Peter Beinart is a Jewish-American lecturer, author and journalist whose essay "The Failure of the American Jewish establishment," published in the June issue of the New York Review of Books, has raised a storm among the American Jewish establishment. In the article, Beinart accuses that establishment of sacrificing its liberal values in favor of support for Israel at any price, a strategy that his led it to lose the support of the younger generation of liberal American Jews.
Peter Beinart, are young American liberal Jews ashamed of Israel?
"I don't think I've come across people who are ashamed of Israel. ... I am proud of the state of Israel. It is a democracy; it has in some ways a more vibrant culture of criticism than the U.S. ... And we are not threatened as much, but I'd say precisely because I feel proud because of these things that I think American Jews should defend them when they are threatened.
"And it seems to me that there is a struggle in Israel between people who have liberal democratic values and believe that it's important to criticize and that the rights of the Arab Israelis should be protected and those who don't."
It seems that the mainstream Jewish organizations didn't like your essay.
"The American Jewish organizations don't just say that they love Israel because it's a Jewish state. If you look at their websites, what they say is that they love Israel because it shares certain values that they believe are Jewish values and American values - free speech, human rights, the search for peace and all these things.
"So my article said that if you believe that, then you have to be willing to be critical when you think that the Israeli government is doing things that are not consistent with those values."
But you're wrote they love a state that no longer exists.
"It seems to me [you have] on the one hand a very good development, a liberal trend. On the other hand you have this very illiberal trend. I think there are a lot of good things in Israel, but I want American Jews to ally themselves with what I think are the liberal forces in Israel, against the illiberal forces. Just as they try to do when the Anti-Defamation League fights against the law in Arizona, I would say that if those are your values in Arizona, then you have to think about what your values are in Israel. They should be the same values."
Do we look that bad from outside?
"I was thinking mostly about trying to describe reality that exists in the Jewish American community among the younger Jews that maybe Israel is not aware of and maybe even the organized Jewish American leaders are not aware of. Which is they might not know all the details, but a series of things happened that led many young American Jews to be disturbed by Israeli policy, and I think particularly intense was the election of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and the rise of Avigdor Lieberman."
Isn't there a bit of obsession with Israel that doesn't necessarily benefit it?
"American Jews care because Israel became an important part of their identity. I think American Jews feel that having a connection to Israel for many parts is what makes them Jewish. Most American Jews are not religiously observant. Their connection to actual halakha is modest, so their Judaism is about memory of Holocaust and connection to Israel. It's not a particularly well educated community in a Jewish way, compared to the historical Jewish community.
"But why shouldn't they be connected to Israel? From the perspective of the Jewish history, the State of Israel is an extraordinary thing. Even though it has been around for more than 60 years it's still an amazing thing."
Some conservatives wrote that Jewish liberals are proud of their peers "only when they're victims and go to gas chambers."
"You'll find almost nobody that will say that there shouldn't be a Palestinian state. So I think the debate in the U.S. has really shifted. I don't know if the Israeli government understands how much it has shifted. To give you an example, there were a pretty significant amount of people that attacked me from the left, saying Beinart is a liberal Zionist, he should be for a binational secular state. So that position is becoming more mainstream in the U.S., and if the Palestinians would get behind that position it would become even more mainstream."
What has changed in the Obama era?
"In some ways the Obama administration is actually quite tame compared to what some past administrations were, and I think that what the Israelis and American Jews don't realize is that there is a long history of American presidents telling Israeli prime ministers what they think is in America's best interest."
What is being a Zionist for you?
"For me, it starts with the belief that the achievement of Israel is not just the creation of a Jewish state, but the creation of a liberal democratic Jewish state. That the Jewish ethical tradition is not only about statehood and safety and survival, it's also about a certain set of values. Even though inevitably Zionism leads to a certain favoritism for Jews, because there is no Right of Return for non-Jews, you still have to be in that context and committed to the concern for the dignity and the rights of non-Jews who are under your control, whether they be in the West Bank or in Gaza or in Israel. And you have to be supportive of their rights, because if you're not concerned about their rights then the rights of Jews are not safe either."
So is Israel not attractive enough for young, educated Jews to come - or your life here is too comfortable?
"We go to an Orthodox synagogue, we go on shabbat every week, we have a kosher home, we don't observe shabbat as strictly as some but we have our own set of things that we do and don't do. We observe most of the hagim and send our children to Jewish school. But being American is very much a part of who I am."
When your kids are older and watching CNN, did you think about how you'll explain to them events in Gaza?
"What I would like is for them to be able to find communities of people in the United States and in Israel that tell them that they can love Israel, be a Zionist, but that they can also speak openly about the things that they see the Israeli government doing that they don't like, and that they will not be called anti-Israel or self-hating Jews."
Don't you think once you start these criticisms and let these doubts in, they allow the rifts to broaden in the mainstream?
"I see it the opposite way. These younger group of people are very savvy, they have a strong sense of what is authentic and what is not. If you tell them a story about Israel that they feel doesn't resonate or is not consistent with what they're seeing, I think they'll write you off. I think to capture their Zionism and to invoke their Zionism, you have to start with a more true picture of the reality of Israel, not a more air-brushed, sanitized picture of Israel, you have talk about the difficult stuff. I think that's the best way of awakening their Zionism."
What if they just don't care and it's not about Israel, but about assimilation?
"It's definitely partly assimilation, but there are people who are not assimilating, who are involved, but still feel alienated. There are lots of nice Christians out there to marry. But I think that there's still another segment that are not going to totally assimilate, who still are feeling more and more distant from Israel.
"If you think of Thomas Friedman, the people who are going to be the younger American Thomas Friedmans, are going to be liberals. They're either going to be liberals who care about Israel or who don't care about Israel. And if you can make them care more about Israel, that will have a larger impact on the whole Jewish community, just like Thomas Friedman was for many many American Jews a kind of interpreter of Israel, and we have to make sure that those younger American Jews who are in positions of influence are people who feel a connection to Israel.
"And I think that's the only way to do it - you have to connect through their liberalism, you can't ask them to have a Zionism in which they're not supposed to be bothered by settlements. And I am sorry there are organizations who would rather say, 'We don't need Jews like this.' I think there's a lot of insecurity on the part of American Jews, because people will say 'if you care so much, then why don't you live here? Your children aren't in the army, you don't have to travel on buses.'
"Even if Israelis don't say it, the American Jews feel like it and are insecure about that, because they have a comfortable existence, they know that life in Israel in many ways is harder, and they feel guilty about that. So they feel like and want to be embraced by the people in power in Israel. And they want access and good relations, they want to be able to bring their big donors to Israel and be able to meet them with important people.
"So I understand where that comes from, but I don't think that's not a good reason for not standing up. I think they have the right to their own set of moral convictions about Israel, even though they don't live in Israel."
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