In a recent edition of Eretz Acheret, a popular journal of political matters, (March 2010), the editor Bambi Sheleg presented the theme of the month: Since Israelis are arguing ever less about issues they used to find crucial, it's time for this journal to see if we can't encourage more discussion. One of the articles she published was by Boaz Neumann, in which he described the intellectual path he took back to Zionism.
It's a fascinating article (alas, mostly not online). The author admits what the rest of us know, that the anti-Zionist Israelis are profoundly dishonest about the situation we live in, amplifying Israel's sins beyond any plausibility, rejecting the parts of the story where Israel does anything right, and with a determined blindness to the misdeeds of the Palestinians. I've been told he's part of a growing trend, in which intellectuals of the far Left re-examine their positions, recognize their moral and intellectual dishonesty, and rejoin the national community even while retaining a reasonable recognition of Israel's wrongs. Since the camp he came from was never more than minuscule, such a depletion in numbers and intellectual firepower is significant.
Now, compare that with this:
Since the 1990s, journalists and scholars have been describing a bifurcation in Israeli society. In the words of Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, “After decades of what came to be called a national consensus, the Zionist narrative of liberation [has] dissolved into openly contesting versions.” One version, “founded on a long memory of persecution, genocide, and a bitter struggle for survival, is pessimistic, distrustful of non-Jews, and believing only in Jewish power and solidarity.” Another, “nourished by secularized versions of messianism as well as the Enlightenment idea of progress,” articulates “a deep sense of the limits of military force, and a commitment to liberal-democratic values.” Every country manifests some kind of ideological divide. But in contemporary Israel, the gulf is among the widest on earth. [My italics]Israelis who read the foreign press often have a surreal feeling: the reports purport to be about us, but there's nothing in them that seems even remotely familiar. So also with Peter Beinart's recent article in the New York Review of Books, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, from which that paragraph is lifted. He's got a number of themes, but his main argument, if I'm reading him correctly, is that Israel is splitting into two warring camps, one of which is ghastly but slowly winning; that young American Jews (unless they're orthodox) can no longer reconcile their liberalism with Israel's actions and thus are drifting away; and that this is a colossal failure of the leadership of American Jewry (AIPAC et. al.) who fail to confront Israel, allowing it to continue it's downward spiral and alienating America's young Jews.
Jeffrey Goldberg seems poised to argue with Beinart, here, here and perhaps with more to come. I generally appreciate Jeffrey's centrist line of relating to Israel, but if he's going to argue with Beinart about the fact of dwindling support for Israel, I'll have to disagree. The problem with Beinart's article is not that he's talking about an Israel which doesn't exist, though he does, nor that he blames America's Jewish establishment for a failure of the community at large, though he does that, too. 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.
Before I sign off, a number of quick comments to the article.
1. According to all polls and every electoral result since the 1990s, a majority of Israelis would love to have a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel. Not that you'd ever know it from this article.
2. Prof. Beinart seems to think that if AIPAC et. al would confront Israelis about their anti-humanistic ways, the Israelis would change. I disagree that America's Jews have much to teach Israelis on these matters; most of us understand them in their full complexity in ways America's Jews never will.
3. It's also puzzling that he seems to think most Israelis would listen. I doubt they would. Israelis are sovereign, and make their own decisions, right and wrong. Distant Jews (two meanings) aren't really part of the discussion.
4. Beinart himself seems an interesting fellow, with children in orthodox schools if I'm reading him correctly. All the more peculiar that his description shows so little understanding of Israeli society.
5. Not long ago I wrote about how internal Israeli discussions in Hebrew take on dramatically different meanings when translated into English. Beinart's article fits neatly into the model.