Us and Them

It’s been a long time since American Jewry has been as shaken as it was by Peter Beinart’s article in the New York Review last month.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

More than anything else, Peter Beinart’s message to Israelis is that something has happened to Americans, and Israelis don’t seem to get it. Something has happened to Americans in general and to American Jews in particular. And if Israel goes on not understanding what is going on in the United States, the outcome will be grave.

Beinart, for his part, does not purport to understand Israelis fully. True, he is one of Washington’s leading commentators on foreign affairs, but until recently he avoided writing about Israel. Precisely as an American Jew, religiously observant and a Zionist, who attends synagogue in Washington with senior officials from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League, he was leery of expressing his position publicly. But in the past year, as he read about the militant public atmosphere in Israel, the proposed loyalty laws, statements by Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Ya’alon against the Arabs and the left, and the campaign of Im Tirtzu − The Second Zionist Revolution against the human rights group B’Tselem and against the New Israel Fund – he couldn’t help recalling a dark period, at least from the viewpoint of liberal Americans: the Bush years.

Peter Beinart

“I am not certain that Israelis understand that Obama’s victory was a repudiation of Bush and Cheney,” he notes. “For people to suggest that those who criticize are not patriotic or are disloyal, is a pernicious, very destructive and dangerous idea. It is an echo of what we experienced in the United States. But now we are moving away from that.”

A month ago, Beinart published an article in the New York Review of Books titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” ‏(available on the NYRB homepage,, under articles from the June 10 issue‏). It has been many years since an article dealing with the dull subject of Zionist organizations in the United States has stirred such a furor. Writers in dozens of newspapers, periodicals and blogs vied with each other in attributing significance to the article. The highly regarded periodical Foreign Policy wrote that Beinart’s article “redefines the norms” in regard to Israel. Others went so far as to say that Beinart “clicked the restart button” of the Zionist establishment in the United States. Nearly everyone agreed that the article was a benchmark in the drifting apart of American Jews and Israel.Beinart posits a threatening forecast of the future of relations between the two sides. Everyone knows that young American Jews are assimilating in large numbers, but Beinart points out that even most of the young people who remain Jews do not feel a bond with the Jewish state. “Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel,” he writes in the NYRB article. “And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal.”

The reason, he says, is that the leading organizations of American Jewry are false liberals: their supposed liberalism vanishes when Israeli actions are involved. Moreover, he says, these groups are out to denounce every type of Zionism that is critical of Israel for its attitude toward the Palestinians in the territories and in Israel. The present young generation of liberal Jews is different from the last one, whose worldview was shaped by the victory in 1967 and the danger of destruction in 1973. The secular Zionists of this type are a vanishing breed. “Their children,” he writes, “have no memory of Arab armies massed on Israel’s border ... Instead, they 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.”

The responses to the article demonstrated to Beinart the depth of the resentment against the Zionist establishment within the Jewish community. “There is a lot of anguish among American Jews, among liberal American Jews − but most American Jews are liberal,” he says in an interview conducted in Tel Aviv last week. “Many American Jews feel unhappy, uncomfortable with some of what they see Israel doing. They feel very upset about it, and they want the opportunity to express that. And they want to be able to do it without being told that they’re anti-Israel or self-hating Jews, or whatever. I think, particularly, for younger American Jews, that’s the case.

“And there’s a real sense of generational divide,” he continues. “Among a lot of older American Jews, there is more of a feeling of ‘the world is against us, anti-Semitism is everywhere.’ That doesn’t resonate with younger American Jews very well. A college student e-mailed me what I thought was a perceptive comment. He said that ‘what they don’t understand’ − referring to American Jewish leaders − ‘is that for most people in my college, my university, the Jewish students, Obama matters more than Israel.’ Obama is a more important figure in their lives.”

In his article, Beinart cites several proofs of the severance between young Jewish-American liberals and Israel. Young Jews who took part in focus groups in 2003 repeatedly used the word “they” rather than “us” in reference to Israel. In 2008, he notes, “the student senate at Brandeis, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in America, rejected a resolution commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state.” Only 50 percent of young Jews said they would consider Israel’s destruction a personal tragedy.

