The Many Israels
Until 1948, American Jews were a unique
ethno-religious group in the American mosaic. They did not have an "old country."
They came from everywhere -- but essentially from nowhere specific that they
fondly called "home."
American Italians, Irish, Poles,
Chinese, Mexicans, Greeks and others all had a homeland which they had left, and
some -- notably the Italians and Irish -- tended to heavily idealize and
romanticize the old country. Jews idealized America. Jews fled rather than immigrated. They left persecution, anti-Semitism, and near-permanent
discrimination behind decades before the Holocaust, and came as refugees after
World War II.
Take a look at late 19th and
early to mid-20th century Jewish-American culture: literature,
poetry, political associations, education. How often did Jews dream or
fantasize about returning to Russia or Poland? Have you ever seen a cheap oil
painting of a beautiful shtetl in Lithuania in a Jewish home or deli? In comparison,
how many paintings of Napoli or Venice do you still see in Little Italy?
Then, in 1948, American Jews got the
great ethnic equalizer: a homeland.
The State of Israel. A motherland that
they had never been to, chose not to emigrate to, knew hardly anyone there
except for a recently discovered distant cousin who lives in some strange
socialist arrangement called a "kibbutz." They loved it from afar, feared for
its fragile existence -- a short five, 10, and 20 years after the Holocaust --
and regarded it as a source of pride and a potential insurance policy.
Then came the second formative
experience, or miracle. The 1967 Six-Day War. Israel was victorious, powerful, seemingly
invincible, and on the verge of an extraordinary strategic alliance and
political partnership with the United States. Jews felt they could contribute
to strengthening that trend and lubricating the evolving relationship. But just
as 1967 contained the seeds of Israel's dilemmas and predicament ever since, it
also charted the beginning of a different course for a majority of American
Jews, who were preoccupied with civil rights and a fuller integration into
American society and power structure.
American Jews will not "abandon" Israel
per se, but their perceptions of Israel, the majority of which were forged
after the watershed year of 1967, may very well impel them to a redefinition of
Alon Pinkas is Israel's former consul general in the United States.
The Great Divorce
In reading Peter Beinart's, "The Failure
of the American Jewish Establishment," I am reminded of Sam Norich's quip: "You
exaggerate, but not enough!" Indeed, American Jews' disillusionment with Israel
is more far-reaching than Beinart portrays; the causes for distancing extend
beyond dissonance with liberal values; and distancing operates differently for
the Jewish public and the most engaged in Jewish life.
Beinart is right to locate detachment
among the non-Orthodox. Over the years, Orthodox Jews have grown increasingly
attached to Israel, as gap-year study in Israel has become de rigueur, and more
than 2,000 Orthodox Jews make aliya (migrate to Israel) annually.
In contrast, the 90 percent of American
Jews who are not Orthodox have been moving toward less engagement with Israel.
This move has been tempered only by Birthright Israel and Masa, programs
bringing thousands of young American Jews to Israel annually.
Detachment from Israel among the
American Jewish public differs critically from disillusionment among the more
Jewishly active and engaged. For the public, distancing is not much driven by
political considerations. If Israeli policies were largely responsible for
distancing, then liberal Jews should be more distant from Israel than centrist
or politically conservative Jews. In fact, as Ari Kelman and I find in "Beyond
Distancing," attachment to Israel is unrelated to political identity.
Israeli policies aren't undermining Israel attachment, then what is? As Ari and
I found, the primary driver is intermarriage. Younger Jews are far more likely
to marry non-Jews, and the intermarried are far less Israel-attached than those
who marry fellow Jews -- and even non-married Jews. Intermarriage reflects and
promotes departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic "groupiness," of which
Israel attachment is part.
