Allan C. Brownfeld – MONDOWEISS Oct 21, 2012
This review of Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism is to appear in the next issue of the journal of the American Council for Judaism. Author Allan Brownfeld allowed us to post it ahead of publication.
There can be little doubt that the philosophy of Zionism—Jewish nationalism—is in retreat among American Jews. Zionism holds that Judaism is not a religion of universal values, but an ethnicity. It believes that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews and that those living outside of Israel are in “exile.” Zionists urge emigration to Israel, “aliyah,” as the highest Jewish value.
Most American Jews, quite to the contrary, believe that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality. They believe that they are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim. While they wish Israel well, they do not believe that it is their “homeland.” They believe themselves to be fully at home in America. This is nothing new. As early as 1841, at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski declared: “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.”
In the years since the end of World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, many American Jews had a brief flirtation with the Zionist idea. Even the Union for Reform Judaism declared that, somehow, “Israel,” rather than God was “central” to their religion. More recently, however, we see that identification with Israel is declining among American Jews, particularly young people.
“Israel Is Out”
Writing in the Israeli newspaper HAARETZ (June 26, 2012), Rabbi Eric Yoffie, formerly the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, noted that, “I spoke a few weeks ago with someone who works with American Jewish organizations in planning programs for their meetings and conventions. ‘Israel is out,’ he told me. The demand for speakers about Israel or from Israel has dropped dramatically over the last decade. American Jews are simply interested in other things.”
In a widely discussed book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” Peter Beinart, a prominent liberal, former editor of THE NEW REPUBLIC, Orthodox Jew and self-declared Zionist, argues that Zionism has turned its back on what he believes are its own ideals.
Beinart laments that the American Jewish organizational establishment promotes “victimhood” while wielding power and that the State of Israel does much the same thing. “Perpetual victimhood,” he writes, “is not a narrative that can answer the two great Jewish challenges of our age: how to sustain Judaism in America, a country that makes it easy for Jews to stop being Jews, and how to sustain democracy in Israel, a country that for two thirds of its existence has held the West Bank, a territory where it’s democratic ideals do not apply.”
The Israel which young American Jews observe is quite different, in Beinart’s view, from the mythical Israel embraced by their parents: “For 44 years, twice a college student’s life span, they have seen Israel control territory in which millions of Palestinians lack citizenship. And since the 1980s, they have seen Israel fight wars not against Arab armies, but against terrorists nestled amid a stateless and thus largely defensive Palestinian population. Thus, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates democratic ideals and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because it stands on the brink of destruction.”
What is needed, Beinart argues, is “…a new American Jewish story, built around this basic truth: We are not today”s permanent victims. In a dizzying shift of fortune, many of our greatest challenges today stem not from weakness but from power. If non-Orthodox American Jewish life withers in the coming generation, it will be less because gentiles persecute Jews than because they marry them. And if Israel ceases being a democratic Jewish state, it is less likely to be because Arab armies invade the West Bank than because Israel permanently occupies it.”
Jewish tradition, Beinart believes, offers no simple lessons for how to wield power, and the lessons it does teach can sometimes be hard for modern liberals to stomach: “…it is striking that when describing the previous two times that Jewish sovereignty failed—the Kingdom of Judah’s destruction by the Babylonian empire around 586 BCE and the Hasmonean dynasty’s destruction by the Romans more than 500 years later—our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse. Again and again, Jewish texts connect the Jewish right to sovereignty in the land of Israel to Jewish behavior in the land of Israel. In the words of Jeremiah, ‘If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.’”
Even Zionism’s primary architect, Theodor Herzl, was concerned about how the experiment he promoted would evolve. In his book “Altneuland” (Old-New Land), the book’s hero, presidential candidate David Littwak, admits, “There are other views among us.”. The foremost proponent is Rabbi Geyer, who seeks to strip non-Jews of the vote. Herzl modeled Geyer on an anti-Semitic demagogue in his native Austria, thus raising the specter that once Jews enjoyed power, they might persecute others in the same way they were persecuted. The novel ends with the campaign between Littwak’s party and Geyer’s. “You must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance and love of mankind,” one of Littwak’s supporters tells a crowd. “Only then is Zion truly Zion.”. In his final words, the outgoing president declares: “Let the stranger be at home among us.”. After a fierce contest, Littwak’s party wins. Geyer leaves the country, and in the novel’s epilogue, Herzl implores readers to make his Zionist dream come true.
