Saturday, May 22, 2010

Peter Beinart, Failures of the American Jewish Establishment, Liberal Zionism, and More

Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, has the blogosphere abuzz with his new essay in NYRB, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment. He raises important questions, but his essay is riddled with faulty assumptions, glib assertions, and on occasion, downright re-creations of history. Yaacov Lozowick comments on that revision of the historical record here,
Inventing Netanyahu's Past, on his blog, Ruminations, to my mind, the best commentary out there on Israeli politics, culture and Jewish history (Jeffrey Goldberg comes in a distant second, but remains the most important centrist voice on this side of the divide-- see Goldblog). But Lozowick gets it wrong on why Beinart "is right about America's Jews, but for the wrong reason," below, in his post,
A Growing Rift in the Jewish World?
"The problem with Beinart's article is that he's right about America's Jews, but for the wrong reason. It's not a growing disenchantment with Israel among young American Jews. It's a dwindling Jewishness. Over the past 65 years a majority of the world's Jews with the exception of the American ones have returned to their homeland. They have returned to the ancestral language. They have created a multi-faceted, complex and extraordinarily rich Jewish culture, such as has not been seen since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. They have built a vibrant democracy (and no, it's not under attack), a miraculous economy, and even the secular ones among them have a birthrate well above that of practically all rich societies: Israelis are optimistic about the future and wish to raise children into it. There's also the matter of a century of war, and of course the thousands of things that still need fixing - along with the expectation, based on experience, that many will indeed be fixed. America's Jews can't be bothered. Three out of four have never visited Israel. Only a small minority make the effort to learn Hebrew. Few try, even without the language, to figure out what Israel is about. I've long since grown out of the sophomoric Zionism that expects all Jews to pack up and come to Israel. Yet I can't help wondering what sort of Judaism it is that can't be bothered with the most important development in Jewish history in two thousand years, one that was always the central dream. Back in the 1970s there was discussion in Israel about how America's Jews would soon disappear because of their high rate of marriage out of the fold. For various reasons this theme was then muted, one being the feeling that it was counterproductive, another being the impression that maybe it wasn't happening. 35 years later, sad to say, it is coming to pass, even if in a different form. There are still plenty of Jews in America, but it's not clear what their Jewishness means. Since they aren't very Jewish, it's not all that surprising that they don't have much affinity for Israel; this has nothing to do with AIPAC or the Conference of Presidents."

But the problem is more profound. Many American Jews, with or without literacy in Hebrew or Israeli history and culture, care deeply about the Jewish state, even if they can't decide whether or not it should even have such a nomenclature. That caring may not translate into an authentic understanding of present day realities, but legions of American Jews feel very strongly about Israel. The problem is so many suffer from a profound misreading of the current situation, not to mention historical perspective, and Peter Beinart is emblematic of that myopia. That he is also representative of so much of the Jewish intellectual class compounds the problem.
Yet his analysis that young American Jews are increasingly alienated from an Israel they perceive as unnecessarily militant, intolerant, and moving dangerously to the right, is an accurate, if unfortunate truth. Even though that read by American Jewish youth does not square with the actual circumstances in Israel, perception trumps reality. And Beinart stokes those flames by offering up distortions of both the American Jewish leadership's positions as well as the conditions he reports on in Israel. Below, comments on some of his more glaring misapprehensions:

1. "...leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster--indeed, have actively opposed--a Zionism that challenges Israel's behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and towards its own Arab citizens." American Jewish leadership, from the AJC to the ADL, is rife with criticisms of "Israel's behavior," unabashedly calling for the reining in of the "Hilltop Youth" in the West Bank, categorically condemning the destruction of Palestinian property (burning of olive trees, orchards, etc.), and supporting the civil rights of Arab-Israelis.

2. "New historians like Tom Segev who have fearlessly excavated the darker corners of the Zionist past..."
Of course, Segev's 'fearless excavations' include his largely discredited account of the Six-Day War, 1967 Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East, where he argues that:

"Israel--more precisely, Israeli "insanity"--was to blame for the Six Day War"--Benny Morris:

