American Jews have become overly-tribal, abandoned traditional values and are increasingly willing to accept illegal and illiberal activity on the part of Israel. That is, according to a segment of the U.S. Jewish community whose voice is expressed in a controversial new book, The Crisis of Zionism, by Peter Beinart.
According to Beinart, this failure to reckon with what he characterizes as Israel's increasingly illiberal policies is leading to the alienation of young, non-Orthodox American Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom are liberal. While no doubt sincerely held, the view being championed by Beinart is deeply unfair to both Israel and American Jewry.
Consider the large, venerable, and fairly typical Conservative synagogue to which both Beinart and I sent our children for preschool. (Full disclosure: Peter's son and my daughter were in the same class as 3-year-olds, and were briefly betrothed, an engagement that ended amicably when the Beinarts left Washington.) For most of the last several years the front of the synagogue carried a banner proclaiming support for Israel. There has also been organized congregational support for any number of programs against hunger, homelessness, poverty and global warming. Since 2008, many cars in the parking lot featured Obama bumper stickers, and I've literally never seen a Republican bumper sticker. Here, there certainly is no evidence of the triumph of tribalism over liberalism.
And contrary to Beinart's charge, American Jews' support for liberal values extends to Israel. Certainly there are deeply illiberal currents in Israeli society, not the least of which is a regressive and politically powerful ultra-Orthodox sector. But mainstream American Jewish organizations have consistently (and sometimes even effectively) challenged these forces. For example, some of the most important decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court striking down governmental actions that violate the human rights guaranteed in Israel's Basic Laws (a kind of exoskeleton Constitution) were the result of petitions brought by the Israeli branches of mainstream American Jewish organizations. Although Beinart extols these judicial opinions, he neglects to mention the role played by the much criticized American Jewish "establishment" in achieving them.
There are areas where most American Jewish organizations are hesitant to criticize Israel, security chief amongst them. American Jews are aware that they are not the ones who will have to live with the consequences of any security compromises made by Israel. It is not, as Beinart charges, that American Jews are ignorant of or unsympathetic to West Bank Palestinians whose lives are made more difficult by roadblocks or the separation wall/fence. It is rather the recognition that, if suicide bombings in restaurants and shopping malls in Israel resume, it is not our families who will be in danger.
In recognizing this argument, Beinart points out that American Jews weigh in on lots of issues in places where they don't live, and that under this rationale, New Yorkers would not be able to "criticize Arizona's harsh immigration laws when they don't live near the Mexican border." This analogy is utterly unconvincing. Until undocumented Mexicans begin blowing themselves up in cafes, there can be no comparison between the relative price of a misjudgment in those two contexts.
Beinart also draws the wrong conclusion from the overwhelming support that President Obama enjoys among American Jews. According to Beinart, Obama's ability to win almost 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 is "a remarkable testament to the gulf between American Jewry and many of its communal leaders." More specifically, Beinart believes that while these leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations exhibit kneejerk support for policies of the Israeli government, most American Jews, especially younger and non-Orthodox American Jews, are more attached to their liberal, universalistic ideals than to the Jewish State.
But isn't it infinitely more likely that American Jews overwhelmingly support the President not because they've chosen their liberalism over their support for Israel, but because they don't believe that they have to choose, seeing Obama (accurately, in my opinion) as someone who has been broadly supportive of Israel?
It is true that, after initially confronting Israel on the issue of settlements, Obama has de-emphasized this area of disagreement. But while Beinart bemoans this as a humiliating abdication of Obama's "true" beliefs in the face of a vicious, almost hysterical, onslaught from the purportedly right-wing Jewish establishment, this interpretation doesn't make a lot of sense. Even assuming that Obama's genuine convictions on the issue are as divined by Beinart, and even assuming that Obama's shift was entirely the result of political considerations, this likely reflects his desire to maintain support among the 78 percent of American Jews who voted for him in 2008. After all, the right-wing Jews who are Beinart's bogeymen are never going to support Obama.
It could also be that Obama's pivot wasn't entirely political and was in due, at least in part, to a realization that an obsessive focus on settlements was a mistake, and that, while continued building in Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a terrible idea, it's not what prevents consummation of a comprehensive peace agreement.
Beinart's book has generated intense debate for its criticism of Israel. But his indictment of mainstream American Jewry is just as unfair. Contrary to Beinart's thesis, American Jews need not -- and most have not -- checked their liberalism at the door in order to maintain unwavering support for the Jewish State.
Aitan Goelman is a partner with the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP. He previously spent nine years as a prosecutor with the DOJ, where he served on the team prosecuting Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and he spent several years as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Aitan also clerked for the Honorable Aharon Barak, Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.