis safer and its done in a way that as much as possible spares civilians. But over the long run, the best way to undermine Nasrallah and people like him is to give hope to those Palestinians and Muslims who do want a two-state solution. In Fayyad, and even Abbas, we have such leaders. Surely in those circumstances continued settlement growth, which simply convinces Palestinians that they will never have a state on most of the West Bank, is deeply self-destructive. I want the major American Jewish groups to say so, loudly. Instead, they deny that settlements are even a problem.

You're right that Kadima won more seats than Likud. But Livni, to her credit, would not join Netanyahu's government in part because he would not commit to supporting a Palestinian state (not surprising given his lifetime opposition to one). And Netanyahu was able to create a coalition with Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor and far-right settler parties. That is a new and frightening phenomenon, as I said, since until recently Israel didn't have a major semi-fascist party (Yisrael Beiteinu) and the anti-democratic illiberalism of Shas hadn't been connected to the settlement project.

On respecting the views of our Israeli "cousins". As with my own actual cousins in Israel (not Meretz voters, I assure you), I think I have the right to decide which Israelis share my values and which don't. You're absolutely right that those who do are right now in the political minority. I can live with that, after all, for much of my life I haven't seen my political values reflected by a majority of Americans.

On the question of declining loyalty of American Jews to Israel, there is one study that--running  counter to the mainstream view among sociologists who study this--argues that loyalty hasn't declined. That's the study that Shmuel Rosner links to. But for years and years now, most of the reports investigating this have found that affiliation is declining, and certainly when you factor out the orthodox. As Cohen and Kelman put it, in surveying the literature, "a mounting body of evidence has pointed to a growing distance from Israel of American Jews and the distancing seems to be most pronounced among younger Jews." Their own study, which explicitly discounts for life cycle effects, concludes that "we are in the midst of a massive shift in attitudes toward Israel propelled forward by the process of cohort replacement, where the maturing younger cohorts that are least Israel-engaged are replacing the oldest cohorts that are the most Israel-engaged." Luntz found the same thing in his focus groups. And all this takes account of the kids of Persian, Russian, Israel, South African and Argentine Jews coming into the US, and of years of the Birthright program. So yes, I am pretty confident because the evidence leans strongly one way.

I've been to dozens of AIPAC meetings (and a few ADL) meetings across the country. You see far fewer young Jews than you do at AIPAC policy conference in Washington. And that's AIPAC, which is very well-funded organization that devotes enormous resources to this problem. I think what people like you should appreciate about liberal bloggers like Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias etc is that at least they have enough Zionism to care. Their sense of concern should be nurtured, not discouraged, since for most secular young Jews the choice is not between a critical Zionism and an uncritical Zionism. It's between a critical Zionism and no Zionism.

To be continued.