The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t usually something I discuss here, but Peter Beinart’s surprisingly on-target NY Review of Books essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” is an incredibly accurate description of the self-appointed American Jewish ‘leadership’ and their supposed followers. Beinart on non-Orthodox Jewish college students:
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.
Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States–so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel–is the great American Jewish challenge of our age. And it starts where Luntz’s students wanted it to start: by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes.
The entire article is worth a read. But one thing Beinart doesn’t discuss, and what I think is one of the most tragic consequences of “Israel, Right or Wrong” groupthink, is the harmful effect blind support for Israel’s policies (as opposed to its right to exist) on Judaism and Jewish observance for the Conservative and, to a lesser extent, the Reform movements (note: Conservative in this context is a denomination, not a political description).
The moral conflict Beinart describes–and he’s too young (oy!) to remember this–actually began in the early 1980s with the first Lebanon War. In particular, the Sabra-Shatilla massacres created a lot of cognitive dissonance. By itself, this would haven’t been too harmful, but they have to be viewed in the context of a bizarre 80s phenomenon, what I half-jokingly refer to as ‘Reaganite Judaism.’ In this creed, there were three (dare we say a ‘trinity’?) overarching beliefs:
1) Buying UJA bonds.
2) Blind support for Israel’s specific policies.
3) Constant commemoration of the Holocaust.
Needless to say, these didn’t really resonate with young Jews: they didn’t have any money to buy bonds, they found the policies they were supposed to support unethical, and no young person wants to mourn all the time*. But of the three ‘tenets’, the blind support for Israel was the most problematic for the reasons Beinart describes (although #3 indicated that the focus of the Conservative movement was in the wrong place, which was also pretty devastating). Based on my personal observation, there is a ‘lost generation’ of Jews roughly between 35 – 45 who became very alienated from Jewish observance**. This wasn’t an active ‘fleeing’, as much as it was just walking away: if there wasn’t much on offer, and what was on offer was distasteful, well, there are other things to do. While this obviously wasn’t the only factor in changing religious observance, it was definitely one important factor***.
But tragically, various political currents in the 1980s and 1990s helped alienated many young Jews from Judaism. The Jewish state wasn’t supposed to do that.
(Aside: I am a moderately observant Conservative Jew, for context).
*One of the greatest ‘achievements’ of Reaganite Judaism was the proliferation of Holocaust Museums. Not Jewish museums about American Jews (which would obviously have to address the Holocaust). When your own ‘leadership’ implicitly links Judaism with ‘Holocaust’, that’s indicative of some pretty screwed up priorities.
**The reason I refer to observance, and not belief, is because that’s what Judaism, unlike many Christian denominations, focuses on.
***I actually think there is a modest upswing today in religious observance among Conservative and Reform Judaism, and this has coincided with a general, though not uniform consensus, that a two-state solution and some criticism of Israel are acceptable. No idea if this is remotely causal.