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Whither Liberal Zionism?

Can you be a liberal and a Zionist today? In a long and thoughtful essay in the New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart accurately describes how and why so many young American Jews are becoming alienated from Israel and blames the American Jewish establishment for its lock-step support of the Israeli government’s current policies and attitudes. His provocative argument has fostered a robust online conversation, as you’d expect, but one question posed by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg caught our eye. After lamenting how “claustrophobic” he feels in confronting the subject, Goldberg asks:

“Who else is still out there arguing that you can be liberal and Zionist at the same time, meaning, pro-Israel and anti-occupation?”

Well, we are.

Beinart’s essay is alarmist to a fault, and, in our opinion, doesn’t take into account the responsibility that Palestinians and the entire Arab world bear in further isolating Israel and sometimes leaving it no choice but to, say, build a security barrier to protect its citizens. His central thesis, though, seems sadly true: “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

But the task of reconciling this tension between love for Israel and attachment to traditional liberal values such as human rights, religious pluralism, equal citizenship and territorial compromise has not been abandoned. It is being fully explored on our pages and in our blogs, in works by J.J. Goldberg, Leonard Fein, Yossi Alpher, Jay Michaelson and many others. More broadly, the wish to resolve the tension has fueled political movements such as J Street, and myriad efforts on the religious and cultural scene, here and in Israel, to express those liberal values in non-traditional venues and idioms.

If young American Jews are disengaging from Israel — or connecting to it from a more politically right-wing, religiously Orthodox perspective — the fault lies not only with AIPAC and other organizations that too often confuse dissent with disloyalty. Responsibility also lies with a more potent establishment: the parents, schools and synagogues who should be teaching the next generation to speak Hebrew, practice ritual, grapple with Jewish text and access a tradition built on dialogue and debate.

To be a fully realized 21st century Jew, one must engage with Israel in some fashion. But too many families and communities have failed to provide the tools to do that in a meaningful way, substituting easy rhetoric for the hard task of real commitment. Young people see through that sleight-of-hand and either search for a more authentic version of Judaism in the growing attraction to Orthodoxy, or merely shrug and walk away.

For those who believe that “liberal Zionism” isn’t an outdated oxymoron, but a cause to be nurtured, Beinart’s essay was another reminder of the challenge that lies ahead. But it need not be a lonely one.

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