Ph.D. Octopus

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

More on Beinart’s piece on American Zionism and Liberalism

with 6 comments

by weiner

So now every Jew and their mother has commented on this piece. Blogger Phoebe is right to note that when thinking about the current state of affairs, we should “have a sense of modern Jewish history that extends back more than five minutes” and take threats to Israel, or Jews in general seriously. Jeffrey Goldberg responded quickly, and then engaged in a two-part discussion with Peter Beinart himself (they’re now breaking for Shavuot). Jonathan Chait overly obsessed over the minutiae of Netanyahu’s views and how they’ve changed (here’s my simple take: they’re not helpful), and Beinart successfully defended himself against Chait’s attack.

Funnily enough, 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 being Jewish.

Here’s Douthat:

liberal Jews are (very gradually) following the same trajectory as liberal Episcopalians before them, keeping their politics but surrendering their distinctive cultural and religious identity, and that the demise of liberal Zionism says something, not only about the fate of Israel, but about the fate of secular Judaism in the United States. One reason, and perhaps the major reason, that young liberal Jews are less attached to Israel is that Israel has become less liberal. But they also may be less attached to the Jewish homeland because they themselves are simply less Jewish.

Chait had said something similar, but didn’t focus on it:

I suspect that young Jews’ indifference toward Israel is overwhelmingly a function of their weakening ties to Judaism itself. Peter argues for such reforms as bringing pro-peace Israeli students to campus. I suspect that such things, or even a dramatically more liberal turn by the American Jewish establishment, would have little effect on the opinion of young Jews.

Same with Phoebe:

soon enough, the vast majority of Jews remaining in the US will be ones with an active, internally-driven Jewish identity. Which is a good thing, because it means Jews are no longer being defined, from the outside, as a “race” from which there’s no exit, and because Jews who felt 100% whichever nationality (German, say) but were often seen as 100% Jewish regardless are the classic victims of anti-Semitism. But it’s not so fabulous insofar as it’s the end of a certain cultural tradition, and really, how many Jews who identify with Seinfeld look forward to “Jewish” meaning, by default, Republican and Orthodox?

And David P. Goldman, in this piece:

“Secular Jew” is not quite an oxymoron–the Jews are a nation as well as a religion–but in the United States, at least, secular Jews have a fertility barely above 1 and an intermarriage rate of 50 percent, which means their numbers will decline by 75 percent per generation. It is tragic that the Jewish people stand to lose such a large proportion of their numbers, but they are lost to Judaism in general, not only to Zionism.

Goldman is right to observe that “the entity that is in trouble is Jewish liberalism,” but not because of strong conservative support for Israel among the Orthodox, but because liberal Jews are becoming less Jewish, not less liberal.

The key is to make Judaism, or secular yiddishkeit (Jewishness) fun again, or at least relevant again. Zionism has its political problems, and those need to be resolved, hopefully in a liberal, progressive direction with the just creation of a Palestinian state. But really Zionism has to become part of a fun cultural package which should appeal to young, secular, liberal Jews. Because, as I said earlier, most young American Jews just don’t seem to care all that much. They don’t feel strongly about Zionism, whether it’s liberal or conservative.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 19, 2010 at 16:15

6 Responses

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  1. Do you think it’s possible for Jews to care without the sort of baseline social border between Jews and non-Jews that existed in virtually all societies except for ours? I’m as big a fan of secular Judaism as the next secular Jew, but I don’t see how it could be artificially sustained for that long.

    -Blogger Phoebe


    May 19, 2010 at 16:59

  2. I think it’s possible, though I don’t know how. I mean I think there needs to be some kind of border or boundary, but that border should be voluntarily constructed, and it should be porous to allow for organic cultural exchange and evolution, though not wholesale assimilation and disappearance. Of course, the preceding sentences deal entirely in abstractions. How this would work in practice is harder to describe, though I think many of us secular, liberal Zionist and proud cultural Jewish types are able to live this way with (relatively) little angst and neurosis (we need at least some neurosis to remain Jewish) even if we can’t exactly describe how we do it. But I’m sort of writing my dissertation on this kind of thing, so I’ll get back to you on that.


    May 19, 2010 at 17:11

  3. Yes, my question, as you guessed, isn’t about whether maintenance of a significant secular/cultural Judaism in the US ought to happen, but whether it’s even possible without some kind of massive coercion. I’m also writing my dissertation on something related, but not related enough to give me any answers to this particular issue.


    May 19, 2010 at 18:42

  4. […] 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 conceal my […]

  5. […] Diaspora, 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 […]

  6. […] Apparently some people are angry at Peter Beinart again. Remember Beinart, famous for his 2010 New York Review of Books piece “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” I blogged about it here and here. […]

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