Think Again: What failure? Whose failure?

Peter Beinart’s ‘The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment’ is an important piece; it will be widely quoted and pernicious in effect.

May 26, 2010 15:50
The Jerusalem Post

jewish americans 311. (photo credit: BLOOMBERG)


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Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in last week’s New York Review of Books is an important piece – important in the same way John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s 2006 screed The Israeli Lobby was important; it will be widely quoted and pernicious in effect.

Beinart begins with the results of focus groups conducted by pollster Frank Luntz with Jewish college students in 2003. In their discussions of Jewish identity, the subject of Israel never arose spontaneously, and when forced upon them, the students were careful to distinguish between themselves and Israelis.” First and foremost, the students “reserve[d] the right to question the Israeli position.”

Second, “they desperately want peace.” And third, “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.” According to Beinart, those results constitute a damning indictment of the American Jewish establishment, which blindly supports Israel. Forced to choose between their Zionism and their liberalism, the students have – justifiedly in Beinart’s view – chucked their Zionism.

For Beinart, Israel’s history can be divided between a halcyon pre-1967 period, when an embattled country committed to social justice rightly commanded the love and support of Jews all around the world, and the present, in which an invincible Israel remains rooted in a culture of victimhood and paranoia. Increasingly, in his account, Israeli politics are determined by nationalistic Russian immigrants, primitive Sephardim and Orthodox Jews of all types.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s 1993 book A Place Among the Nations serves as Beinart’s prooftext. Netanyahu is accused of equating Palestinian statehood with Nazism by referring to the 1949 armistice lines as “Auschwitz borders,” and is taken to task for denying the existence of a Palestinian national identity. Yet it was Abba Eban, a man firmly of the older Israeli left, who coined the term “Auschwitz borders,” and Golda Meir, another veteran Labor Zionist, who first doubted Palestinian national identity.

News of Netanyahu’s acceptance of a two-state solution, or of the significant territorial concessions made by successive governments since 1993, including one headed by Netanyahu, has apparently not reached Beinart.

The changes in attitudes since 1993 have not been driven primarily by demographics, but by events. Far from being opposed to peace, Israelis greeted the handshake on the White House lawn with almost messianic expectations of imminent peace. Only when the Oslo process blew up in their faces, time and again, did they sour on it.

That Ehud Barak, who as prime minister offered Yasser Arafat virtually the entire West Bank at Camp David in 2000, serves harmoniously as defense minister in Netanyahu’s current government surely says more about the present consensus than the views of Effi Eitam, who has disappeared into political obscurity, but whom Beinart quotes at length.

BEINART’S INDICTMENT of today’s Israel is a cartoonish pastiche, sure to turn off American Jewish students. His characterization draws only from the left-fringe, Avrum Burg, Ze’ev Sternhell (who once called on Palestinian terrorists to confine their killing of Jews to the other side of the Green Line), Yaron Ezrahi and various European Community-financed “human rights” organizations.

Unwittingly, Beinart reveals the flaccidity of much contemporary liberalism, with its airy, utopian abstractions – e.g., “skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights” – and aversion to empirical inquiry and historical or social context.

Strikingly absent from Beinart’s off-putting portrait of contemporary Israel is the failure to mention any recent history. Yet without that context, no evaluation of the present consensus is possible. Palestinians are mentioned, if at all, only as helpless victims. The thousand Israelis killed in post-Oslo terrorist attacks, the more than 4,000 rockets fired at the Negev after the Gaza withdrawal, the over 30,000 missiles amassed by Hizbullah are nowhere mentioned.

Beinart twice cites the belief that the Palestinians are “capable of peace” as a liberal article of faith. But his view that all people are more or less alike in their life goals is deeply flawed. For starters, it leaves no room for the influence of religion. The Muslim belief that Jewish sovereignty over land once under Muslim rule constitutes sacrilege prevents the acceptance of Israel’s existence, in any borders.

Unaffiliated American Jews may assume that the average Palestinian wants peace, but that does not make it so. A June 2009 poll by the Palestinian Center for Social Policy and Survey Research found that three-quarters of Palestinians do not believe reconciliation with Israel is possible, even after the signing of a peace treaty and the creation of a Palestinian state.

There has been no Palestinian education for peace. Since Oslo, both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have fostered a cult of martyrdom. Palestinian leaders fear they would pay with their lives were they to compromise on any traditional Palestinian demand.

LIFTING A page from Norman Finkelstein, Beinart writes, “In the world of AIPAC, the Holocaust analogies never stop, and their message is always the same: Jews are licensed by their victimhood to worry only about themselves.”

That accusation is both false and ugly. Every major hospital in Israel is filled with Israeli Arabs, and in many cases Palestinians, receiving top medical care. No other army forced to fight among civilians is so tethered by field lawyers as the IDF. Every other army in the world would have simply leveled the booby-trapped house in Jenin where 13 Jewish soldiers were killed in 2002.

TODAY’S JEWISH college students do not respond to Israel, according to Beinart, in part because they have no experience of Israel or Jews under mortal threat. Yet Israel faces greater threats to its existence than any other country. Soon-to-be-nuclear Iran has expressed the desire to see Israel wiped off the map. Iran’s proxies on Israel’s northern and southern borders, and its ally Syria possess tens of thousands of missiles capable of reaching every part of the Jewish state.

No other country is subject to the same delegitimization, demonization and double standards in international forums and from a host of human rights organizations. Beinart does not even mention the three Ds. Nor does he address the substantive critiques of the reports of the human rights organizations upon which he relies. It is enough, in his mind, that the HROs are “respected.” Yet Robert Bernstein, who founded and chaired Human Rights Watch for 20 years, accused the organization recently in The New York Times of aiding and abetting an agenda “to turn Israel into a pariah state.”

About one thing, Beinart is certainly right: The Luntz focus groups reveal a crisis among college-age American Jews. But the problem is not their rejection of “group think”; it is their lazy adoption of the standard group think with regard to Israel. The problem is not their sympathy for Palestinians in fetid refugee camps, but their unawareness that those camps came into existence only because of the Arab decision to seek Israel’s destruction in 1948. And they remain today because of the decision by the Arab leadership to maintain them as a breeding ground for terrorists.

The problem is not Jewish students’ desire for peace, but their failure to learn why peace has proven so elusive. (Beinart, incidentally, offers not one word on this subject.) It is not their skepticism about the efficacy of military force, but their failure to understand why Israel cannot yet beat its swords into plowshares.

The ultimate failure of the American Jewish establishment lies in not providing young American Jews with a sufficient connection to their Judaism to inform themselves about the fate of six million fellow Jews in Israel.

The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.

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