Where Israeli policies do come into play
is with a critical segment of Jewishly engaged young adults. Younger, active
Jews are just as "engaged" with Israel as their older counterparts, but they
are far less likely to see themselves "pro-Israel." Significantly, despite the
efflorescence of new Jewish initiatives in such domains as culture, social
justice, and new media, hardly any new initiatives by young people relate to
Israel. More pointedly, when asked to engage the Israel question on any side of
the agenda, younger leaders resist doing so, in part out of fear of controversy
in their own communities or fear of repercussions from donors who fund their
initiatives. Younger Jews believe they have only two acceptable choices if they
are to remain welcome in conventional Jewish precincts: public advocacy or
If Israel is to retain the engagement of
the coming (and present) generation of American Jews, organized American Jewry
will need to provide a third alternative -- one that combines love of Israel
with a rich and open discourse on its policies and politics (see, for example, For the Sake of Zion).
Steven Cohen is a sociologist and professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion.
The Establishment Is Doing Just Fine
Mainstream pro-Israel organizations are
in fact booming, thank you. AIPAC's income from donations is now five times
what it was in 2000, and sixty times what it was when I joined the organization
in 1982. It is growing commensurately in membership (including young people)
and influence too. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Community
are also roaring tigers.
The New York Review of Books, largely a publication for disaffected Jews,
generously offers a path for pro-Israel organizations to save themselves by
joining the campaign to discredit Israel. This to recruit members who, by
Beinart's own account, hardly care about Israel at all.
Is there in fact a trend to disaffection? Or is J Street just the latest in the
succession of Breira, New Jewish Agenda, Peace Now, Tikkun Olam, Israel Policy
Forum, and all the others that rose and fell noisily while AIPAC quietly built itself
into the giant it is today?
My own impression is that the post-Iraq disaffection of some young Jews today
is in fact less, rather than more, pronounced than the Vietnam distress that
afflicted many when I first got involved. There's nothing new about a minority
of Jews disliking Israel -- except all the attention they are getting.
Steven Rosen is director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum and a former foreign-policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)
A Kaleidoscopic Community
Are American Jews abandoning Israel? If
by "abandoning," one means "worrying, talking, reading, watching, arguing
ceaselessly and from every angle about; visiting, pointedly not visiting;
giving money to, specifically not giving money to; embracing; rejecting;
holding at a distance and then rejecting; holding at a distance and then
embracing," then yes, I suppose this is what American Jews are doing.
This is, in some ways, the curiosity
about Peter Beinart's recent essay, in which he drew a contrast between the
views ostensibly held by a monolithic Jewish organizational world and those of
a monolithic majority of American Jews. I'm sympathetic to his quest to
organize the universe in this way. Indeed, as the editor of a magazine covering Jewish life, I've often
yearned for the same (it would make my virtual rolodex more manageable, for
starters). But there is no monolithic Jewish community, and no monolithic
What does exist, however, is a tendency
among Jewish intellectuals and activists on both sides of the political
spectrum to conjure up this dichotomy, in often wildly distorted ways-to
imagine the existence of cultural monoliths oppressing them and preventing them
from speaking out; if only this or that monolith didn't exist, the saw goes,
everyone would hold the exact same views I do. For the right wing, it is a
Jewish establishment that fails to stand up to Obama, donates overwhelmingly to
liberal causes, exiles conservatives to the political and communal margins, and
keeps their op-eds from appearing in the New
York Times. For the left, it is a Jewish establishment that worships
Netanyahu, encourages right-wing feelings, marginalizes progressive voices, and
keeps their views from appearing in the New York Times.
In contrast, the American Jewish
community itself is marked by nothing so much as diversity, nuance and internal
shades of difference (two Jews/three
anyone?) There have been changes, some marked, in the attitude of certain
demographic groups towards the state of Israel -- changes that must be
acknowledged and addressed and understood. But they must be understood as they,
and every other Jewish view of anything, exist in reality, which is to say: in
a diverse, historically fractious and uncommonly engaged community-one that has
been, above all else, eternally fluid.
