The Crisis of Zionists’ Crises (or, Peter Beinart, meet Shlomo Avineri)

Since 2012 Peter Beinart’s declaration that, “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” has been the most debated sentence in the American Jewish community. In that now-famous article (to which he has just published a sequel) Beinart explains “why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young.” The answer, Beinart writes, is that “It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s.” Having “imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights,” young Jews distance themselves from Israel, or simply decide not to think about it, because Israel is too different, too violent, too difficult to relate to. The problem with this part of Beinart’s argument is that it isn’t true.

These young Jews are not disillusioned with Israel because it’s brand of Zionism is politically alien to the values inculcated in them by their American cultural milieu. The similarity, not the difference, between the United States and Israel is the source of the disillusionment of American Jews coming of age today.

The United States has invaded, occupied, or bombed countries in the Middle East continually for the past twelve years. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq, and drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have claimed more lives than the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The PATRIOT Act, Bush era wiretaps, and the NSA’s PRISM program have demonstrated bipartisan disregard for civil liberties and human rights on a scale greater than that of Israel’s vast spy networks and security apparatus in the West Bank. The current political climate in the U.S. is far from hospitable to open debate. To the contrary, instances like Chris Hayes’ public apology after suggesting the word “hero” might be overused show that there are very clear limits to what can and cannot be said in public. Hayes’ apology, in particular, brings to mind the Israeli obsession with the military and the centrality of the armed forces in national mythology.  Since Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term, Israel looks more and more like a mirror image of U.S. politics and culture. Perhaps more accurate, Israel resembles a miniature model of America – fully capitalist, McDonalds-friendly, and fearful of the Arab world.

Israeli scholar and statesman Shlomo Avineri writes, “the state of Israel will constitute, for years to come, as the heart for Jewish people, living in other countries, only if it can find a way to be radically deferent from those countries.” The withering condition of American Zionism is caused neither by the inability of young Jews to relate to Israel nor by the failure of the American Jewish establishment to make room for the liberal-minded younger generation. Young Jews cannot connect to Israel because it looks so much like the flawed, jingoistic, unequal society they live in.

It is for that reason trips like Birthright seek to connect young Jews to Israel by showing them what makes it unique – and different from the U.S. Every aspect of that kind of packaged experience is tailored to show only the dissimilar and ignore the similar. The Israelis who accompany young American Jews on their Birthright trips are not university students, like the trips’ participants,  but soldiers on leave from their bases. The tour buses do not take Birthright participants to see the strip malls of Herziliya, the suburban prosperity of Ra’anana, or the urban squalor of South Tel Aviv. They take them to the Kotel, Masada, the Carmel Market, and bedouin tents. These American Jews already see glaring wealth inequality, pastoral suburbia, and all-black ghettos at home.  But they do not usually see thousand year-old streets, sites of mass suicide, the shuk, and nomadic herders patiently waiting to serve them tea. “If Israel becomes only a mirror-image of Diaspora life,” warns Avineri, “if it becomes, for example, just another Western consumer society, then it will lose its unique identification for world Jewry.”

However, young American Jews are liberals and not leftists. They are unlikely to agree with Avineri’s thesis – that “a liberal market economy, which means the unloading of responsibility by the individual toward the group, equals bringing the Diaspora back to the land of Israel.” American Jewry has profited nicely from the liberal market economy. Jews are better educated, better employed, and better off than many of their fellow Americans. That prosperity makes them blind to the notion that “if an American or French Jew discovers in Israel only those qualities which he already possesses (and cherishes) in his own society, then he will not be able to raise Israel to the normative pedestal with which he would identify.” Both the American Jewish establishment and its detractors like Beinart fret over the weakening bond between young American Jews and Israel. But they fail to recognize that bond “can continue to exist only if Diaspora Jewry is able to discover in Israel such qualities as it lacks in itself.” Paradoxically, the right-wing celebrators of start-up nation’s capitalist accomplishments give young American Jews less of a reason to engage with it – not because these Jews are anti-capitalists but because they can celebrate capitalism without leaving the U.S.

The American Jewish establishment often parodies the detachment of young American Jew from Israel, cynically diagnosing them with “not the Israel my parents promised me” syndrome. The pathology of this particular condition is that these Jews, raised on stories of victimhood, moral purity, and miraculous self-preservation are unable to come to terms with Israel’s military dominance, the moral ambiguity of Jewish power, and the political demands of a living in a tumultuous region.

The difference between this view and Beinart’s own is subtle but important. Young American Jews, Beinart insists, “have grown up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril.” But Beinart’s view assumes far more critical engagement with Israel at a young age than actually occurs. For the most part, even young secular Jews are taught to consider Israel special and fundamentally different from the U.S. and other “normal” countries.

Disassociation and disengagement occur not as a result of the clash between young Jews’ liberalism and Israel’s behavior but as a result of the gap between what Israel is and what they thought it was supposed to be. In this sense the Zionist Right, despite its condescension, is correct. Israel today is not the Israel promised to young Jews by their parents. The problem, for Zionists, is not that Israel is so foreign and despotic that young American Jews can no longer relate to it; it is that Israel has become so similar to what they are used to at home that they no longer see a reason to.

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