AIPAC Ameinu American Jews Americans for Peace Now Israel J Street Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart offers the correct diagnosis, but the wrong cure

The blogosphere is buzzing about an essay by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books. Beinart convincingly denounces the Israel-right-or-wrong mantra of mainstream American Jewish organizations. He is justifiably worried about the future of “an American Zionist movement that does not even feign concern for Palestinian dignity.”

But for all of its many good points, his essay betrays a surprising ignorance of American Jewish organizational life. Like me, he wants more American Jews who identify with Israel to publicly distance themselves from the occupation and Israeli policies they find abhorrent. But he apparently believes that traditional American Jews groups and their leaders have the capacity to completely change their stripes and do what he recommends. According to Beinart:

The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference should ask themselves what Israel’s leaders would have to do or say to make them scream “no.” After all, Lieberman is foreign minister; Effi Eitam [a Netanyahu appointee who has openly recommended ethnic cleansing] is touring American universities; settlements are growing at triple the rate of the Israeli population; half of Israeli Jewish high school students want Arabs barred from the Knesset. If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?

There is no line and there never will be. Asking AIPAC and the most powerful players in the Presidents’ Conference to publicly criticize Israeli policy is like asking a dog to play poker. Beinart is urging a violation of the laws of nature, of organizational DNA. AIPAC and the leaders of the Presidents Conference are–and probably always will be–guided by the credo that differences with Israel can be voiced behind closed doors but never in the open air.

Beinart concludes his essay by urging “American Jewish organizations” to bring to Hillel some of the young Israelis who are regularly protesting the expropriation of Arab housing in Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem. “What if this was the face of Zionism shown to America’s young?” That is a lovely idea but it is mystifying that he somehow expects the hidebound Jewish establishment to make it real.

He ignores the recent growth of a ready-made alternative that already exists, a decidedly pro-Israel movement that is willing to be critical of Israeli policies that perpetuate the occupation. I am referring to J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu and other groups that are apparently not on Beinart’s radar screen.

In Israel, he notes, ‘humane, universalistic Zionism does not wield power. To the contrary, it is gasping for air.” But he hasn’t noticed that it is very much alive in the American Jewish community, and there are organizations doing a good job of spreading the credo of this blog, i.e., progressive and pro-Israel need not be an oxymoron. To be sure, the organizations in this camp are still smaller than the groups in the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd. But the organized dovish camp is growing, and it is growing louder. Beinart’s smart essay correctly diagnoses the disease but desparately reaches for a cure among groups like the Presidents Conference and AIPAC, instead of identifying the real sources of hope and health in the American Jewish community.

7 thoughts on “Peter Beinart offers the correct diagnosis, but the wrong cure

  1. I think you’re a bit too close to this issue. I didn’t read Beinart as expecting AIPAC and the Conference to change. The quote you used was a rhetorical point. He actually said he sees AIPAC and the Conference as being taken over by ultra-Orthodox, who he knows would certainly not listen to his request to highlight the Jewish student protesters in East Jerusalem.

    It’s not a sin of omission to leave J-Street and other pro-peace American Jewish groups out of his piece. That’s not his angle here. His mention of his own family and children shows what really is his central focus. And you can’t actually think that these groups are actually not on Beinart’s radar. For one thing, I’m sure he gotten his share of criticism from the Jewish left over the course of his career. He knows it exists.

  2. Norwegian Shooter:

    I’ve been told he told someone at Tablet magazine that he didn’t know much about J Street. I think it is a sin of omission for precisely the reasons that I stated. So we must agree to disagree.

  3. Okay, so the “humane, universalistic Zionism” is supposedly flourishing in America. So what? “Progressive” American Jews have little influence on what is going on, on the ground in Israel. At one time they tried to support the so-called “Peace camp” in Israel through organizations like “Americans for Peace Now” or “MERETZ-USA”, but as has been seen, their Israeli counterpoints have been weakened politically. Since that has failed, they now think they get their savior, Obama, to force Israel to do what they want. Do they ask themselves WHY Israelis have by and large rejected the “peace camp”‘s policies. Maybe the thousands of Israelis killed or wounded in the Palestinian’s suicide bomber war had something to do with that. Since these experience are not seared into the memories of “progressive” Jews living in Lowell, Massachussets, Evanston, Illinois and Vancouver, BC (these are the homes of three ideological anti-Zionist Reconstructionist rabbis who deny any right for a Jewish/Zionist state to exist), their congregations can work up more sympathy for the Palestinians who supported that war and the ongoing racist incitement against Jews and Israel and their attempts to delegitimize Israel than we in Israel can.

    Jewish assimilation is an old story. It goes back thousands of years. It is happening today in the US and other countries. Beinert is simply pointing this out. However, it must be remembered that the Six-Day War brought a lot of assimilated American AND Soviet Jews to a renewed Jewish identity and committment to Zionism, , almost out of the blue, without the hang-ups of trying to juggle a phony, “progressive” universalism with a belief in Zionism.
    Add to this the fact that the large majority of supporters of Israel in the US are non-Jews, who also don’t have these “progressive” Jewish hangups, so I am not worried about the situation in the US.

  4. Found the Tablet piece. Let’s say we’re both right. He clearly was motivated to write it by his children and his Orthodox experience. And he doesn’t know much about J Street as an organization, but he certainly knows that there is a pro-peace Jewish movement in the US. My point is that I don’t think it is a fault of the NYRB piece to not mention J Street. That was not his angle.

  5. Missed you at the salute to Israel parade Dan. It was a lot fun. Imagine it, Hundreds of thousands of Jews not consumed with angst and guilt. I know it would have throw off your equilibrium and its not the kind of thing you would go to but it really was fun.

  6. To Beinart’s credit, he is too distant from Jewish organizational life to understand how mediocre, robotic and supine it is. What a blessing.

  7. Bill Pearlman:

    Here is what a leading former IAF officer is quoted as saying about an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear infrastructure in “This Week” in Ha’aretz.

    While the prime minister continues to speak of “Never again” and the defense minister keeps proclaiming that “all options are on the table,” behind the scenes, and in private, both the military and civilian echelons are singing a completely different tune. They grasp the enormous strategic, political, economic and military difficulties that will surely arise in the event of an attack on Iran.

    One of the first to embrace a more sober view of the situation is Brig. Gen. (res. ) Relik Shafir, who until recently occupied the third-most important post in the IAF hierarchy, and who in his younger days took part in the attack on the reactor in Iraq. As far back as five years ago, Shafir let me in on the painful truth: The IAF would have great difficulty in repeating its success in Iraq if it were ordered to strike Iran.

    “The Iranians have learned the lessons from the attack on the Iraqi reactor,” Shafir said. “In Iraq, the entire nuclear program was concentrated in the reactor. The Iranians on the other hand have built a number of nuclear facilities in different areas around the country. Some of them are located in eastern Iran. They have ‘hardened’ their facilities by building them underground or by placing them in bunkers. In all honesty, the IAF lacks a real strategic capability to bomb distant targets over a prolonged period of time while using the necessary level of firepower.”

    The author goes on to quote Gen. Dan Halutz’s memoir to the effect that Iran’s nuclear potential is a global problem that must be solved globally.

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