That divergent voices exist -- with avenues accessible for their expression and
methods available for action -- is a reality that must not be oversimplified. It
muddies the debating waters, yes, but it has also always been our salvation.
Alana Newhouse is editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.
Jewish Institutions Betray Their Supporters
Beinart raises a critically important issue that's gotten far too little
attention up to now: the growing alienation between the leadership of the
Jewish institutional world and the ordinary Jews whom they putatively
represent. If anything, he understates the severity of the crisis. The reflexive
defense of every Israeli action, which is the dominant posture of the Jewish
institutional leadership since 1967, has been accompanied by an anger at any
and all criticism of Israel.
that anger is metastasizing at a frightening pace into an anti-liberal rage
that stifles open discussion within the Jewish community and drives thoughtful
Jews away-from Israel, from Jewish communal life, from pride in their
Jewishess. The anti-liberalism of mainstream American Jewish organizations also
alienates liberals in the broader society. And because they are the primary
public face of the Jewish community in current-day America, they provoke a
reaction in kind. One result is a legitimization of attacks on the Jewish
community-under the sanitized name "Israel lobby" -- as a negative force in
Jewish influence used to have another name: anti-Semitism. It's been taboo
since 1945. But the taboo is falling. And there's one key difference between
the old and new Jew-bashing. Reviling Jewish influence used to be a delusional
hatred of a phantasm. Now it's opposition to an actual political force. This
force doesn't represent most Jews, as Beinart notes. But not every critic of
our Middle East policy is aware of the anomaly. Some write best-selling books;
some trash Jewish literature tables in student unions; a handful open fire at a
Jewish federation office, an El Al desk, a vanload of yeshiva students.
to blame? A generation of Israeli moderates who treated American Jews as a
blunt weapon, feeding them on a diet of unmitigated fear so as to keep them
primed and ready to pounce. Progressive young rabbis and intellectuals who
spent the last generation pursuing their inner spirit, utterly neglecting
public affairs and so abandoning the field to the right. Republican zealots who
have waved Israel like a bloody flag and turned it into a political football.
And, not least, the Palestinian leadership that launched an appalling war of
terrorism in 2000, discrediting and crippling the Israeli peace camp that was
its best hope for a decent future.
J.J. Goldberg is the former editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and author of "Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment."
Beinart's Blind Spot
Beinart contends that a gap is emerging between liberal American Jews and the
state of Israel. If this is correct, the gap (as he does not write, but should)
is very much to the discredit of those liberal American Jews.
describes an Israel whose views toward Palestinians and Israel Arabs is
hardening. The great omission from Beinart's essay is any attempt to explain
why Israeli views toward Palestinians have hardened over the past 15 years. The
hardening is presented as a completely free-standing phenomenon, one that has
developed without much reference to external realities.
as if one tried to explain voter anger in 2010 without reference to the
Peter is likely correct that he describes the way some -- I trust not too many!
-- American liberals and Jewish American liberals think about Israel. These
liberals cannot understand why Israel would build a border fence, or invade
Lebanon and Gaza, or lose interest in a peace deal with the Palestinians. They
don't know enough or care enough about Israel's security predicaments to
investigate the reasons for these Israeli actions. They are satisfied with the
explanation that Israelis used to be nice people, but have now become not nice
recommends that the Israelis should become nicer people in the future. What he
again does not say -- but should -- is that the niceness he recommends
puts Israeli lives at risk. We often hear the advice that Israel should take
"risks for peace." Those risks are denominated in mangled bodies and
shattered families. How many such risks should Israelis accept? Are 800 lives
sufficient? That was the butcher's bill for the last bout of Israeli
American Jews have followed the rule that it was Israeli voters who should
determine the policy of the Israeli state. We might doubt the wisdom of some of
those decisions -- as many American Jews doubted the wisdom of the syndicalist
socialism that governed the state's first 20 years -- but we recognized that
the right to decide belonged to those who paid the price of decision. That was
a good rule then. It remains a good rule now.
