It is an essay that has lit up the blogosphere. And the reason is at least as much because of who wrote it as because of what he wrote. Yet the specific targets of his criticism remain silent.
Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published in The New York Review of Books on May 12, is a stinging critique of what its author sees as Israel’s increasingly illiberal direction — a direction, he warns, that is not a passing phase or cyclical political swing but a long-term change fueled by rapidly shifting demographics that are transforming the country. He cites not just Israeli policies toward Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the siege of Gaza, but the domestic rise of politicians advocating harsh ethnic measures, such as Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and proposed legislation to stifle domestic dissent.
But it is American Jewry whom Beinart addresses. He warns the Jewish community that it is losing its non-Orthodox young in by failing to oppose Israel’s alleged anti-democratic trends. Brought up on liberal democratic values of equality, pluralism, human rights and skepticism toward the use of military force except as a last resort, young secular and non-Orthodox Jews see Israel as something increasingly foreign, he wrote. Yet the Jewish establishment — groups such as the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League — act as the “intellectual bodyguards” of Israel’s anti-democratic leaders rather than as mentors to its own youth in “saving liberal Zionism in the United States — so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel …”
This has been said before, but almost always by critics throwing stones from the outside. Beinart, 39 — a former editor of the staunchly pro-Israel “New Republic” and proudly self-identified as a Jew, Zionist and liberal —is a princely insider, widely seen as a luminary of secular Zionism’s younger generation. It is the messenger, as much as his message, that has provoked furious reaction across the spectrum of political opinion; and within the Jewish world, too, with two notable exceptions: Both the Presidents Conference and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee declined to comment.
Below, a sampling of critics interviewed by the Forward and, where indicated, taken from their postings on the Internet:
National Director, Anti-Defamation League
I think he sets up straw men and then tries to make an issue. I don’t think that there is a conflict between Zionism and liberalism, and if there is, there’s nothing new about it. If you’re talking about the young people … part of the unfortunate truth is they don’t know about Zionism because they’re ignorant of it. Unfortunately, what we have done is truncate the Jewish education of our children at the age of 12 and 13, at the time they begin to become intellectually conscious. So what has happened in the last 30 years is an ignorance of Israel as part of their Jewish identity.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism
He doesn’t really do justice to the American Jewish community. There’s a more vigorous discussion than I think he lets on. He focuses on national organizations. But there are plenty of places and plenty of people who argue the case of the left and the center and do so pretty effectively. I don’t think his critique takes into account the need for nuance there.
Rabbi Jack Moline
Spiritual leader of Agudas Achim Congregation, Alexandria, Va., and a leading rabbi in Conservative Judaism
What students learn at universities is to challenge all authority, and that’s an academic approach as well as a political approach. Everything gets deconstructed. We as an older generation of Jewish leaders have allowed that to happen. We have not emphasized the core nature of the Zionist endeavor to our young people. We, too, frame Israel as a political issue rather than as a core value. When all of their other values are challenged, so is Israel.
Former senior official, American Israel Public Affairs Committee
“Mainstream pro-Israel organizations are in fact booming, thank you. AIPAC’s income from donations is now five times what it was in 2000, and sixty times what it was when I joined the organization in 1982. It is growing commensurately in membership (including young people) and influence, too. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are also roaring tigers.
The New York Review of Books, largely a publication for disaffected Jews, generously offers a path for pro-Israel organizations to save themselves by joining the campaign to discredit Israel; this, to recruit members who, by Beinart’s own account, hardly care about Israel at all.
Steven M. Cohen
Sociologist, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, whose polling Beinart cites as evidence for his thesis
Detachment from Israel among the American Jewish public differs critically from disillusionment among the more Jewishly active and engaged. For the public, distancing is not much driven by political considerations … the primary driver is intermarriage. Younger Jews are far more likely to marry non-Jews, and the intermarried are far less Israel-attached than those who marry fellow Jews — and even non-married Jews. Intermarriage reflects and promotes departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic “groupiness,” of which Israel attachment is part.”
**Ross Douthat **
Columnist, “New York Times”
If there’s an unspoken fear haunting Beinart’s piece, I think, it’s that … liberal Jews are (very gradually) following the same trajectory as liberal Episcopalians before them, keeping their politics but surrendering their distinctive cultural and religious identity, and that the demise of liberal Zionism says something, not only about the fate of Israel, but about the fate of secular Judaism in the United States. One reason, and perhaps the major reason, that young liberal Jews are less attached to Israel is that Israel has become less liberal. But they also may be less attached to the Jewish homeland because they themselves are simply less Jewish.
Larry Cohler-Esses is assistant managing editor with responsibility for news coverage. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. He received several Laurels Awards from the Columbia Journalism Review, and two New York Press Association awards. Larry Cohler-Esses can be reached at email@example.com.