The Lieberman syndrome

No one would have been surprised if a leading left-wing Jewish intellectual had written the NYRB article. But Beinart is no Noam Chomsky. “I know it sounds sentimental or schmaltzy, but whenever I come to Israel it’s a very moving experience,” he says. Last week he was here for a short visit to take part in the annual meeting of the New Israel Fund, which supports liberal and socially conscious groups. At 38, this is Beinart’s fifth visit to Israel, where he also has relatives. “This is the first time I’ve come since I had children, so I think a lot about what it would be like to have my kids come here.” With some emotion, he relates how his 4-year-old son, Ezra, “made an Israeli flag at his preschool and wanted to carry it around with him because he knew I was going to Israel. For an Israeli, that might seem very silly. But in the United States I think it’s important, valuable. And you have to work at it.”

In the past decade Beinart has been considered one of the wonder boys of the quality American press. The son of an MIT professor, he himself attended Yale and Oxford and at the tender age of 26 was a senior editor on the influential political magazine The New Republic. The editor, Martin Peretz, was captivated by Beinart when he was invited by him to give a talk to the Yale debating society.

In 1999, at the age of 28, Beinart was appointed editor of the magazine. Peretz called him “an exceptionally brilliant person” and noted that he had been reading The New Republic since high school. Beinart, for his part, described himself as having the maturity of a 50-year-old but the energy of an adolescent. In his years as editor, the magazine’s circulation plunged by 40 percent. Some cited the growing popularity of blogging and the news sites on the Internet as the causes, but others argued that Beinart’s ideological line cut the magazine off from its liberal readership base. The New Republic is one of the most pro-Israel political journals in the United States. Peretz never missed an opportunity to tilt the whole weight of his influence toward Israel. Recently he was critical of President Obama’s demand for a construction freeze in the settlements. In the past he has said that no one who was not a supporter of Israel would work for The New Republic. He would rather lose readers, he said, than change the magazine’s pro-Israel orientation.

After September 11, 2001, Beinart was considered one of the most articulate spokespersons for the hawkish wing of the American liberal camp. He supported the American invasion of Iraq ‏(“That was a mistake,” he admits now‏) and termed the war against terrorism the continuation of the struggle against the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union − an idea he elaborated on in his controversial book, “The Good Fight: Why Liberals − and Only Liberals − Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.” He was also attacked by the American left for his accusations that “hatred for the United States” is pervasive in the anti-globalization movement.

In 2006, he left the editorship in order to devote himself to writing books. At present he is associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior political writer for the website The Daily Beast. His new book, “The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris,” has just been published.

You attack the blockade of Gaza and express ardent support for the left-wing demonstrators in Sheikh Jarrah − an East Jerusalem neighborhood where settlers have moved in − who are a very marginal group in Israeli society. But on the basis of your approach to issues in the United States, you would probably think differently if you actually lived in Israel.

“I can’t know for sure, but I’m obviously aware of the fact that the Israeli left has declined. I often hear in the United States the argument that the Israelis have grown disillusioned with the idea that there is a partner on the Palestinian side; that they went into the Oslo process, and look what happened. But I don’t necessarily decide what I believe based on the majority position at the time. There was a period in the United States after September 11, in which you probably would have found 90 percent of Americans saying it was fine to torture anyone who we thought might be a terrorist. It was still wrong. So I think it’s important to try to understand the evolution of the Israeli political identity, but there are still people in Israel who resisted that view. In Israeli intellectual life, there are very important voices who really are where the Sheikh Jarrah people are, and Americans could support those voices, even if they are politically quite weak. I myself find very valuable the reports of [the human rights organizations] B’Tselem, Gisha and others.”

If we look at your past writings, you seem to have undergone a transformation in regard to Israel.

“First of all, I had not been writing that much about Israel. Like many people, I was hesitant to write about it too much because I think I was conflicted internally about being very publicly critical of Israel. I was also concerned about how some of my friends would feel about it. There’s also a feeling that our lives are very easy, and that we sit there in America, and our children don’t go into the army. But I think a couple of things happened. For me, I think the rise of [Avigdor] Lieberman was a significant moment. What upset me was that, the minute he emerged and people in America started to hear about him, the reaction from most American Jews was that there’s no problem here: he’s misunderstood. They would always say, ‘He’s for civil marriage’ − as though that had anything to do with his views on the Arabs. I thought it was like the frog in boiling water. At a certain point, you have to have the capacity to be outraged.”

