Is the Jewish Left Deserting Israel?

May 27th, 2010 at 7:44 am David Frum | 20 Comments |

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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.

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20 Comments so far ↓

  • TerryF98

    Time to cut the welfare teat from the USA and allow Israel to actually stand on it’s own two feet. How many billions of USA taxpayers money has been shoveled Israel’s way over the years,

    It’s our children’s and Grandchildren’s money we are borrowing and spending to support a foreign country. Stop the welfare.

  • Aaron

    It’s seriously unfair Beinart to label him a “defector” along with Tony Judt. I don’t agree with Beinart any more than Frum does, but there’s a world of difference between left-Zionists like Beinart and anti-Zionists like Judt.

    Frum’s right about always sympathizing with the underdog. However, this is not a specifically Jewish malady. It’s a Western malady which also affects Western Jews (but not Middle Eastern Jews).

    What Beinart fails to understand is that even if Israel takes his advice, the conflict will continue and Israel will still be seen as the powerful, Western (“white”) bully oppressing the poor, powerless underdog-of-color. For Western Jews, there’s the “persecuted have become the persecutors” cliche as well. American liberals, Jewish and otherwise, who always identify with the “underdog” will continue to be alienated from Israel no matter what Israel does.

  • mlloyd

    Beinart wrote,Effi Eitam. Eitam, a charismatic ex–cabinet minister and war hero, has proposed ethnically cleansing Palestinians from the West Bank. “We’ll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from [the] political system,” he declared in 2006. In 2008, Eitam merged his small Ahi Party into Netanyahu’s Likud. And for the 2009–2010 academic year, he is Netanyahu’s special emissary for overseas “campus engagement.” In that capacity, he visited a dozen American high schools and colleges last fall on the Israeli government’s behalf. The group that organized his tour was called “Caravan for Democracy.” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman once shared Eitam’s views. In his youth, he briefly joined Meir Kahane’s now banned Kach Party, which also advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israeli soil. Now Lieberman’s position might be called “pre-expulsion.” He wants to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs who won’t swear a loyalty oath to the Jewish state. He tried to prevent two Arab parties that opposed Israel’s 2008–2009 Gaza war from running candidates for the Knesset. He said Arab Knesset members who met with representatives of Hamas should be executed. He wants to jail Arabs who publicly mourn on Israeli Independence Day, and he hopes to permanently deny citizenship to Arabs from other countries who marry Arab citizens of Israel…. In his 1993 book, A Place among the Nations, Netanyahu not only rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, he denies that there is such a thing as a Palestinian. In fact, he repeatedly equates the Palestinian bid for statehood with Nazism. An Israel that withdraws from the West Bank, he has declared, would be a “ghetto-state” with “Auschwitz borders.” And the effort “to gouge Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] out of Israel” resembles Hitler’s bid to wrench the German-speaking “Sudeten district” from Czechoslovakia in 1938. It is unfair, Netanyahu insists, to ask Israel to concede more territory since it has already made vast, gut-wrenching concessions. What kind of concessions? It has abandoned its claim to Jordan, which by rights should be part of the Jewish state…. When Israeli high schools held mock elections last year, Lieberman won. This March, a poll found that 56 percent of Jewish Israeli high school students—and more than 80 percent of religious Jewish high school students—would deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset.

    You dodge the issue in your essay, David. Do you think these are good things or bad things?

    Americans who opposed getting involved in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, were not, contrary to the charges of jingoists, motivated by love of the Ayatollah. Americans who opposed invading Iraq in 2003 were not, contrary to the charges of jingoists, motivated by love of Saddam. Peter Beinart’s argument in defense of liberal values in Israel is not, contrary to your argument, motivated by love of Hamas.

    You completely fail to engage (to have read?) his argument.

  • ottovbvs

    Aaron // May 27, 2010 at 8:22 am

    “It’s a Western malady which also affects Western Jews (but not Middle Eastern Jews).”

    …….sympathy for the underdog is a “malady” is it?……….this comment alone rather pigeon holes the commenter and his system of value judgements……Israel is losing support amongst Jews in Europe and the USA (78% of them voted for Obama) because of its increasingly arrogant, hubristic and bullying actions which are basically out of sympathy with the pragmatic, tolerant and enlightened attitudes of western Jewry……..they recognize abusive behavior when they see it because they have all too often been its victims……also being generally very intelligent they recognize it’s ultimately counter productive for the Israeli interest……these views are also fairly common amongst many Jews in Israel according to what I hear from a couple of my friends who live there……….far from being a cliche the persecuted have indeed become the persecutors in the eyes of many Jews and it’s not a role they feel comfortable with even if Aaron does.