David Frum is a former speechwriter for U.S. President George W. Bush and the founder of the Frum Forum.
The Tide is Turning
It's no surprise that Peter Beinart's
devastating indictment of the American Jewish establishment's leadership on
Israel has made him the target of a feeding frenzy of personal and professional
vitriol. It's a trademark tactic of the very forces Beinart indicts that
they find it easier to engage in ad hominem attacks than to grapple with the
difficulty of Israel's present predicament in the Middle East and its impact on
Jews around the world.
Yet, thankfully, more and more American
Jews -- and in fact Jews worldwide -- are beginning to recognize the need to act
boldly and immediately to change the course of history before it is too late -
either for Israel as a Jewish, democratic home or for the traditionally liberal
We see evidence of a growing global
movement of reason and moderation in the launch of J Street, in the new
European effort J Call, in the eloquent petition launched recently called For
the Sake of Zion and in the growing movement of young Israelis protesting
extremist settler evictions of Arab families in Sheikh Jarrah in East
Slowly, surely, we see the emergence of
alternative voices speaking for the part of the American Jewish community
desperately hoping to salvage the very middle ground that Beinart artfully
demonstrates is rapidly eroding.
Peter's noble voice and scathing
analysis only add to the blaring alarm sounding at full volume across the
worldwide Jewish community, warning that hope is running out for saving the
democratic and Jewish character of the state of Israel before we've reached the
point of no return.
Is it not the ultimate irony that the
response of the very establishment that Peter is calling out is once again to
avoid addressing the fundamental questions staring them in the face and to
engage in a campaign of personal and professional attack?
The heart and soul of the Jewish
community is at stake at this very moment. If the present leadership and
institutions of our community will not rise to the challenge and speak out for
the very best of what we stand for as a people -- then I urge all who hear the
alarm to join in the creation of the alternative voices, institutions and
leadership that are needed to challenge them.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street.
The Generation Gap
Peter Beinart has made a meaningful
contribution regarding the tectonic shift in American organizational Jewish
life as the organizations distance themselves from their constituencies. My
comments about the piece will be limited to a key aspect, namely, the
generational components of the schism described by Mr. Beinart.
As the prime sponsors of much of the
research he cites, we at the Andrea and Charles
Bronfman Philanthropies noted that there was a dangerous generational gap
between the products of these organizations and Jews of Generations X and Y. It
is worth observing that this is the first time in history that we have four
generations of adults sitting together in workplaces, each shaped by their own
generational experiences. For Jews of the Traditionalist and Boomer
Generations, the realities of the Holocaust and its aftermath, the creation of
the State of Israel, the existential threats of 1967, and personal experiences
with anti-Semitism shaped so much of their collective persona. They grew up in
Jewish neighborhoods, had Jewish friendship networks and had a strong primary
This was not so for most of Generations
X and Y: the most educated, self confident Jewish generations in history, proud
both of their Judaism (though not well educated in this component of their
lives) and the diversity of their American lives, with broad friendship
networks and experiences so very different than the previous generations. Their
part-time Jewish education provided neither meaningful cognitive nor emotive
relationships to Israel. Interpretations of Zionism as a (secular) national
liberation movement have been largely lost. Their Jewish identity is but one of
a multiplicity of identities and their emotional connection to Israel will only
develop from the experiential education, such as those provided through trips
like those of Birthright Israel.
Beinart's brilliant analysis highlights the
multiplicity of regrettable factors both in Israel and in the United States.
However, his title, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, suggests
that one must look deeper into that failure. It is a systemic failure, going
well beyond those named organizations. Every synagogue, Hebrew school, Jewish Community
Center, and Jewish federation shares in the failure of understanding how the
power of freedom, self confidence, and education would put brain ahead of
heart in the American Jewish relationship with Israel.
Jeffrey Solomon is president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.
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