Peter Beinart–Trite

Peter Beinart has written a scathing indictment of organized American Jewry’s “conservative” views on Israel. He claims that “right-wing” Israeli policies, combined with American Jewish groups’ unflinching support for Israel, are alienating young American Jews, and reducing their attachment to Israel.

Beinart’s essay has received a remarkable amount of attention, especially considering that its underlying premise is simply false. It’s true that among the professional liberal Jewish intellectual elite–bloggers like Glenn Greenwald, Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein, journalists like Joe Klein and Beinart himself, sundry New York Review of Book essayists like Tony Judt–Israel has taken a beating, and undoubtedly some of them, and their allies and acolytes, are alienated from Israel.

But the data on “attachment” to Israel doesn’t show any difference between young Jewish conservatives, young Jewish liberals, or anyone in between. Rather, young Jews who are involved in the Jewish community, whatever their ideology, are as attached to Israel as ever, indeed, probably more so (thanks to the Internet and Birthright), especially if one includes the Orthodox, which the data typically does not. Young Jews who are not involved in the community, especially the intermarried, are much less attached to Israel, as they are to any “ethnic” Jewish concerns. (Attachment is a measure of concern and interest, not agreement with policies.) A growing percentage of young, non-Orthodox Jews are not involved in the community and/or are intermarried, hence the overall decline in attachment to Israel among the non-Orthodox.

I confirmed all this in an email conversation with Steven Cohen, the sociologist whose studies on American Jewish attachment to Israel have prompted much handwringing, including Beinart’s. Various gaps in his studies lead me to conclude that I’d want more data before I’m completely persuaded that there is no liberal/conservative gap in young Jews’ attachment to Israel, all else held constant (the most sticky point is that intermarried Jews tend to be more politically conservative than non-intermarried Jews, which mucks up the data), but certainly the reverse hasn’t been shown.

Meanwhile, Noah Pollak has launched a scathing, polemical and generally on-target attack on what one might call Beinartism.

Pollak’s must-read essay makes three essential points:

(1) Beinart claims that he is engaging in an act of courage [update: Beinart, via email, says that this is a misinterpretation of what he meant when he said that he found the piece hard to write, and he has explicitly disclaimed the idea that he was exhibiting courage. Fair enough.] by criticizing Israel and the American Jewish establishment, but nothing is more trite, and better for one’s career in left-wing circles, than to be a Jewish liberal/left intellectual publicly attacking Israel. Exactly how many pro-Israel left-leaning organizations and periodicals are there right now, beyond the New Republic? Even back in 1987, a journalist friend of mine was turned down for a job from The Nation Village Voice because it wouldn’t hire anyone who was sympathetic to Israel, especially anyone Jewish. Things have only deteriorated dramatically since. Fact is, Israel has become a liberal-conservative issue in the U.S., with conservatives overwhelmingly supporting Israel, liberals much less so, and liberal intellectuals often hostile. If you’re someone in Beinart’s shoes, writing an essay like his is, as Pollak puts it, “a spectacle of conformity,” not a profile in courage. [UPDATE: Okay, Beinert didn’t claim to be a profile in courage. But the fact remains, even if we grant that Beinert is sincere and not a careerist, if you’re Jewish it’s hard to stay in good graces with the intellectual left, here and abroad, unless you write the obligatory hand-wringing piece criticizing Israel.]

(2) The failure of the Oslo peace process was a failure of liberal-left assumptions about foreign policy, and how the world works more generally. Instead of revisiting their ideological assumptions, it’s a lot easier for the left to blame Israel: “The failure of the liberal vision is transformed from being a verdict on liberalism to being a verdict on Israel.” By contrast, in Israel, where the public actually has to live with the consequences of Oslo, the left has collapsed, going from 56 seats to 16. As a former Oslo liberal myself, I found this point persuasive. I would only add that the right in Israel has also largely collapsed, as only the fringe right-wing parties any longer rule out a two-state solution. [Even Avigdor Lieberman, a primary villain in Beinart’s piece, supports a two-state solution.] Israeli politics, in short, has become primarily pragmatic, not ideological. The essential debate in Israel is over the best way to navigate the treacherous waters of Middle East politics, not Likud Greater Israel hawkishness vs. Meretz/Labor dovishness, as it was for decades. The American Jewish left, ideological to the core, can’t stand the fact that the Israeli ideological left has virtually disintegrated. And what could drive an American Jewish liberal intellectual crazier than the fact that Israelis, in general, loved Bush, and dislike Obama?

(3) Finally, Western liberals, including Western liberal Jews, who’ve turned against over the last decade, have played their own significant role in turning Israeli politics to the right, by “rewarding” any and all Israeli concessions with demands that Israel refuse to defend itself when those concessions led to further conflict:

Through the peace process, Israel was promised acceptance; through disengagement, Israel was promised the moral high ground and assured that acts of self-defense would finally, at long last, be accompanied by the full and unapologetic support of Western liberals.

So what happened? Where were the liberal Zionists in all this? The Hezbollah and Hamas wars in particular were treated by Peter Beinart’s new allies as acts of brutal Israeli aggression and cruelty. Operation Defensive Shield in 2003, the Hezbollah war, and the Hamas war should have been moments in which liberal Zionists stepped forward to say: Israel took the risks for peace that we demanded. Israel committed itself to a diplomatic process, offered a Palestinian state, and withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza…. Instead [of defending Israel from its terrorist enemies], talk of war crimes filled the airwaves, investigations were demanded, arrest warrants for Israeli officials issued, and now Peter Beinart says that he must question Zionism because civilians were killed in Gaza. Carried away by his own moral indignation, he never asks two fundamental questions: who started the war, and why was it fought from civilian areas?

[Additionally, when Jewish liberals like Beinart reflexively defend the overtly anti-Israel Human Rights Watch and like-minded NGOs from the charge that they are anti-Israel, it gives Israelis one less reason to pay attention to anything he and his human-rights-oriented liberal colleagues have to say–and sometimes they are right.]

I’m not in the mood to moderate the ugly sentiments a post like this inevitably brings out in certain comments, so I’m keeping them closed.

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