It was not Nasser's threats but the quicksand of [Israeli] depression. It was the feeling that the Israeli dream had run its course. It was the loss of David Ben-Gurion's leadership coupled with the lack of faith in Eshkol. It was the recession and the unemployment; the decline in immigration and the mass emigration. It was the deprivation of the Mizrahim [Jews from Arab countries], as well as the fear of them. It was the boredom. It was the terrorism; the sense that there could be no peace. --Tom Segev
Michael Oren, whose Six Days of War is considered by many to be the definitive account of that conflict, using primary sources not only from Israeli archives, but from the Arab actors as well, comments here on 1967: Who Started It?
And Benny Morris had this to say in his 2007 TNR review, Provocations:
...This portrait of Israel in 1966 and early 1967 is skewed. The economic downturn was a minor recession, nothing like the American or German depressions. (Indeed, the early 1960s saw the establishment of the foundations of the modern industrial economy.) There was greater immigration to Israel than emigration. The Sephardi-Ashkenazi gap, while extant, was hardly in crisis mode (there were no riots to compare with 1959 or the early 1970s); and the same applies to the religious-secular divide--hardly a period of violence or fireworks. Palestinian terrorism was meager and trivial compared with the standards set in the 1970s and 1990s. The country's political leadership, while not flamboyant or "great," was certainly composed of capable and honest people. Israelis were no more "bored" then than in any other time. In other words, the picture that Segev paints of Israel's internal condition in 1966 and early 1967, with which he tries to "explain" the war, is essentially false...
As for Tom Segev, his book points readers and scholars in no worthwhile direction. Its argument is not merely wrong; it also makes a small contribution of its own to the contemporary delegitimation of Israel.

3. Later in his essay, Beinart salutes Avraham Burg, one of Israel's saddest cases of defection (although not so disaffected as to give up his hefty pensions from the Knesset & the Jewish Agency: Burg enjoys two pensions from the Knesset, plus a comfortable pension of NIS 200,000 from the Jewish Agency, in addition to a car and chauffeur for life), when he quotes Burg from his "remarkable" 2008 book, The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from Its Ashes: "Victimhood sets you free." Ironically, in the same breath, Beinart juxtaposes his admiration for Burg with a swipe at "the American Jewish establishment and its allies in the Netanyahu government," accusing them of exploiting Jews historical victim status, and thus abdicating moral responsibility as "a luxury Israel does not have." The high-minded Burg was taken to task on his morals by Ha'aretz journalist, Ari Shavit in a July, 2007 interview: Defining Israel as a Jewish State Key to its End. At one point, Shavit responded. "We're talking about NIS 200,000. And about your behavior, which the judge found disgraceful. And about the fact that even though you talk high and mighty about morals, you don't see the moral flaw in the fact that 10 years after leaving the Jewish Agency you are driving on your business trips throughout the country with a Jewish Agency chauffeur driving you everywhere. On top of which, today you are so alienated from everything the Jewish Agency stands for."
Hillel Halkin, his 2007 piece in Commentary, A Wicked Son, offers additional perspective:
Given the clear aberrancy of the man and his book, how worried by Avraham Burg should one be? The answer is: probably more than my description suggests. The good news about the Burg interview is that, as David Remnick concluded after sampling the fallout during a quick trip to Israel, “criticism [of it] was, with few exceptions, general and crossed ideological lines.” Prominent Israelis on the political Left no less than on the Right, Remnick wrote, felt “disgust, or worse, for their wayward brother.” Much of this had to do with Burg’s perceived hypocrisy, which Ari Shavit, who did an admirable job of aggressive questioning, brought out in the interview. Since Burg’s retirement from politics, Shavit observed, he has ridden around in a chauffeured car paid for by the Jewish people as part of his Jewish Agency retirement package and has been linked to shady business dealings. How can he of all people accuse Israel of being materialistic and corrupt? ...
Indeed, there is probably no other country in the world whose intellectuals tend to see themselves so thoroughly through the eyes of the world. In part, this is because the eyes of the world always are on Israel; in part, because Israeli intellectual life, like that of any small land but even more so, takes place in the shadow of elsewhere. Its models of achievement live in other countries and write in other languages; most of its textbooks and scientific literature come from abroad; so do many of its grants and research projects; its best students go to the United States and Europe for their doctorates and post-doctorates; it is there that its professors, scholars, scientists, writers, and artists take their vacations and sabbaticals, attend conferences and give papers, and establish their reputations. No Israeli intellectual can remain uninfluenced by what his non-Israeli peers think of him, not least because this determines what his Israeli peers think of him, and no Israeli intellectual can remain uninfluenced by what his non-Israeli peers think of Israel. This does not mean that most Israeli intellectuals tend to identify with every criticism of Israel encountered abroad. On the contrary: most, even on the Israeli Left, do not, and many on the Israeli Left have argued vociferously back. Yet one of the less commented-on consequences of today’s anti-Israel climate is its spillback into Israeli life. There is a process of attrition that, because it is as slow as it is steady, often goes unnoticed. Even the Israeli intellectual most convinced of the fundamental justice of his country’s cause is undermined in his convictions upon hearing that cause repeatedly derided outside of Israel. In this respect, the intellectual war over Israel is being fought not just for European and American minds; the minds of Israelis are at stake, too. Defeating Hitler is one indication of how badly this war has been going. One of the greatest dangers facing Israel is that, under this kind of unrelenting pressure, its intellectual elite will eventually “crack” in precisely the way that Avraham Burg has cracked. A country whose best minds no longer believe in it is a country whose ordinary minds will sooner or later follow. The only way to contain apostasy is, as Jews traditionally have done, to place the apostate beyond the pale. Yosef Burg’s son should be made to understand that this is where he now is.

