The New York Review of Books published an article last week by Peter Beinart castigating the American Jewish establishment for not being critical of Israel, and saying that is why they are losing the next generation of Jews. He conceded that this did not apply to Orthodox youth, but he was appalled at that prospect. I guess secular fundamentalism is as bad as the religious kind.
We live at a moment in history when Israel is reviled by the majority of the world. It is painful, but there are very good historical and political reasons for it. We Jews have been here before. We must not give up or let it faze us. There is an increasing divide between Jews over Israel, just as there is a divide between those who live Jewish lives and those who do not. But a lot of current Jewish anti-Israelism reminds me of Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, when the worst anti-Semites were Jews like Weininger and Schonerer.
Of course I am not saying anyone who criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite. Otherwise I’d be one, myself. But neither am I saying that every Jew who does is not! I believe that we who care owe it to our history and tradition to support the survival of Israel. That does not mean we cannot or should not try to change it or repair its faults.
I do not know of one country that is not corrupt in some way, or that has not made terrible mistakes internally and externally. I recall some Americans being so upset by George Bush that they vowed to leave the country. But not once did they argue that America should cease to exist or that Americans have no right to their state.
I agree with a lot of Israel’s critics. I support the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators. However my criticisms are predicated on an absolute commitment, not necessarily to Israel’s ideology, but to its survival. The right of the Jews to have a homeland of their own is challenged often by Israeli and Diaspora nominal, accidental Jews. Too many of them have become moral masturbators. They indulge their own fantasies regardless of how much hatred they spray around or fuel.
Jewish opposition to Zionism is as old as political Zionism itself. It has an ultra-Orthodox pedigree as much as a Marxist one. There have always been internal battles. But if dissent is one thing, giving up our right to return to Zion is another. For as long as nationalism is the universally accepted currency and is deemed legitimate for Serbs, Montenegrins, and Croats, to deny it to Jews is as wrong as denying it to Palestinians or Kurds. And to blame Israel as the primary source of evil is to refuse to see the complete picture.
Beinart castigates the American Jewish establishment for having lost the allegiance of its young because it has been too slavish in its support for Israel. His analysis is probably correct. But his reasons are wrong. If non-religious Jews no longer feel attached, that is because they have not been given a good enough or passionate enough reason to stay engaged. And who is to blame for that?
The vast majority of American Jews of the previous era were descendants of refugees from oppressive and anti-Semitic European regimes. Many of them were active communists, and many others were already on the way to assimilation before they reached America. Jews in London, Paris, and New York were in the vanguard of social secular movements, opposed to clericalism. Many of them had already lost the religious component of their Jewish identity.
When they needed cohesion in the New World, they found it in socialist networks, country clubs, undemanding religious substitutes, secular Zionism, and later, the Holocaust. The whiff of old socialism was perpetuated by voting Democrat or Labour. None of these were really powerful centrifugal passions that guaranteed continuity. It is not surprising their children feel more at home in Hollywood than Jerusalem and have more in common with those of other religions or no religion than with Orthodox Jews.
But you cannot blame leadership for that. I dislike establishments and that is why I have always avoided them. As a student I ran disruptive campaigns against the Jewish Agency and the arrogance and moral bankruptcy of the Israeli nomenclatura. But it did not turn me into an enemy of the Jewish state. The role of communal leadership is to strengthen commitment to peoplehood, not to undermine it. And if it often gets its tactics wrong, the goal is legitimate. Beinart argues that the only way we can keep young Jews involved is by highlighting Israel’s failures.
Beinart fears Jewish extremes. I do too. But if peace will work both extremes will learn to modify and adjust. Why just pick on Orthodox Jews? If Palestinian hopes remain alive through increasing religious extremism, why should we be surprised if a new Jewish generation does not learn that very lesson.
What is the lesson? Only those with passion and commitment are prepared to fight for the future of a cause they believe in. If one wants to see a Jewish homeland survive, who would you rather have on your side–Tony Judt, Ilan Pappe, Alexei Sayle, or religiously committed young men prepared to fight in the Israeli army to defend their homeland until such time as peace becomes a realistic option?
Building a safe home requires resolving differences, not pretending they do not exist and that if we give up and walk away peace and happiness will reign forevermore. It also requires that we build an honest fair and moral home. Otherwise it will be destroyed, like others we have built before. But a Jewish future will be shared only if our side has as much passion as the other.
Left-wing, liberal, humanitarian internationalism, good as it may be in certain circumstances, too often leads to anodyne, facile, feelgoodism. Religious passion can lead to fanaticism. Instead of each side denigrating the other, the ideal is for both to work together to exercise balance.
In the meantime, of course, I support my side, warts and all. And I hope community leaders will too. If that is too much for Beinart, then as far as I am concerned we are simply not on the same side.