NEW YORK — As we get closer to the Young Israel synagogue in the prestigious Upper West Side neighborhood of Manhattan, the journalist next to me pulls out his kippa from his pocket, and places it in a smooth, natural motion on his head. Then, he places his cellphone up against the monitor beside the door. Following the increase of antisemitic incidents across the United States, he explains, the synagogue has been equipped with advanced security devices, and entry is only permitted to those who have a unique ID barcode. As we cross the doorstep I can’t help but think: who would have thought I’d be davening Mincha with Peter Beinart.
The New Yorker recently described Beinart as “the most influential liberal Zionist of his generation,” adding he “had switched sides.” Today he is viewed as a harsh critic of the State of Israel, a supporter of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, and one of the most hated people in America’s organized Jewish world. And yet, here we are. Because Beinart is also an Orthodox Jew, and for the past year he has taken pain to pray with a minyan three times a day as he says Kaddish in his father’s memory. He teaches journalism and political science at the City University of New York (CUNY), and is editor-at-large of the Jewish Currents magazine and website, an outlet heavily identified with the progressive Jewish Left.
Minutes before, while at a kosher burger restaurant a few blocks away, the only thing we could agree on was what to order from the menu. We met because I wanted to understand the steadily growing negative attitude towards Israel within the Jewish progressive movement in the US – of which Beinart is a prominent voice – and what might be done to halt this disturbing trend.
“The time of military conflict was awful,” Beinart says. “Though I have never lived in Israel for a long period of time, during one of the previous rounds of fighting I was with my daughter in a bomb shelter. I know many people who were affected by these incidents, and I worried for them – but I also worried for many of the Palestinians I know.”
You express your concern for Israelis and Palestinians in the same sentence, without distinction. From a Jewish perspective, this is worrying.
“Without a doubt, there is a difference; I have a special obligation to the Jews,” Beinart answers slowly, carefully choosing his words. “I’m not a pure universalist, I believe in Jewish Peoplehood; Jews all over the world are my distant relatives. I also believe in the covenant of faith described by Rabbi Soloveitchik, according to which you have an obligation to every Jew in distress, otherwise you violate your own Judaism. I believe in that. But I also believe the Palestinians are suffering more than the Israelis. If for every Jewish child killed five Palestinian children die, then, to me, it’s the same as something bad happening to my relative and at the same time something much worse happening to the neighbor at the end of my street. That’s how I see things.”
Calls heard at anti-Israel demonstrations were nothing less than antisemitic.
“The claim of antisemitism existing within the American pro-Palestinian movement is not correct. I won’t say there is no antisemitism from the Left, but it is smaller than what those on the Right claim. Defining Israel as an Apartheid state is not antisemitism, and neither is anti-Zionism.”
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which has 36 member states, states that challenging the right of a Jewish state to exist is antisemitism. You don’t accept this?
“No. To me, it’s an absurd definition. If I don’t believe in a Jewish state and the legitimacy of Israel, if I want there to be a boycott against Israel – and there are many Jews who think and act accordingly – why is it antisemitic? Most people who claim the pro-Palestinian movement is filled with antisemitism don’t see the movement from within.”
Beinart then quotes a paper out of Tufts University, “which showed the opinions about Israel among the radical American Left is very negative but also found among them less forms of classic antisemitism. There is a significant difference between their view of Israel and their opinion of Jews.”
Do Jews in the radical Left view themselves as Zionists?
“The majority do not.”
“I’m a cultural Zionist.”
What does that mean?
“Ahad HaAm, for example, didn’t believe in a Jewish State, and neither did those who followed in his path – Martin Buber, Yehuda Leib Magnes and others. They believed in a Jewish society which didn’t have to be constructed like a state. I also believe in that. Not in a Jewish State, yes in the importance of a Jewish society in Israel, which can flourish in ֵa state of all its citizeֵns [a state that has no Jewish national significance but is completely equal in its citizens’ rights, Z.K.] or a federation which gives equal rights to all. The Jewish People need a place, but there doesn’t have to be a Jewish State.”
There are Muslim countries, so why not a Jewish one?
“If you believe in equality, how can you create a state which claims members of a certain race, or certain religion, belong to it more than others? True, there are other countries who violate this principle. In my opinion, they need to be reformed.”
So why do young Jews from the radical Left not take to the streets to demonstrate against Syria or Iran – countries violating human rights in the worst possible way? Why only demonstrate against Israel? Because they’re Jewish?
“As Americans, we don’t provide $3 billion in military aid to Iran or Syria. Asad is a monster, and we are his enemies, as we should be. But without us, Israel couldn’t do everything it does.”
Palestinian textbooks ignore Israel’s existence at best, and at worst portray it from an antisemitic perspective. Also there you don’t see a problem?
In response, Beinart refers to a joint American-Israeli-Palestinian study. “The researchers compared Palestinian and Israeli textbooks and didn’t find a difference. In both there is only one narrative.”
