Category Archives: Jews

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.

Yup.

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.

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Filed under Israel-Palestine, Jews

This year in Egypt

Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Exodus 22:21

Last night marked the beginning of Passover, the holiday where Jews around the world celebrate the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. I am, of course, in Egypt.

I’m not really celebrating this year. In fact, I’m not celebrating at all. Last night I tried to go to a seder at one of the few remaining synagogues in Cairo, but I wasn’t allowed to enter. (I suspect that at least part of the reason I was turned away was because I told security outside that I’m a journalist. I won’t prove them right by writing on the Internet about the seder or the synagogue.)

I understand that security is an important issue for the small (and shrinking) Jewish community here. It was just a few weeks ago that some crazy threw a homemade bomb at the main synagogue downtown. But I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to celebrate one of my favorite holidays—particularly one in which observers open their doors to symbolize inviting guests to the table.

Then again, I’m not sure I how I could celebrate Passover in Egypt. An important part of the seder service is, basically, celebrating the Jewish victory over the Egyptians. At its most grisly, this involves commemorating the ten plagues that God cast upon the Egyptians, culminating in the death of the first-born. The killing of civilians is something I always object to.

Of course we’re dealing with Biblical times here, when things were bloody and there was a lot of smiting going on. But there’s still something uncomfortable about glorifying the punishment that befell the Egyptian masses, especially when you’re in Egypt, surrounded by the Egyptian masses. Yeah, my boss can be a slave driver, but does that mean I want his first born dead? (As an interesting and relevant side note: “Pharoah” is the word sometimes employed by hardline Islamists to describe the Mubarak regime and other ‘secular’ dictatorships in the Middle East.)

And then there is Israel, which has been an ever-present issue in my mind for every Passover in the last few years. Passover is not just about the escape from Egypt, it is about its end point: the promised land of Israel. This doesn’t mean that observing seder is an endorsement of Zionism, but it gives context to notions of Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. The seder ends with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” It’s a concept I’ve always found problematic but fascinating (hence the name of this blog).

Jerusalem is the holy city for Jews. Does this justify house demolitions and land confiscation, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on movement? Of course not. But it helps, again, to give a context to the Israeli attachment to the city, an attachment so strong that the Israelis will take their policies to the heights of belligerence. This year, we’re having this discussion even more than usual. For a more a more religious and sentimental take on the situation than I usually have, check out Bradley Burston (a Zionist, but a bleeding heart) on how to think about Jerusalem at your seder this year.

Despite its problematic contemporary subtexts, I love the holiday. I appreciate its message about freedom and oppression and liberation. These are the values I find most important in my religion. And it’s a good opportunity to be with family and friends, drink wine, eat brisket and the gefilte fish (like a fish hotdog), and discuss the finer points of oppression. I’ll miss that this year.

I also like to keep kosher for Passover, something I have done with mostly success for the past ten years. I’m going to try to do it this year, though it will be especially difficult in a country that is one of the world’s largest per capita consumers of bread. (Macaroni sandwiches, while not exactly common, are more readily available in Cairo than they are anywhere back home.) Not to mention the difficulty of getting a decent macaroon anywhere in this city.

But so it goes. I am a stranger in the land of Egypt and I guess I’ll have to adjust to the peculiarity of my situation. Next year in.

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Filed under Egypt, Holidays, Israel-Palestine, Jews, Life Abroad, Personal Stuff

Obama can’t stand up to pushy Jersey girl

It’s hard to make me not feel proud about being from New Jersey. But this does:

That’s Robin Benosf of Teaneck, New Jersey (a mere twenty-five minutes from my hometown) laying the cornerstone for a new settlement in East Jerusalem. (Photo from the AP, via Mondoweiss.) As the American president and State Department declare their “dismay,” New Jersey citizens actively take part in expanding the reach of Israeli settlements in occupied land. Luckily, we can still claim Bruce Springsteen.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is seen as impotent when it comes to confronting the Israelis. An AFP story yesterday said:

The Obama administration is hardening its tone against Israel, but analysts warned Wednesday the tough talk was mere bluster hiding the lack of a viable plan to revive the Middle East peace process.