So much for Beinart's understanding of debunked revisionists and fallen leaders.

4. Beinart claims that "American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world's most respected international human rights groups." Among the offended NGO's, he cites Human Rights Watch, asserting that "an AIPAC spokesman declared HRW 'has repeatedly demonstrated its anti-Israel bias.'" In case Beinard still thinks HRW is the recipient of unfair challenges to its objectivity when it comes to Israel, he might want to look at the Times op-ed by HRW founder, Robert Bernstein this past October, Rights WatchDog, Lost in the Middle East, or
The New Republic's recent investigative piece, Minority Report, by Benjamin Birnbaum
Human Rights Watch fights a civil war over Israel
On October 19 of last year, the op-ed page of The New York Times contained a bombshell: a piece by Robert Bernstein, the founder and former chairman of Human Rights Watch (HRW), attacking his own organization. HRW, Bernstein wrote, was “helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.” The allegation was certainly not new: HRW had been under assault for years by American Jews and other supporters of Israel, who argued that it was biased against the Jewish state. And these attacks had intensified in recent months, with a number of unflattering revelations about the organization. In July, HRW found itself under fire when a Wall Street Journal op-ed noted that the organization had solicited donations in Saudi Arabia by trumpeting the criticism it faces from “pro-Israel pressure groups.” In August, the blogosphere leapt on one of the organization’s top Middle East officials for having once been part of a team that edited a radical anti-Israel journal. And, in September, HRW suspended one of the primary contributors to its reports on the wars in Gaza and Lebanon after his private hobby—collecting Nazi memorabilia—became public.

Beinart offers us the pabulum that "HRW and Amnesty International are not infallible." The problem is we're not talking here about infallibility, we're talking about blatant bias by the very group that is supposed to be the gold standard for upholding human rights in an objective, fair forum. See Leon Wieseltier's exquisite dissection of this and other inanities, in his "to be sure" summation in TNR.

5. "Israeli governments come and go, but the Netanyahu coalition is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society..."
Reading this, you'd never suspect that part of ordinary Israelis' move to a center-right consensus has much to do with the trauma of 8 years of unrelenting rocket attacks from Gaza, with 3 of those years coming after Israel withdrew every last Jew, dead (48 graves were disinterred) and alive. That the international community was largely mute when it came to 1/4 million Israelis living under the threat of daily terror attacks from Qassams launched into southern Israel, you'd never glean from Beinart's account.

6. "In Israel itself, voices from the left, and even center, warn in increasingly urgent tones about threats to Israel's democracy." Such strong rhetoric would suggest that not only is Israeli democracy gravely threatened, but that a significant segment of the Israeli population thinks so. Except it turns out that it's a tiny, but loud and shrill minority with exceptionally thin skin who is doing the lion's share of catastrophizing. Lest readers be duped into thinking that Ha'aretz is representative of mainstream Israelis, it's not. Maybe 5-6% of the country read it. It's more a bellwether for Europe and the American left. See Lozowick below:
The Watchdogs Go Mad
The New York Times supports the narrative that Israeli democracy is under siege. True, there's enough professional journalism in the item to pretend the journalist is merely reporting, not sharing the opinion, but just barely.The evidence? One case in which the prime minister criticized an organization he felt was lying; one case of wrong arrest which was rectified the next day by a court; a single tax investigation which was then called off; the Im Tirzu campaign against the NIF (and note that Im Tirzu is now blandly described as "an ultra-Zionist nongovernmental organization", whatever that might mean); and worst of all, a parliamentary bill currently stuck and immobile which calls for transparency about foreign governments' support for political players in Israel (the horror!)Here's a counter explanation. The people who staff the so-called "human rights organizations" at the far left of Israel's political spectrum - and they're political actors, there can be no doubt about it in spite of their endless protestations - are mostly thin-skinned partisans. They are deeply and profoundly convinced that their view of the world is the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth, and that anyone who refuses to see the world as they do is either unintelligent, benighted, evil, or all of the above. Once you accept this rather strange axiom, you'll have no problem with identifying any counter claim or adverse position with the forces of evil, out to destroy the embattled and besieged voices of rationality justice and peace.This explains how when they dish out endless fabrications, distortions, nasty allegations and radical positions, it's democracy at its finest; but whenever they're confronted it's a fundamental undermining of democracy, freedom, justice and all that is beautiful.It's a frame of mind, not an intellectual exercise.
And again here: "A Threat to Democracy" on the Anat Kamm story.
Yet if that's how it happened, Haaretz carries some responsibility for the gag order, too. So far, Haaretz comes out of the story badly. Their Friday (weekend) edition made things much worse. The editor in chief collected his entire staff and told each and every one of them to write a story based on their particular areas of expertise, but the common line was to be that the State if Israel is wrong. It's laws are outdated. It's system of classification of military documents is designed to protect the generals, not to serve the security of the state. Uri Blau wrote about how he's the protector of our democratic freedoms. And so on and so on and so on. Importantly, the attack was not against the Netanyahu government: it was against the State of Israel, its laws and its institutions. All of the articles were translated to English, of course, and put on the paper's website:Ze'ev Segal, the editorial, Anshel Pfeffer, Amos Harel, Uri Blau, Ron Leshem, Aluf Benn, Gideon Levy, Reuven Pedatzur, Akiva Eldar. Avi Issacharoff wasn't pulled into the morass, perhaps because no-one could figure out an angle to use his Palestinian sources to besmirch the country in this context.For many years Haaretz used to advertise itself as "The newspaper for thinking people". This was an edition indistinguishable from Pravda. Every single one of the articles trotted out the party line; not a single journalist dared let out a peep of dissent. There was chattering galore about the freedom of press which is somehow under siege, and the sanctity of the High Court which was allegedly tainted, but not a single word about the bald fact that Haaretz has been and still is engaged in brazenly illegal actions. Silence, nada, nothing. Brezhnev would have been proud.