Beinart is the son of South African parents who immigrated to the United States. His grandmother was born in Egypt and spent time in the Belgian Congo. “I learned my Zionism from my grandmother, who always said that one day we would all go on aliya to Israel. That was a Zionist perception of Israel as a haven,” Beinart says. “But I think that most young American Jews don’t feel that way. They feel America’s perfectly safe. They feel the opposite: Israel’s dangerous, America’s safe. That made me think that we in the United States need to create a different kind of Zionism. I think that if there is anything that might attract these young Jews and connect them to Israel, it’s precisely the voices that are now under attack. Human rights activists and liberal journalists in Israel are what revived my Zionism.”

You attend an Orthodox synagogue and gave your children very Jewish names.

“Yes, Ezra and Naomi. I think it’s important to provide kids in the United States with a sense of a particular Jewish identity in a whole series of ways. The names are the superficial elements, but still valuable. In our society, even much more than the other diaspora communities like Canada or Australia or Britain, the pull of assimilation is extremely strong. American elite Christians have welcomed American Jews with open arms and said, ‘Marry our children. Please marry our children.’ So I like the fact that my son, even though he’s only 4, because he’s gone to shul [synagogue] every week since he was born, and to a Jewish preschool, feels he has a connection to being Jewish that, if we hadn’t done those things, he wouldn’t have at all.”

Marching to a different tune

Beinart’s warning about the mood among young American Jews is based in large measure on the research of Prof. Steven Cohen from Hebrew Union College. Cohen found that Jewish identity and commitment to Israel have weakened in the community’s younger generation. Beinart also draws on studies by a leading Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, who last week published new findings showing a serious blow to Israel’s image among the general American public as well, mainly after the incident of the intercepted ship in the Free Gaza flotilla. Luntz’s research, which was commissioned by The Israel Project, an organization committed to improving Israel’s image, warns of “dangerous deterioration” in the attitude of Americans toward Israeli policy. The findings, which were transmitted to the Prime Minister’s Office and reported by Channel 10, show that only 34 percent of all Americans support the Israeli action against the flotilla. Luntz notes that whenever Israeli spokespersons hurl accusations against the international community, they lose their audience − and this in the country that is considered Israel’s greatest friend.

However, other researchers have reservations about these conclusions. “I’m not sure that the young generation of American Jewry is moving away from Israel,” says Prof. Pinchas-Peter Medding, an expert on American Jewry from the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It’s true that there are findings of pollsters and focus groups, but the gaps between the generations are not as great as [Beinart] maintains. There is disagreement over the findings and about whether proof exists about the existence of such a problem. When you ask people how close they are to Israel, older ones will say ‘very close,’ while younger ones will say less, but only because they are less inclined to express emotions.”

Clearly there is criticism of Israeli policy in certain circles, Medding says, “But I do not see signs of a movement of young Jews against Israel. The campus demonstrations are organized mainly by Palestinians. I know of no findings showing that the shouters are young Jews. There are some who advocate an economic and academic boycott of Israel, but I don’t see a mass movement in that direction. I don’t see a huge wave of young people who would let Israel go down the tubes. What is clear is that mixed marriages will affect the whole issue of Jewish identity and the attitude toward Israel. Patently, someone who has two Jewish parents will possess a stronger tie to Israel than someone with one Christian parent. But that’s already a different story.”

He is seconded by Dr. Natan Aridan from the Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “I don’t think there is a decline in support for Israel,” he says. “There has never been unequivocal data of a falloff in attachment to Israel. We see the success of Birthright. People are waiting in line to be accepted to the program.”

Beinart responds that Birthright − a project that brings young Jews who have never been to Israel to the country for a short but intensive visit − “is good and I have no problem with it. But I think there’s a debate about the long-term effects. When people come back, right away they feel a connection. I think the question is how much of a connection they feel several years after.” As an example of the metamorphosis undergone by American Zionism, Beinart points to the annual march on Fifth Avenue in New York in solidarity with Israel. In the past, he says, the event bore a secular or at least diverse character. Nowadays, he says, it has become a religious occasion, with almost all the participants from yeshivas and Orthodox schools.