  • nhthinker

    Much of the US support for Israel was anti-Soviet Union and pro-Democracy.
    For the past twenty years, neither of those two fundamental columns of support are really in play anymore.

    Support for Israel is only left to those that see it as the lesser of two evils or as a religious imperative.
    Most from a distance think that if only Israel extends an olive branch to their enemies that all could be at peace in the lands of Abraham. Most view that if Israel cannot survive peacefully that it is not the US business as to whether it ceases to exist as a Jewish government controlled country.

    The NeoCons want to continue to extend the reach of the US as the world’s policeman without any recognition that the US economy can no longer support it- They want to say that not being the world’s policeman will do more damage to the US economy than continuing the role. For a majority of Americans, that is not their assessment anymore.

  • LFC

    At this point, I wish Israel would just set its borders, build their fences and walls, and call it a day. Maybe from their standpoint a victory by slow attrition (i.e. the settlements) is better politically and strategically, but it certainly is a financial and political drain on the U.S.

    I used to be a proponent of the negotiated two state solution. When Arafat proved that nothing that Israel offered would even be met by so much as a counter-proposal, I realized that such an ideal with Arafat still in power was futile. I waited, the leadership changed, and … nothing. When Israel pulled out of the Gaza, and the Palestinians destroyed the functional greenhouses that were left behind, I saw the chance for negotiations was dead. A poverty stricken people who will destroy a means of commerce left to them just to make a point and then cry about being victims are not capable of negotiation.

    I’m still for a two state solution, but Israel will have to impose the borders. It’s the least worst solution to a virtually impossible situation.

  • franco 2

    “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.”

    Funny that Frum can’t see the forces of the left operate exactly the same way. Compromise with them at your own peril.

    American liberal Jews don’t understand the reality of the problem and are subject to the mainstream media’s simplistic interpretations of events. The American media will not report on the kind of tactics, lies and propaganda Palestinians spew forth every day. They lionize people like Yassir Arafat and give him “Peace” prizes. The Arab grievance axis has the medias number, deftly playing to political correctness and the medias love for theater and drama.

    I was treated to all the propaganda second/third hand by Egyptians for a year while living in Cairo, and reading Middle Eastern newspapers every day. They made me look twice at Israel, and it was certainly eye-opening. But then after having more experience and knowledge, I saw that these people were propagandists plain and simple, and not only that…the propaganda wasn’t just intended to “right wrongs” or to help Palestinians, it was meant to destroy Israel and Jews in general. The propagandists were waging outright psycological warfare as just another branch of a full-scale attack on Israel. American Jews are naive and ignorant of the enemy. We are all privileged to have grown up in an environment which is essentially fair and well-meaning, and these folks are wholly unaware of the depths of hatred that is beyond revocation from Israels sworn enemies.

  • Mercer

    “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.”

    So why do they get billions of dollars in aid from the US every year?

  • Carney

    Terry, Mercer, let’s see you advocate dropping Egypt first. Egypt, a far more thuggish, corrupt, and anti-American power than Israel, does not get a fraction of the grief Israel does over the foreign aid issue.

    At least Israel votes with us in the UN.

  • balconesfault

    Franco: American liberal Jews don’t understand the reality of the problem and are subject to the mainstream media’s simplistic interpretations of events.

    Seriously? American liberal Jews stay extremely informed on what’s happening in Israel, through a wide variety of channels.

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    Ottovbvs: “they recognize abusive behavior when they see it . . . ”

    Case in point:

  • SpartacusIsNotDead

    From Marjorie Ingall, a columnist for the Jewish magazine Tablet, on a conversation about Zionism with her daughter:

    “But having land is like having a seat on a bus,” Josie replied. “You can’t just push someone out of their seat, and you can’t just leave your seat and then come back to it after a long time and just expect the person who is sitting there now to give it to you.”

    My panicked reaction to her words surprised me. I found myself trying to convince her that Israel did have that right. But that’s not what I believe. But I’m not sure what I believe. I want my children to love Israel, but I don’t want them to identify with bullies. I was spinning in my own head like the desperate, overwhelmed woman in the Calgon commercial: J Street, take me away!

