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Correct Diagnosis, Wrong Cure for American Jewish Passivity

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The blogosphere is buzzing about an essay by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books. Beinart convincingly denounces the Israel-right-or-wrong mantra of mainstream American Jewish organizations. He is justifiably worried about the future of "an American Zionist movement that does not even feign concern for Palestinian dignity."

But for all of its many good points, his essay betrays a surprising ignorance of American Jewish organizational life. Like me, he wants more American Jews who identify with Israel to publicly distance themselves from the occupation and Israeli policies they find abhorrent. But he apparently believes that traditional American Jews groups and their leaders have the capacity to completely change their stripes and do what he recommends. According to Beinart:

The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents' Conference should ask themselves what Israel's leaders would have to do or say to make them scream "no." After all, Lieberman is foreign minister; Effi Eitam [a Netanyahu appointee who has openly recommended ethnic cleansing] is touring American universities; settlements are growing at triple the rate of the Israeli population; half of Israeli Jewish high school students want Arabs barred from the Knesset. If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?

There is no line and there never will be. Asking AIPAC and the most powerful players in the Presidents' Conference to publicly criticize Israeli policy is like asking a dog to play poker. Beinart is urging a violation of the laws of nature, of organizational DNA. AIPAC and the leaders of the Presidents Conference are--and probably always will be--guided by the credo that differences with Israel can be voiced behind closed doors but never in the open air.

Beinart concludes his essay by urging "American Jewish organizations" to bring to Hillel some of the young Israelis who are regularly protesting the expropriation of Arab housing in Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem. "What if this was the face of Zionism shown to America's young?" That is a lovely idea but it is mystifying that he somehow expects the hidebound Jewish establishment to make it real.

He ignores the recent growth of a ready-made alternative that already exists, a decidedly pro-Israel movement that is willing to be critical of Israeli policies that perpetuate the occupation. I am referring to J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu and other groups that are apparently not on Beinart's radar screen.

In Israel, he notes, 'humane, universalistic Zionism does not wield power. To the contrary, it is gasping for air." But he hasn't noticed that it is very much alive in the American Jewish community, and there are organizations doing a good job of spreading the credo of this blog, i.e., progressive and pro-Israel need not be an oxymoron. To be sure, the organizations in this camp are still smaller than the groups in the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd. But the organized dovish camp is growing, and it is growing louder. Beinart's smart essay correctly diagnoses the disease but desparately reaches for a cure among groups like the Presidents Conference and AIPAC, instead of identifying the real sources of hope and health in the American Jewish community.


This post was originally published at Realistic Dove.