Israel is 62, middle-aged by any definition. Israel has now joined the OECD, the club of the world’s most advanced economies. It is successful by any definition.
With age and success, it sometimes happens that early friendships fall away. That has been Israel’s fate. A generation ago, it lost the non-Jewish left. In recent years, the Jewish left has been falling away too.
In 2003, the British-Jewish historian Tony Judt published a long and at the time much discussed essay in the New York Review of Books arguing that Israel was an “anachronism” and urging a conversion to a “binational” state that over time would gain an Arab majority.
In the years since, liberal-minded Jews in Europe, Britain and the United States have followed Judt’s call: people like the historian Avi Shlaim, the British Labour politician Gerald Kaufman, the British writer Daniel Levy (son of Tony Blair’s chief fundraiser, Michael Levy) and the American Jews who have gathered around the new Israel-criticism lobby in Washington, J Street.
These are not radical leftists of the Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein variety. They vote Labour or Social Democratic or for Barack Obama. They value democratic process over revolutionary upheaval. They do not get all fluttery inside when they see a stubbly-faced guerrilla brandishing a Kalashnikov. And yet, in the war for public opinion in the Middle East, they have decided against Israel.
The latest of these liberal Jewish defectors is Peter Beinart, formerly editor of the New Republic magazine, a magazine with a long and distinguished record of pro-Israel advocacy. Peter Beinart recently published an article in the New York Review of Books that argued: “Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral.”
To expand: “[T]he leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster — indeed, have actively opposed–a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behaviour in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. 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.”
Israel, Beinart argues, has failed to show adequate concern for the rights of Palestinians. This disregard offends liberals, and since most young American Jews are liberals, the disregard therefore offends them too. Result: Young American Jews are turning away from Israel. The only way to rescue American Zionism is for American Jews to criticize Israel more.
Beinart leaves unclear what he expects this criticism to accomplish. There’s something about his whole project that reminds me of those synagogues that hired “antiestablishment” rabbis in the 1970s, hoping that beards and guitars and anti-Vietnam sermons from the pulpit would draw the young folks back to shul.
But that’s Beinart’s argument, and it has touched off an intense debate in foreign policy circles in Washington and New York.
Beinart is for sure right that Jewish liberals have been drifting away from Israel.
That drift reflects badly on those liberals, not on Israel. It’s a drift based on substituting wishful thinking for real analysis.
Matt Groening — who would later create The Simpsons — in his early career drew a cartoon of an older brother and sister urging their younger sibling to step into the dark basement. “Mom left a present for you downstairs.” The kid answers: “The last time you said that, you locked me in the basement for three hours.” They reply: “This time we won’t.”
That’s the same argument now made about the peace process. Yes, the last round of major Israeli concessions back in 1999-2001 invited a spasm of Palestinian terror attacks that killed 800 people. But the next round of concessions will surely work much better!
You can see why Israelis might answer: “No thanks. We’ll build our security fence and develop our economy, and when you Palestinians have an offer for us, we’ll be glad to listen. In the meantime, your problems are your problems.” That’s not a moral decline. That’s the chastening of experience.
But if there’s one thing that defines liberal thinking about the Middle East, it is precisely that it denies that Palestinian actions matter at all — or even that there are such things as Palestinian actions. Only Israel acts, and anything bad that happens in the region is a response to an Israeli action.
That does not seem a very sophisticated way to think. And actually when you consider it, it’s not very complimentary to the Palestinians or the larger Arab world. In this version of events, Palestinians and Arabs are never makers of their own story, only passive objects of other people’s stories.
Maybe the best response of all, however, comes from a Middle Eastern politician whom Peter Beinart and I both know. This man once asked me to explain the politics of the American Jewish community. I did my best. He replied: “The problem with you Jewish people is that you are always for the underdog — even when the underdog is trying to kill you.”
Originally published in the National Post.