Peter Beinart and the Failing of the American Jewish Establishment

By supporting the shift to the right of Israel, has the American Jewish Establishment betrayed American Jews?

Recently, Peter Beinart penned a pretty controversial essay in the New York Review of Books.  The essay described two basic trends in Jewish communal evolution: on the one hand, in Israel, a hardening of the Jewish community and, on the other hand, in America, the fall of the liberal Zionist.  It is a pretty impressive piece and certainly worth reading, regardless of your personal beliefs.  Beinart’s main argument is that the non-orthodox Jews in America – the once-labeled liberal-Zionists – are not so slowly moving away from the Zionism and towards the liberalism.  Meanwhile, Israelis have been becoming more conservative over the years.  These two trends, according to Beinart, have created a schism between Israel and liberal American Jews.  As a non-Jew I don’t really have much to add to the discussion of attitudes of the American Jewry (though I agree with Beinart’s observation that Israel has moved to the right in recent years), so I will instead point to some of the discussion that occurred in the Beinart’s wake.

[tweetmeme] Jeffrey Goldberg (with whom I often disagree) has a brilliant interview with Beinart (part 1, part 2 and part 3).  Goldberg repeatedly focuses on the fact that Beinart does not pay much attention in his essay to the threats that Israel faces, the threats wish push Israelis to elect a Netanyahu.  Beinart responds by offering various, alternatives to the current Israeli response to threats.  Overall the entire interview is less about disagreement between two prominent Jewish commentators than an interesting intellectual back and forth about  the American Jewry and the current state of Israel.

Two folks who disagree quite strongly with Beinart are Jonathan Chait and James Kirchick.  Chait agrees with most of what Beinart says about the evolution of the American Jewry, but ultimately places blame on the left, whereas finds the right as guilty.  Whereas, Beinart pushes the idea that the weariness of liberal American Jews stems from the failure of the American Jewish Establishment to counter the surge to the right of Israel, Chait believes that the move away from Zionist has less to do with Israel than with a move away from Judaism itself.  The main disagreement:

Here, of course, we find ourselves on the precipice of the murky question of which side to blame. The funny thing is that Peter and I probably agree almost entirely on the objective state of reality. Liberal Zionism is being squeezed on both ends by opponents who seek to define it out of existence. Conservatives wish to define Zionism as a conservative idea, so that any sympathizer of Israel must support the Republican Party. Left-wing critics of Israel, likewise, have found their most potent rhetorical tool to be describing any supporter of the U.S.-Israel alliance, from Likudniks to Meretz Party doves, as neoconservatives, so as to brand support for Israel as right-wing and unacceptable. Peter and I both find this pincer campaign threatening at an elemental level. He focuses more of his ire on the right-wing half, I direct more against the left.

James Kirchick, arguing in Foreign Policy also disagrees – perhaps more vehemently – with Beinart.  Kirchick attempts to dismantle Beinart’s argument by delegitimatizing the study Beinart references concerning the move away from Zionism among American Jews. Kirchick continues to notes that the rise of the Israeli right has much to do with Arab intransigence.  Indeed, he places much of the blame for the fall of the Israeli left on Israeli peace efforts that were thwarted by the Palestinians.  (Kirchick makes some good points and offers some important information to dispute the study.  In terms of his argument concerning Arab intransigence, I think that he focuses too much blame on the Palestinians, just as Beinart perhaps overlooks Arab actions while dissecting the Israeli right.)

I also want to point to this collection of 8 Jewish views published by Foreign Policy.  There is nothing ground-breaking in this collection, but it certainly shows the discord in the Jewish community, concerning the Jewish community.  Beinart’s essay is important in that it is forcing the American Jewish Establishment to take a look at itself and at the general state of American Jewry.  As I said earlier, I have no opinion (or right to an opinion for that matter) concerning the views of American Jews.  Thus, as an observer, it is very interesting to see and follow this debate as it unfolds.

Photo from Neoavatara

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