This isn’t about a narrative. Palestinian books have caricatures of Jews with big noses, beards and weapons, butchering children. How can you have a conversation with people who have been brainwashed like that?
“If you ask a Palestinian where his hostility comes from, he’ll share a personal story about his parents who were expelled or a family member who was shot. Here you don’t need a textbook, it’s their personal experience.”
And still, I ask Beinart, why don’t we hear from organizations like IfNotNow that demonstrate for the Palestinians, a little empathy towards the Israeli side, to whom they should feel a connection, as Jews. “A group like IfNotNow is a good example of Jews who care about other Jews. Most of the young American Jews are worried more about climate change or the threat to American democracy – because they hear a party saying any administration elected with the votes of blacks is illegitimate.”
“They have so many issues to be concerned with, yet they still engage with what’s happening in the Middle East. That stems from a connection. I look at the conflict as a situation in which my family member is doing something terrible. I think this is also their point of view.”
Why don’t they treat Hamas as a terror organization making Palestinians’ lives miserable?
“I don’t know how many Palestinian friends your readers have, but some of the Jewish-American children you’re talking about are in close relationships with Palestinians here in the US. If their friends don’t tell them the bigger problem in the conflict is Hamas, they won’t think that. And I’ll add, that every Palestinian I know thinks Hamas are a bunch of idiots, and Mahmoud Abbas is an idiot.”
So why don’t their Jewish friends say it out loud?
“They believe the core problem is that the Palestinians are under the occupation of a Jewish State, and Israel controls Gaza and prevents basic human rights.”
Things we didn’t learn at Camp
Most young American Jews who see Israel as the embodiment of all evil in the world, I tell Beinart, belong to the progressive part of the American community. As someone who reads American papers and talks to many American Jews on a weekly basis, it seems to me as if being anti-Israel has become their religion. “I don’t think it’s fair to phrase it that way,” Beinart says. “You wouldn’t want me to draw a caricature or talk about the Israeli national-religious population in stereotypes.”
I’m not usually very opinionated, and there aren’t many discussions where I lose my cool, but in this argument, I suddenly find myself banging on the table. We are looking at young people who take every Jewish value and apply it to the Palestinian side, I tell Beinart. Judaism has Kaddish? They say it for Palestinians who died, sometimes even Hamas terrorists. The Passover seder? Dedicated to the redemption of Palestine. To them the only value in Judaism is ‘Tikkun Olam,’ what else do they have?
“With all due respect, you see it from far away,” Beinart says. “It is true the Orthodox Jews are mainly on the Right, but if you go to the J Street convention you will see many kippot. The largest group there comes from Conservative and Reform families who are strongly connected to Judaism. They are young people who want a rich Jewish life filled with content and meaning, even if their life doesn’t look observant to you. In their twenties, they are less connected to synagogues, but when they’re parents they’ll want to join a community suitable for them – and it is likely to be different than that of their parents.”
Will they send their children to a school or synagogue with an Israeli flag in it?
“Sadly, there aren’t many ‘strong’ non-Orthodox schools. Again, the picture you’re painting of them caring only about ‘Tikkun Olam’ and nothing else Jewish that isn’t ‘anti-Israeli’ – is a caricature. True, compared to Bnei Akiva their children look different, but it isn’t fair to say they don’t seek a full Jewish life.”
I tell Beinart all the studies and polls show the young generation of American Jews is growing more assimilated while losing its connection to Israel. He repeats his main argument, which to me only makes things worse: The anti-Israel activists are the Liberal Jews who care, the ones who were always more engaged, who participated in costly summer camps and arrived in Israel on Birthright. “Now they have an understandable anger towards Jewish educators,” Beinart says of the IfNotNow activists. “At Camp Ramah, they try to create a Zionist identity without discussing the conflict at all – even if we put the Palestinian narrative to the side. They don’t give the children the most basic information you’ll get at an introductory university course on the Middle East. The result is young Jews arrive on campuses completely unprepared to deal with people from the other side who actually know things. They are angry about this.”
Would you be pleased if your children joined IfNotNow?
“Yes, I’d have no problem. It’s expressing emotion and opinion about what’s happening.”
Yet you still define yourself as ‘culturally Zionist.’ How are you willing for your children to be part of an anti-Zionist movement?
“From my perspective, it’s not an anti-Zionist movement, but a movement that is not Zionist. I’d want my children to try and understand what that means. To me it is highly meaningful that there is a flourishing Jewish, liberal society in Israel. I would argue with the children on that point, but I have no problem with them fighting for Palestinians’ rights as a directive of their conscience, and I’d be pleased if they did it through a Jewish organization. For them it would be a way to understand we’re not only a tribe, but that we have a tradition of voicing our concern when ‘Jewish force’ is used against others.
It’s a shame that’s the only tradition we hear of from them.
“It’s the tradition they connect to.”
This interview is part of a Hebrew series published by Makor Rishon on the state of Progressive Judaism and Israel. Published here by permission.