    But Josie’s bus-bully analogy resonated. Baby-boomer Jews seem wedded to a sepia-toned image of Jews as victims—in the shtetl, in the Holocaust, in Israel’s early wars. But in real life, victims can turn into bullies.

  • Arch

    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.

    Ummm, wouldn’t an anti-establishment rabbi be cleanshaven?

  • Stan

    I started contributing to the UJA as a 20 year old college student in 1956. I stopped around 30 years later because I felt that the Israeli settlement policy was fundamentally unjust. I started to feel this way when I saw the beginnings of the settlement policy, but I was unable at the time to shed my emotional feelings about Israel as a place of refuge for Jews in a fundamentally unfriendly world. It took the Balkan wars to show me that Israel, like Serbia, was wedded to a policy of ethnic cleansing.

    If the Israelis vacated their settlements in the West Bank and agreed to cede part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, my attitude would change. Of course, I agree with the contributors to this thread who feel that Israel has a right to defend itself, and I agree that a separation wall may be necessary to combat suicide bombers. But I cannot support Israel’s present unjust and self-defeating policies in the occupied territories.

  • William Boulet

    Really, David, things are a little more complicated than that, wouldn’t you say?

    The problem with the debate on the Israel-Palestinian issue is that arguments are so trite – so black and white on all sides – when in fact the situation is fiendishly complex. “We’re good. They’re bad. We’re above reproach. They’re responsible. We want peace. They don’t.”

    It’s getting really tiresome and I long to read something intelligent on the issue.


  • ottovbvs

    SpartacusIsNotDead // May 27, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Ottovbvs: “they recognize abusive behavior when they see it . . . ”

    “Case in point:”

    ……some of the fundamentalist Jewish sects are extremely unpleasant and are regarded with disdain by many jews……I suspect there’s an element of class distinction in it…….and it would appear that the young men behaving badly (some of whom apparently are Americans) are probably members of one of these groups

  • someotherdude

    One man, one vote, one nation…nation-states based on ethno-religious tribalism are dying…just ask the white European Christians of south Africa…or the Anglo-Protestants of the united states.

    Israel was basically a way for European Christians to apologize to European Jews…and they used the lands of Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims, to do it.

    And the romantic notion, that Arab Jews are “tougher” than their fellow European religionists is naive. Most of the anti-Zionist and post-Zionist intellectuals are the children of middle eastern Jews, and they view most of Zionism as a European phenomenon forced on them because of European/White conceit. Most of the “one-man-one-vote” talk I hear comes from the Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian and Yemenis Jews of Israel …now that’s what I call ironic!

  • PW43

    It is ironic that those who claim to be Israel’s best friend are leading the country to its own destruction. The sycophantic blind support Mr.Frum and neo-cons give Israel is creating an extemist entity which will eventually marginalize all support for the country. Every day more Jewish fundamentalists immigrate to Israel, while moderate Israelis are getting out faster than whites are getting out of Zuma’s South Africa. The country is changing and thanks to Frum and friends providing political cover this change is not being questioned or even analysed. A modern Sparta cannot survive endlessly surrounded by enemies. Israel is sowing the seeds of its own doom. David Frum is one of the gardeners watering those seeds.

  • Lordapril

    This article is fine as it goes, but fails to give me ammunition with my Liberal friends who claim Israel is two-faced and disingenuous when it purports to want peace through negotiations — yet continues to maintain and build Jewish homes on the other side of the Green Line, territory SUBJECT to these negotiations!

    I have no answer. Indeed, what’s the point of the Palestinians negotiating with Israel when the latter has made it a fait accompli that settlements and E. Jerusalem continue to grow as if unaffected by peace talks?

    Of course Israel cannot accept the June 4 ’67 Armistice Line (Green Line) as a final border. It’s not a defensible boundary, and the Palestinians are so aware. But one (Israel) cannot claim wanting to negotiate peace while nurturing a settlement enterprise on the other party’s (Pals) claimed territory.

    My top concern is Israel’s security — the original reason for the settlement enterprise which began in earnest during the 70′s. But how do I answer the Jewish-Liberal American position re settlements, E. Jerusalem’s Jewish growth PRIOR to the results of negotiations?