Will I save liberal Zionism?

I’ve been working on this blog post ever since I first read Peter Beinart’s excellent piece at the beginning of the week in the New York Review of Books about the relationship between American Jews and Israel, the failure of the American Jewish leadership, and the possibility of a “liberal” Zionism.

Since I started working on the post, there have been numerous responses from both the right and the left. A number of people I respect have taken issue with the concept of liberal Zionism in the first place (see the Magnes Zionist here) while Beinart did an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the gatekeeping journalist of American Jewry. J Street has responded positively to the article, of course, because they are the ones trying to correct the problem of a Jewish leadership that is far to the right of the people it supposedly represents.

I’m not going to try to do Beinart’s article justice by summarizing it. I cannot recommend enough that everyone read the whole thing from start to finish. I’m also not going to try to contribute to the discussion about whether or not there can be a liberal Zionism or whether the concept is flawed from the beginning. Where I do think I can contribute, however, is by pointing out how clearly Beinart’s essay is about me, the author of this blog, and scores of people I know from Montclair, from Oberlin, and from Cairo.

Beinhart starts his essay with a story about a Republican pollster hired in 2003 to find out what Jewish students in the United States thought about Israel. He largely found that they don’t. (I’m an exception, I guess. I think about Israel a lot.) However, when prodded, the pollster found that these young Jews had opinions, just not the ones that the Jewish establishment holds. According to the pollster, we “resist anything [we] see as ‘group think'” and we “desperately want peace.” Some of us even “empathize with the plight of the Palestinians” believe it or not!

This represents a major shift from previous generations of American Jews. Beinart characterizes the changing relationship with the following passage, which reminds me of sitting around with my (brilliant) father at the kitchen table after dinner, picking at a chicken carcass, finishing our wine, and discussing the day’s news:

They vote Democratic; they are unmoved by biblical claims to the West Bank; they see average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders; and they are secular. They don’t want Jewish organizations to criticize Israel from the left, but neither do they want them to be agents of the Israeli right.

These American Zionists are largely the product of a particular era. Many were shaped by the terrifying days leading up to the Six-Day War, when it appeared that Israel might be overrun, and by the bitter aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when much of the world seemed to turn against the Jewish state. In that crucible, Israel became their Jewish identity, often in conjunction with the Holocaust, which the 1967 and 1973 wars helped make central to American Jewish life. These Jews embraced Zionism before the settler movement became a major force in Israeli politics, before the 1982 Lebanon war, before the first intifada. They fell in love with an Israel that was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology of occupation. And by downplaying the significance of Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas, American Jewish groups allow these older Zionists to continue to identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth, an Israel that now only exists in their memories.

But these secular Zionists aren’t reproducing themselves. Their children have no memory of Arab armies massed on Israel’s border and of Israel surviving in part thanks to urgent military assistance from the United States. Instead, they have grown up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril. 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.

I’m not sure if I would go as far as to call the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment fake–I think that’s excessively strong language. The liberalism is genuine. I’m proud to say that American Jews were widely supportive of the civil rights and anti-war movements–including the aforementioned father. But when it comes to Israel, this commitment to human rights, peace and democratic values has been complicated by feelings of victimhood.

When the generation before mine was growing up, Jews were still banned from country clubs and certain neighborhoods. Top-tier private universities had quotas on Jewish students. Many among that generation had parents or aunts and uncles who escaped Europe’s anti-semitism just before it was too late. And anti-semitism still existed in the United States. This helped to solidify the sense of Jewish nationhood, which coalesces around Israel. Jeffrey Goldberg writes very explicitly in his book Prisoners about how getting beat up by anti-semites during middle school affected his decision to drop out of college and join the Israeli army.

I can’t relate to that. In New Jersey, where I grew up, you’re just as likely to find a Goldschmidt as a Williams on the green at the local country club. Harvard, needless to say, no longer has quotas. I’ve encountered far more anti-Jewish comments from French expats in Cairo (but not Arabs–that’s a story for another day) than I did in the 22 years I lived in the United States. This doesn’t mean that anti-Jewish sentiment doesn’t exist in the United States. It does, but we’ve come a long way and for this reason, my generation has none of this baggage connecting us to Israel and making us want to treat it exceptionally.

Beinart says it well:

This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood—a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967—strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce.


The essay ends with an impassioned plea to try to save Zionism from itself. My generation, Beinart argues to his audience in the New York Review, must not be allowed to abandon Israel completely. Instead, we have to push for a more just, more equitable Zionism. He uses the example of an impressive and growing protest movement in occupied East Jerusalem as an example of what we could become:

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 if the students in Luntz’s focus group had been told that their generation faces a challenge as momentous as any in Jewish history: to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth?

“Too many years I lived in the warm embrace of institutionalized elusiveness and was a part of it,” writes Avraham Burg. “I was very comfortable there.” I know; I was comfortable there too. But comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication. Let’s hope that Luntz’s students, in solidarity with their counterparts at Sheikh Jarrah, can foster an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. Let’s hope they care enough to try.

Well, as one of Luntz’s students (Luntz is the pollster mentioned earlier), I want to respond to the author: I think that he makes a strong and powerful case for upholding liberal values in the “only Jewish state on earth.” Perhaps if this conversation had emerged twenty years ago, there would be a better chance for saving Zionism for us. But I think that he misses something completely.

I think the time for supporting Zionism–even an “uncomfortable” one–may have passed. In a generation as globalized as mine, with access to international news through the Internet, with high rates of participation in study abroad programs, with cheap flights around the world, the concept of a Jewish state, and indeed the concept of ethnic nationalism at all, might be dying. (I realize I’m probably to the left of most Americans and American Jews, but I’m confident that this is the overall trend.) I hope, however, that as our commitment to ethnic nationalism fades, our commitment to human rights does not.



Filed under Israel-Palestine, Jews

2 responses to “Will I save liberal Zionism?

  1. Pingback: Will I save liberal Zionism? « Next Year In | study highschool abroad

  2. Hi Max,

    Unfortunately, in Israel it doesn’t seem that the concept of ethnic nationalism is dying. In fact it seems its growing stronger–elected officials calling for the expulsion of Arab-Israeli citizens, the illegal removal of Arab-Israelis from their homes…the list goes on. While liberal Zionism is by no means an ideal ideology, it can provide an opportunity for people to be both pro-Israel and critical of the government at the same time. Its a bridge, I would say that could lead Israel to mature into a fully democratic, liberal state.

    If you’re interested in my response to Peter Beinart you can read it here: http://alisonramer.com/2010/05/22/response-to-peter-beinart-your-uncomfortable-zionist-is-here/

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