“The hyper-nationalist Zionists are the bodyguards of the settlers. The Orthodox Jews in America support Israel with growing enthusiasm. But they are almost the only ones who do so,” he says. “The only really strong growing sense of connection to Israel in the younger American Jewish community is in the Orthodox community. The current that comes from the kippa sruga [knitted skullcap, associated with national-religious Zionism] world in Israel is coming to the United States. It’s a Zionism of the land, and that’s not, for me, entirely comfortable.”

So according to you, Israel only has a problem among the liberal young. You write that support for Israel among Orthodox Jews is growing and that the proportion of Orthodox Jews in the community is increasing: 12 percent among Jews over 60, but 34 percent among Jews aged 16-25. If so, where is the problem from Israel’s point of view?

“Prime Minister Netanyahu maybe thinks, ‘Why do we need all these left-wing Jews in the United States? They’re going to be Episcopalian by the next generation − they’re intermarrying, and who needs them? We have the Orthodox and we have Sarah Palin and the Christian Evangelicals.’ Even if you ignore the moral aspect, politically I think that’s a stupid approach, because the strength of Israel-United States ties has always been its bipartisan character. Now, support for Israel is becoming a partisan issue, a Republican issue. That’s why Netanyahu is such a problematic figure in the United States. Shamir, Dayan and Olmert were considered right-wing Israelis. Netanyahu is so Americanized that people think of him as a Republican. And I think this is where Israelis don’t fully understand what’s happening in America, politically. Obama will be reelected, and by a big margin.”

But Obama’s popularity is at an all-time low and he’s likely to get battered in the November midterm elections.

“The midterm elections are not representative of the presidential election; the midterm election will be a referendum on the economy, which is bad. Also, younger voters and non-white voters, who are the key part of Obama’s success, don’t turn out as much in the midterms. But they will turn out in 2012, when he runs for reelection. So even if I were advising Netanyahu in the most Machiavellian way, I would say, ‘If you’re going to cast your lot with the Orthodox Jews and the Christian Evangelicals, they are not going to be in power for quite a long time.’

“There’s also a huge demographic transition taking place,” he continues. “The Hispanic voters, who lean very strongly to the Democratic Party, are a much larger percentage of the population. And young voters lean very strongly to the Democratic Party, too. And every four years, their percentage of the electorate just gets bigger. The Republican Party is maybe the equivalent of the Labor party here in Israel − it’s in a very weak position, because they haven’t figured out any way to appeal to those young groups. Obama is not a passing phenomenon. This is the start of a Democratic era, which, I think, will last for quite a long time.”

In his new book, “The Icarus Syndrome,” Beinart argues that recent U.S. administrations, and particularly the administration of the younger Bush, exaggerated American power on the global stage. Obama, he says, signals the change, though it’s not yet certain he will succeed. “The problem he faces is the existence of a strong sense of inertia, particularly in Afghanistan,” Beinart says. “The U.S. military in Afghanistan wants to commit more and more resources there. I think Obama is trying to restrain it, but in wartime the American military ends up wielding considerable influence. Afghanistan could be a big problem in his presidency.

“I think the U.S. has got to move toward withdrawing from Afghanistan. I didn’t always believe that; originally I was quite hopeful about Afghanistan. Al-Qaida is not really in Afghanistan that much, they’re in Pakistan. So essentially, you’re investing a huge effort in Afghanistan, but the actual struggle against terrorism is not really, mostly, there.”

Has the status of the United States declined?

“The larger issue is going to be American power relative to Asia. In the past, America had very strong alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia. I think that China is clearly emerging as the most powerful country in Asia and trying to create institutions that don’t include the United States. The problem is that, as long as America is as deeply in debt as we are, we’re not going to have as much influence with China as we would like. So, in Asia, you’re really seeing a potential relative decline of American power. I think American power will only rebound if America strengthens itself economically. That has to include dealing with debt and dealing with the American infrastructure, which has deteriorated to some degree: the education system, the health care system. Obama has done a big thing on health care, which is one of the biggest problems in the United States. But one of the problems is that our political system is not so good at confronting very difficult problems.”