“You’ve had three ‘no’s’ to an American president in his first year,” Aaron David Miller, who has served as advisor on Middle East peacemaking to previous US administrations, told AFP.

President Barack Obama is now “faced with the default position, which is words,” said Miller from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“And the louder they shout, the more there is a paradox. The tougher the words are, the weaker we look.”

But when I read that, I find myself thinking, “Well, if we give them about $3 billion a year, can’t we force them to take the most basic step necessary to keep the possibility of a two-state solution alive?” Obama should have more than “words” to fall back on when dealing with the Israelis. Obama and Hillary just need to kick the Israelis in the ass a little bit and then they’ll be forced to comply with our demands. Indeed, the US uses financial and military aid to impose its agenda all over the world.

But I think that Robin Benosf of Teaneck helps to show why it isn’t that simple. Many Americans (and not only Jews) support the Israeli right-wing’s agenda. A politician from New York was right beside Benosf at the founding of the new settlement. Reuters reports:

Dov Hikind, a member of New York state’s assembly, looked out over Jerusalem’s Old City and dismissed the “extreme” view on the matter taken by his party’s president.

He urged fellow American Jews to buy homes on occupied land rather than in traditional U.S. vacation spots.

“I’m trying to get a whole bunch of my friends to actually buy,” said Hikind during a tour of settlement housing projects for several dozen potential U.S. investors.

“Rather than buying second homes in Florida, we want people to buy in Israel,” he said, having watched a foundation stone laid for an extension to the Nof Zion, or Zion View, settlement.

Palestinians, whose leaders declared this week’s Israeli government approval for more settlement building near Jerusalem a killer blow to peace, reject Hikind’s description of Nof Zion as “Israel,” as it lies on occupied land they want for a state.

But his views, shared by significant numbers of American Jews, many of them Democrat voters, are an indication of Obama’s difficulties in holding to his demands that Israel halt its expansion of settlements in the interests of a peace agreement.

With that kind of attitude holding sway in American politics, it’s understandable that Obama and his team are kind of impotent when it comes to pushing the Israelis. I don’t say this just to defend Obama. I’m generally disappointed in his lack of decisiveness across the board. But I think that this helps to contextualize the lack the of progress.

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Filed under American Politics, Diplomacy, Israel-Palestine, Jews

An unfortunate meme

Here’s a pretty ugly video that’s been circulating on many of the blogs that I read.  It shows a bunch of drunk, stupid American Jews in Israel incoherently trashing President Obama and his Muslim sympathies.

For someone like Phil Weiss or As’ad Abu Khalil this, can be pointed to and treated like a serious example of Zionist racism or Jewish chauvinism or whatever.  But let’s be honest here. Drunk assholes are drunk assholes and you can find them anywhere in the world saying equally stupid things. I remember seeing a lot of these types when I was in Jerusalem, nineteen year olds stumbling down Ben Yehuda Street trying to pick fights and hitting on other people’s girlfriends.  They are not worth making a point out of.

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Filed under American Politics, Beer, College, Israel-Palestine, Jews, Mistakes

Marty Peretz makes me say “Oy gevalte!”

And I don’t mean that in a cute way. Why is he continuously allowed to voice his fatuous, pseudo-racist opinions in the pages of an otherwise respectable magazine like The New Republic?

Case in point, Peretz talking about recent diplomacy on Syria (more on that in another post):

Frankly, I don’t trust Damascus one inch.  And, yes, I believe that countries that relentlessly attack others (as Syria did Israel for two decades) should be deprived of the territory from which they launched their weapons.  The Golan has very good wines and very beautiful people, peaceful people, both Jews and Druze.

The man is entitled to be a right-wing Zionist, but why the arrogance, the condescension, the subtle racism? Druze are the peaceful people, according to Peretz, as opposed to their belligerent Arab cousins, the Muslims of Syria.

