Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

American Jews, Assimilation, Liberalism and Zionism

with 5 comments

by Weiner


Every Jew and their mother has emailed me this article by Peter Beinart from The New York Review of Books. Matt Yglesias has posted about it here and here. I implore readers of this blog to read the whole piece. It’s well worth it. I’ll give a bit of summary and some quotes below.

Beinart’s piece presents in crisp, moving prose what many Jews on the Left have known for a long time. The “American Jewish Establishment” has moved to the Right. Most Jews are liberal. Young Jews don’t really care much about Israel anymore. If they do have opinions on Israel, they are mostly dovish, sympathetic to both Israelis and Palestinians, supportive of territorial compromise and to the left of the “American Jewish Establishment.” The Establishment is filling its ranks with right-leaning, often religiously Orthodox Jews. And all this is very bad.

Here are the key paragraphs:

Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had 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. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.

Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. 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. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior 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.

And these putting the situation in some historical perspective:

In the American Jewish establishment today, the language of liberal Zionism—with its idioms of human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromise—has been drained of meaning. It remains the lingua franca in part for generational reasons, because many older American Zionists still see themselves as liberals of a sort. They vote Democratic; they are unmoved by biblical claims to the West Bank; they see average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders; and they are secular. They don’t want Jewish organizations to criticize Israel from the left, but neither do they want them to be agents of the Israeli right.

These American Zionists are largely the product of a particular era. Many were shaped by the terrifying days leading up to the Six-Day War, when it appeared that Israel might be overrun, and by the bitter aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when much of the world seemed to turn against the Jewish state. In that crucible, Israel became their Jewish identity, often in conjunction with the Holocaust, which the 1967 and 1973 wars helped make central to American Jewish life. These Jews embraced Zionism before the settler movement became a major force in Israeli politics, before the 1982 Lebanon war, before the first intifada. They fell in love with an Israel that was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology of occupation. And by downplaying the significance of Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas, American Jewish groups allow these older Zionists to continue to identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth, an Israel that now only exists in their memories.

But these secular Zionists aren’t reproducing themselves. Their children have no memory of Arab armies massed on Israel’s border and of Israel surviving in part thanks to urgent military assistance from the United States. 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. Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.

What do I make of all this? Well for one I think Yglesias is right that if American Jewish Zionist numbers are dwindling, there are plenty of Christian Zionists ready to take over. But that interests me less than the broader implications of these divisions in the Jewish community, between a conservative, hawkish Zionist establishment and a liberal apathetic-on-Israel majority. American Jewish affluence and assimilation, more than Israeli power, is the cause of this division. But I have no real answers.

In his concluding words, Beinart hopes that young Jews establish “an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. Let’s hope they care enough to try.”

Even a liberal Zionist movement of the J-Street type only appeals to those who care. So many Jews go on Birthright, some will tell you the love Israel if you ask them, but do they really think or care about it? Some do, but I bet most don’t.

Maybe things are a bit different in Canada. I don’t know. In 1997, at age 15, I went a on 7-week summer trip with my high school, Bialik. There were probably about 75 of us on the trip out of a class of 125. Everyone had a great time (this was during the relatively quiet Oslo years, though a July 30 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem mall killed 16). But I venture a guess that many of them would have had just as good a time touring Europe, or the West Coast of the United States. And in fact, some students opted to go on those kinds of trips, rather than go to Israel. And many that did go to Israel, I think, saw this simply as an opportunity to party, to be with friends, go to the beach and see some tourist sites without appreciating the meaning of it all, without feeling any special connection to the land.

I’ll never forget one day in high school when I discovered that a fellow student, a relatively bright student, didn’t know who Yassir Arafat was. At the time, I was furious. Now, I don’t really care as much. I mean, she should have known Arafat like any person following current events should have, but why, in Montreal, should Arafat have mattered to her? How did he affect her life? He probably didn’t. That was in the 1990s. The Middle East situation may be worse, but the apathy has grown since then.

Some young Jews get turned on to Zionist activism in college. That certainly happened to after rioters forced the cancellation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Concordia University. But I think many just tune out. And that’s not because of Zionism’s lack of liberalism. It’s because they don’t care.

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Written by David Weinfeld

May 18, 2010 at 19:18

5 Responses

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  1. […] conservative Gentile Ross Douthat had the most insightful commentary. As I tried to suggest in my first, rambling post on the subject, the problem isn’t really about Zionism, it’s about American Jews not caring about […]

  2. […] now infamous article and the Gaza Flotilla fiasco, which PhD Octopus has certainly examined before. Of course, I had provoked this question to a certain extent, as I make no attempt to […]

  3. […] at least certainly not in North America. I’ve written about this many times before on this very blog. The real threat is assimilation, intermarriage, low birthrates. We all know this […]

  4. […] of Books piece “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” I blogged about it here and […]

  5. […] readers of this blog know my thoughts on Birthright Israel, the all-expense-paid 10-day trip to Israel. I’ll summarize briefly: […]


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