“As a vision of the Zionist future,” writes Beinart, “‘Altneuland’ has its problems. While Herzl believed deeply in equality for individual Arabs, he could not imagine an Arab national movement demanding a state in Palestine of its own. (His rival, the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-am, knew better, insisting that, ‘This land is also their national home…and they have the right to develop their national potential to the best of their ability.’)…’We don’t want a Boer state,’ wrote Herzl in his diary, expressing revulsion at racist Afrikaner nationalism. ‘But a Venice!’”
Treatment Of Indigenous Arabs
The indigenous Arab population of Palestine has, Beinart notes, not been treated in the humane manner advocated by either Herzl or Ahad Ha-am. In the 1948 war, he points out, Zionist forces committed abuses so terrible that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared himself “shocked by the deeds that have reached my ears.”. In the town of Jish, in the Galilee, Israeli soldiers pillaged Arab houses, and when the residents protested, took them to a remote location and shot them dead. Similar atrocities occurred with some frequency.
“During the war,” writes Beinart, “roughly 700,000 Arabs left Palestine and irrespective of whether most left their homes voluntarily or were forced out, Israel refused to let them return…A year after it eliminated its most flagrant discrimination against its own Arab citizens, Israel made itself master of millions of Palestinian Arabs who enjoyed no citizenship at all. Suddenly, Rabbi Geyer had a kingdom of his own.”
Beinart laments the treatment of non-Jewish residents of Israel. The Or Commission, tasked by the Israeli government with investigating the conditions for Arab Israelis in 2003 , found that, “Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory.”. This is especially true, Beinart shows, when it comes to social services. in part, because of restrictions on Arab access to Israeli public land, Arab citizens today own less than 4 per cent of Israel’s land even though they constitute almost 20 per cent of its population. A 2010 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Israel spends one third more per Jewish Israeli student than per Arab Israeli student.
Beyond this, Beinart declares, “Israel’s flag features a Jewish star, its national anthem speaks of ‘the Jewish soul,’ and its immigration policy grants Jews, and only Jews, instant citizenship.”
Israel’s theocracy is something not envisioned by Herzl: “As Herzl makes clear…there is nothing in the Zionist project that requires Israel to cede control over marriage to clerics, thus forcing Jews who marry in Israel to be married by a rabbi and Christians or Muslims to be married by a minister or imam. Instituting civil marriage, and thus giving Arabs and Jews the right to marry inside Israel across religious lines, would not only mean greater liberty for Israel’s Arab citizens but for its Jewish ones as well….For the past 44 years, on the very land on which Palestinians might establish their state—the state that could help fulfill the liberal Zionist dream—latter-day Rabbj Geyers, secular and religious alike, have forged an illiberal Zionism that threatens to destroy it.”
Much space is devoted by Beinart to the growth of racism in Israel and the manner in which American Jewish leaders ignore it. He laments that, “As painful as it is for Jews to admit that race hatred can take root among a people that has suffered so profoundly from it, the ground truth is this: occupying another people requires racism, and breeds it.”
The polling on Israeli Jewish attitudes toward Arabs is, Beinart declares, “shocking.” Seventy per cent of Jewish Israelis, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, oppose appointing Arab Israelis to cabinet posts. A survey by the Friedric Ebert Foundation found that 49 per cent of Jewish Israelis aged 21 to 24 would not befriend an Arab. (Among Arab Israelis of the same age, 19 per cent said they would not befriend a Jew). Fifty six per cent of Jewish Israeli high school students, according to a survey by Tel Aviv University’s School of Education, do not believe that Arab citizens should be allowed to run for the Knesset. And a poll by the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University reported that 44 per cent of Jewish Israelis believe that Jews should avoid renting apartments to Arabs.