And then there’s this from a previous Peretz post:Nearly sixty-two years ago the Arab states–acting for themselves but speaking with forked tongues for the Arabs of Palestine–rejected the Partition Plan that emerged circuitously: 1. from the 1917 Balfour Declaration and 2. from the League of Nations mandate, intended to establish the Jewish national home. Oh, you forgot? The Arabs would get Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq etc; the Jews would get Palestine. Pretty fair, it seems to me. Actually, the Zionists were lucky to have had Transjordan cut  off in 1921 from Palestine by the great Christian Zionist Winston Churchill, about whom Michael Makovsky has written an incandescent piece of scholarship, Churchill’s Promised Land, published as a New Republic Book by Yale University Press.

I don’t really care for his argument that it would be “pretty fair” for the Arabs to get the rest of the Arab world, but have to evacuate Palestine.  (That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the Jewish state.) Peretz is entitled to his expansionist view of Zionism, but his invocation of “forked tongues” offends me.  (And yes I know that it’s an idiom.)

Peretz sounds like somebody’s slightly embarrassing grandfather.  In fact, his tenor reminds me of the old guys at my synagogue who always want to sing Hatikva as the closing song.  I listen to these people talk about the Middle East and it makes me shudder–not because I hate Israel or don’t respect the opinions of people who are more conservative than I am, but because they sound old and stodgy and poorly informed and insensitive.

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Postmodern Holocaust denial?

There’s an interesting dialogue at Standpoint Online (I’d never heard of it before) between Israeli author AB Yehoshua and British author Howard Jacobson.  (Via Jeffrey Goldberg, of course.)  I don’t agree with everything they say, but really appreciate their discussion the legacy of the Holocaust and how it intersects with discourse about Israel:

AB Yehoshua: …Where is this coming from, this extraordinary hostility, this attempt to deprive the Jewish people of its unique suffering?

Howard Jacobson: I can tell you what it is, but I’m not sure I can tell you where it comes from, because it comes from many sources; from outside Jews, and also very crucially from within Judaism. Lots of Jews are up to this trick, or whatever we call it. I see it as a new and much more sinister kind of Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial we can deal with now. Most of the world knows about it. We recognise the look of the people who do it and we know the nonsense of it, we just leave them alone and let them get on with it. But this is much more sinister and much more appealing, this one goes: “It was a terrible thing that happened to the Jews. We all know what a terrible thing Auschwitz was. Look, we concede it, you poor Jews.” It’s necessary that they demonstrate their degree of empathy for us. But what follows the sympathy is an analysis – a psychoanalysis – that is far from sympathetic: “You were traumatised by the Holocaust into visiting a Holocaust of your own upon the Palestinians.” It’s like the abused child who grows up and abuses the next child. We are now described as abusing the Palestinians in exactly the same terms as the Germans abused us – “abused” for God’s sake! And in this way, we are actually made to pay for the Holocaust itself. I talk about it as a kind of retrospective guilt for the Holocaust. It’s almost as if we’ve turned time the wrong way round, that because of what we are now doing to the Palestinians, we lose the right to the dignity of the Holocaust, if you can call it dignity.

This is a very sinister move. It’s at the heart of the Caryl Churchill play [Seven Jewish Children, performed at the Royal Court Theatre] and you get a lot of it at the universities, because it’s appealing in its neatness, it’s vaguely post-modern, you can mention Freud, you can chase around the names of several fashionable intellectuals. It is also very sinister, because it begs the question of what Israel is in fact doing or not doing to the Palestinians. Jewish trauma elides into Palestinian trauma, the cruelty Jews suffered into the cruelty Jews now dispense. It is not only that unequal things are equalised, but that the equalising settles the question of what is happening between the waring parties. Accept that the done-to have become the doers and the issue is settled…

I have to say I agree with Jacobson here.  It’s an absurd and tragic symptom of the obsession with collective psychology that we are even engaging in this discussion.  Despite all of Israel’s shortcomings when it comes to human rights,it is despicable to me to equate the Israelis with Nazis.  I think that Jacobson begins to explain why.

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Filed under History, Israel-Palestine, Jews, Postmodernism

Saturday Afternoon TV

Check out these TPMtv interviews with Eric Alterman, Jeremy Ben-Ami, and Michelle Goldberg after a discussion at the 92nd St. Y about the need for a liberal Israel lobby.  It’s about twenty minutes of video, but it’s interesting stuff.

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