In May 2010, Peter Beinart issued a wake-up call to the American Jewish establishment. Namely, that it was failing.
In Beinart’s essay, published in the New York Review of Books, he eschews Jewish organizations including the ADL, AIPAC and their leaders for so often universally supporting Israeli policy, when a closer look would reveal that some criticism is necessary.
In arguing on behalf of an idealistic, not realistic Israel, Beinart wrote, Jewish and Israel-supporting organizations are losing touch with a younger generation that would otherwise carry on their cause.
A former editor of The New Republic, current senior political writer for The Daily Beast and associate professor at City University of New York, Beinart is one of the most prominent and critical young voices today. He will speak at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Thursday, March 17, 7 p.m., in a program sponsored by Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith Allegheny/Ohio Valley Region. Reservations are required by March 15 and can be made by contacting (412) 521-2390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In an interview with the Chronicle, Beinart said a generational difference has developed in how American Jews view Israel.
“For older American Jews, there was this memory of a time when Israel’s existence was seen as fragile. For younger American Jews, we’ve grown up with Israel as a military power that also occupies the West Bank and Gaza — territories that aren’t extended democratic rights — and they’ve grown up with less anti-Semitism,” he said. “The narrative of Israel as being on the brink of extinction doesn’t resonate as much with young Jews. We need to talk about Israel in a way that is more truthful to the realities they see, even though that’s a difficult conversation.”
Beinart sees a hesitation on the part of Jewish leaders and organizations to criticize Israel, and he chalks it up to a lack of open discussion on the subject.
“In part, there’s a fear that if we have a more open conversation about Israeli policies it will snuff out the embryonic Zionism in young people,” he said. “I disagree — the discussion about the internal threats is the best way of inviting American Jews to feel connected to Israel. It is profoundly in Israel’s interests — the only way Israel will overcome its enemies is by changing the policies that weaken it.”
Asked why he believes many Jewish organizations are reluctant to criticize Israel, Beinart suggested they are losing touch with their constituency.
“We’ve developed a group of organizations that are less and less representative of where most American Jews are, and that also have a lot of institutional inertia,” he said. “There is both a need to change those organizations from within, but also to be willing to create new ones.”
Turning to Birthright, Beinart said the program must present a more complete picture of life in Israel — on both sides of the Green Line — to its participants.
“I’m all for sending kids to Israel, and I do think it was a problem that such a small percent of younger American Jews were going,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s morally right to send people without trying to find a way of engaging the more difficult parts of Israel. It’s not the most successful way of creating engagement.
“Younger people have a hunger for authenticity. They’re constantly bombarded with things marketed to them, and they are very shrewd about what they believe,” he continued. “Taking people to Israel and never taking them to the West Bank, for example, seems to create an inauthentic experience. In some ways an easier experience, but less powerful and meaningful experience.”
Beinart urged Jewish leaders to be more selective when publicly charging anti-Semitism. He’s concerned that the accusation is being overused and that good people who may honestly disagree with the Jewish state are being tarred and feathered with that charge.
“It’s really tragic that many non-Jews of goodwill, who have no trace of anti-Semitism, feel fearful of being called anti-Semitic,” he said. “I think that we should have a better understanding, out of respect for our own history of genuine and horrific anti-Semitism, not to lower the bar and describe things we simply disagree with as anti-Semitic. Someone can be a harsh critic of Israel, even an unfair critic of Israel, and not be anti-Semitic.
“American Jews would like not to be called racist just if they disagree with policies that African American leaders might support,” he continued. “Amongst some Jewish leaders, there’s been promiscuity with the term, and I think of it as an affront to our own history”
He’s also concerned that hesitance in criticizing Israel can drive open discussion about the Jewish state “underground.”
“It becomes the equivalent of white people talking about black people when they’re not there, because they’re afraid of offending them. That’s the least healthy development,” he said. “We need to allow people to speak openly, even if they say things that will provoke disagreement, rather than forcing their conversation into a place where it can’t be aired.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)