Beinart is correct in pointing out there is a failure in the American Jewish establishment's leadership (see Where's Our Leadership? & Jews are Under Siege: A Call to Action--Charles Jacobs--co-founder American Anti-Slavery Group & Americans for Peace & Tolerance), but it's not what he thinks it is. One of the problems is mainstream Jewish orgs have failed to demonstrate to their minions how vulnerable Israel truly is today to attacks from lawfare, demonizations, delegitimizations in the form of the BDS movements (boycott, divestiture, and sanctions), and the relentless bashing that it takes from the Left, all too often either led or cheered on by Jewish activists. As it turns out, when people (and nations) actually are trying to kill and destroy you, it's not paranoia to say so. And no, this doesn't give Israel license to act badly and defy international norms. It's just that the folks who do so much of the hectoring and excoriating of Israel live in ivory towers or frequent quiet cafes on the upper west side, and really are in a lousy position to judge what ordinary Israelis deem are in their best interests.
American Jews on both the left and right who either want Israel to abdicate more land without solid--and realistic--guarantees of security or to fight til the last Israeli, should consider moving to Israel, sending their sons and daughters into the army, paying the suffocating taxes, waiting in the long lines, worrying about terrorism and the specter of a nuclear Iran, and on and on.
And the holier than thou purists who hold Israel up to a standard of perfection that even truly righteous Jews would find impossible to live up to, ought to consider why it is that Israel is held to a standard not demanded of any other country, let alone Israel's neighbors.
So yes, we need to do a better job of winning over American Jewish youth to the importance of Zionism in their lives. A good place to start is by reclaiming the liberal argument for Israel. It may sound trite to the sophisticated post-modern, multi-culturalists, but if you're for women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, and for God's sake, human rights (right to life being high up there as a human right--meaning safe from suicide bombs, among other things), it behooves you to support Israel. It's great to love humanity as a whole; but if you can't love--and support--your own people, universal love ain't gonna happen.
And to all the Tikkun Olamers out there, to paraphrase Yossi Klein Halevi, for Israelis, tikkun olam is not just about doing good and repairing the world, it's also about fighting evil.
david brumer


George Jochnowitz said...

Beinart writes as if there were no Hamas, no Hezbollah, and no Ahmadinejad. He seems unaware of the Hamas Charter, which is about destroying Israel and in no way about helping Palestinians. Therefore, the actions of Hamas are simply expressions of rage. When it is too hard to direct the rage against Israel, it is aimed at Palestinians, as we learned in an article in the May 19th, New York Times under the headline, "Homes Built as a Statement Are razed to Make Another." The news story tells us that Gazans who were encouraged to build their own houses and then saw them destroyed by bulldozers because they had been built on public property. This is the same sort of cuckoo behavior that led Hamas to launch rockets against Sderot, even though they served no strategic or political purpose.
Beinart seems unaware of the Hamas Charter, which tells us that the enemies [Jews] gave the world the Masons, the Rotarians, and World War I (Article 22).
Israel unilaterally gave an independent mini-state to Palestine when it withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Instead of building a new nation, Gaza elected Hamas and began its counter-productive terrorism. Does Beinart know about the 2005 withdrawal? He doesn't seeem to.

Uzi Silber said...

it is wilfull ignorance. all this talk of peace agreement with the PA by journalists in and out of Israel always ignores the fact that hamas will never, ever accept a jewish state. what is with this shmekl beinart?

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