Thoughts on Beinart's "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment"

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.

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Very nice essay - I'm inclined to agree with you as a fell moderately observant conservative Jew who falls firmly in that age group (37), and who suspects you are right about both the decline and upswing of observance being partly linked to Israel.


As a now 58 year old person with a reform Jewish background I found the article quite interesting. However, I think I must add another reason, a point that is neglected by both Mike and Mr. Beinart. Lack of observance is also due to increasing numbers of people who simply do not believe in gods or spirits or bronze age myths, and see no reason respect the sectarian doctrines, behavioral proscriptions, and dietary laws based upon those myths. I think this is an increasing generational difference, and it'll be more prominent 10 years from now than presently. Perhaps I can support this contention with anecdote from my past.

I attended Hebrew School for 10 years, from first through the 10th grade. I was Bar Mitzva and confirmed. In my confirmation year, 10th grade, the class was taught by our rabbi, the only year that the rabbi actually taught the class. The class consisted of maybe 16 students, most of whom had, like me, been at it for a decade. Our group had shrunk from a larger starting pool of maybe 40 kids in the first grade, so we were the surviving hard core. Anyway, at one point during that last year it became evident that some of us, while firmly in the cultural Jewish camp (e.g., accepted our Jewish identity), were not really religious in the theological sense. This prompted the rabbi to ask the class "How many of you believe in God?" The amazing answer was NONE. He then launched into the airplane/tornedo/junkyard argument, and that did it for me (convinced me that there was no good evidence, if that was the best there was).

How is this outcome possible? Ten years of Hebrew school should have convinced someone. It was, after all, a very permissive environment for believers. So what happened? Were we turned off by incessant messages about the Holocaust? Not really, though they were, in fact, incessant. This was in 1966 or so, and many of us (like me) still had living grandparents who had survived or escaped from Europe, so we "got" that message. Was it because of perceived injustice by Israel toward it's Arab citizens? I think not. Remember, this was in 1966, and many of the more troubling Israeli actions had not yet occurred (and were under-reported back then, in any event). As I recall, the lesson taught by my Hebrew School instructors was that the Palestinians had been screwed alright, but by their Arab neighbors who urged them to leave Israel (not accept offered citizenship), but then refused to take them in. This forced them into permanent refugee camps in the Gaza. So, it was not due to liberal disapproval of real civil rights violations. At least not as perceived by my cohort back in 1966

The real reason, which I confirmed at the time, was that we simply could not believe in the God of the Bible (I don't say OT, as in my view there is on only one Bible, and then there's the sequel). Absent any convincing evidence, on what basis should we believe? I do understand that one can be observant but not believe, and I've had people argue that being observant is of value from a cultural identity standpoint, even if one does not believe. I understand what they are saying, but frankly I see no point to it.

A year or two ago I read an interview with a young Scandinavian woman who was asked if she believed in God. She has to stop and think, saying that she really didn't know as she'd never really thought about it. I think that's where we're headed, and I think we should all be happier when we finally get there.

By Immunologist (not verified) on 19 May 2010 #permalink