So far, Obama’s plans for regional cooperation to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t really worked.

“I think you’re right. When Obama came into office, people thought we would be able to change the relationship with Iran and deal with Iran’s nuclear program, and that this would have a beneficial impact in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and with Hezbollah and Hamas, which Iran supports. Needless to say, it hasn’t turned out that way. Iran had its election and now its government has become even more hard-line. That was an idea the Obama administration had, but it’s clearly failed.

“So now they’re dealing with a very difficult situation, because they don’t really have a diplomatic process with Iran going on. They don’t seem to have much of a capacity to help overthrow the government. They can pass sanctions, but I think most people are pessimistic about whether the sanctions are going to succeed. I wonder what will happen in Israel on the day Iran tests a nuclear weapon, what the impact will be on average Israelis. I don’t know.” W

Tete-a-tete with Peter Beinart

• On Americans: “I think something that people always need to remember about Americans [is that] Americans are not very well-informed and don’t think a lot about other countries.” Also: “I think most Americans genuinely see Israel as a very admirable society. I mean, Americans tend to be generally much more sympathetic to democracies than nondemocracies.”

• On America’s two wars: “The amazing thing is that even though we are at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, you’d be surprised about how little public conversation there is about it. Because, you know, it’s not an Israeli war where everyone is fighting. It’s a small percentage of America.”

• On nationalism: “It’s that we’ve just come out of the Bush-Cheney era. We’ve come out of the era after 9/11, and so, rightly or wrongly, I think this idea of using ultranationalism ... as a way of trying to prevent criticism, or trying to demonize critics, is something that Americans feel familiar with because we’ve had some of that experience.”

• On the right to an opinion: “I think as a matter of principle people have the right to have views about things that happen in other countries. If the French government says you can’t wear a kippa to school, Israelis feel the right to say, ‘We think that’s wrong,’ even though they’re not living in France. So why don’t American Jews have the right to say they disagree with something that Israel is doing even though they don’t live in Israel?”

• On Israel: “I think Israel has a larger role in the American consciousness than most countries, and I think it’s mostly positive.” But: “... even Americans who I think are sympathetic to Israel have difficulty understanding Israel’s policies in the West Bank ... and, of course, [the United States is] dealing with terrorism in a way we didn’t deal with before − so that raised the issue for some people about the question, the degree to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may produce terrorism that impacts America − It was very significant that David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, raised that issue.”

• On Obama: “Barack Obama is not cutting U.S. aid to Israel. He’s not talking about changing U.S. military relations, he’s only strengthening [them].” He continues, “Obama has been very supportive of Israel by any reasonable standard ... And I think that Americans, and maybe even Israelis, forgot that the Bush administration was not the historical norm.” He says, “I actually think that Obama is somebody who has a deep connection to Jewish values ... the key to understanding Obama is that, I think, he sees Jews and Israel as through the lens of the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in the United States.”

• On Zionism: “I recognize that maybe in some ideal world you would not need to have countries that have religious orientations. But it seems to me in the actually existing world, Israel can be a pretty good place. As a place that’s a Jewish state but has a real commitment to free press and an independent judiciary and the rule of law. In some ways, better than the United States.”

• On Diaspora Judaism: “In the Diaspora, you feel the sense that you are the custodian of a connection, a legacy of being part of the Jewish people. And it’s fragile. You could very easily lose it. So I think that one doesn’t feel that in Israel. If you feel it’s precious, and you think about the extraordinary accomplishments of Jewish civilization, the struggle that people made to survive as Jews − to me, it feels like a simple obligation.”

• On a solution to the conflict: “I don’t want Israel to foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state. I can see that you could have an argument about whether it’s realistic to have a Palestinian state in two years or whether it will take five years, or what the Palestinian state would be like. I understand that. But it seems to me, I think the only vision I can see of a better future is a Palestinian state that’s contiguous and, I think, should have a capital in East Jerusalem. And so it seems to me at the very least there’s an obligation to not do things that make that impossible.”



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