“American Jews and Israeli Jews Are Headed for a Messy Breakup,” a column by Jonathan Weisman announced in the New York Times earlier this week. He’s probably right. But only “probably.” The relationship does not have to crash, if both sides can acknowledge the profound ways in which the world’s two largest Jewish communities are profoundly different, and cease imposing their own worldview on the other.
To heal this rift, both sides are going to need to accept that we are invariably going to continue disappointing each other, because American Judaism and Israeli Judaism are, by this point, very different animals. As I describe in my forthcoming book, We Stand Divided: Competing Visions of Jewishness and the Rift Between American Jews and Israel, they now rest on almost entirely different foundations. One is universal and one particular, one focuses on Judaism as religion while the other sees Judaism as nationality, one largely exempt from the messiness of history, while the other is the product of a movement that expressly sought to restore the Jews as players into the complexities (and ugliness) of history.
Ultimately, both Israel and American Jews will have to change much about their views of and discourse about the other. At this moment, though, I want to focus on the ways in which American Jews need to rethink their discourse about Israel, since this side of the equation was much in evidence both in Weisman’s column and in another piece week, by Peter Beinart, in the Forward.
As part of the IfNotNow-instigated brouhaha about Birthright, Beinart issued a characteristic warning this week: “Birthright Will Fail If It Doesn’t Evolve With Young Jews,” arguing that Birthright trips do not offer a balanced picture of the conflict, which in turn will lead many young American Jews to ignore the program.
Now, to be clear, I have never worked for Birthright, have never been on a Birthright trip, and am not in any way privy to their curricular conversations. But here is what I do know. Many children of friends of ours, sophisticated and thoughtful young people, have been on Birthright trips, and have had life-transforming experiences. They did not feel that they’d been brainwashed or worked over – they just fell in love not only with the State of Israel, but with Judaism writ large. Also, for the record, I like Peter Beinart. He’s intelligent and I believe he’s being honest when he says he cares about Israel. For a while, Peter and I did a podcast together in which we modeled how two people who disagree deeply can engage in respectful dialogue. (We’ve also debated each other a few times, and are doing it again on February 7 at Harvard Hillel.)
But in many ways, Beinart’s column reflects a fundamental decision American Jews are going to have to make when it comes to Israel. They will have to decide what matters to them more, Israel’s welfare or their own good standing in their progressive American circles. Though he would of course say that he disagrees, I believe that Beinart is more committed to the latter. That is why he takes a complex issue, oversimplifies it and assumes that the only reasonable read of the situation is that held by American progressives; and then, since he knows that Birthright cannot accommodate his demand (and because he sees Birthright as part of the American Jewish establishment of which he is relentlessly critical), he essentially threatens to join the crowd seeking to destroy it.
Beinart argues that changing Birthright’s curriculum “is necessary because taking Diaspora Jews to Israel without giving them the chance to hear from Palestinians who live as non-citizens under Israeli control in the West Bank is dishonest and immoral.” And he has a proposal. “The alternative is simple: Take Birthright kids to meet Palestinians in the West Bank.”
But Beinart is being disingenuous when he says the solution is “simple.” Which Palestinians does Peter think Birthright participants ought to meet? Palestinians in the West Bank are no more monolithic than Israelis or American Jews. Does he want them to hear from Palestinians who will tell them that they’d much rather live under Israeli occupation than the corruption of the Palestinian Authority (there are, indeed, such people), or Palestinians who will tell them that ending the occupation is but the first step on their drive to ending the State of Israel? Or does he want them to hear from Palestinians who insist on ending the occupation but have no desire to destroy Israel? What percentage of Palestinians are those people? How does Peter know? On the basis of what would Beinart have Birthright choose? Those who represent the majority? Or those who mirror Beinart’s progressive yet “Zionist” values?
And what does Beinart think that Birthright participants should learn about the occupation? “Birthright should let settlers explain why they enjoy swimming pools and irrigated lawns while the Palestinians down the road make do with a few hours of water per day.” That, we are expected to accept, is an objective take on the matter? Why is Peter’s wholly and obviously partisan view any more justifiable than someone else’s equally partisan view? (Beinart is also factually wrong. It is in Gaza where water is limited, but there are no settlers in Gaza or anywhere near it. Settlers are in the West Bank, which is on the other side of the country, not “down the road”.)
Which settlers should Birthright participants meet? People who live in Efrat? Shilo? Karnei Shomron? Amonah? Those are four very different kinds of settlers, in very different sorts of places with different implications for Palestinian statehood. Does Beinart also think that Birthright participants should meet with leaders of Commanders for Israel’s Security, a left-leaning group of security experts who advocate not building on the other side of the separation barrier, but who in no way think that “ending the occupation” is an option today? (A brief summary of their plan is on pages 6-9 of this document.) Or does Beinart disagree with CIS? And if he does disagree with them, that’s because … why? Because he knows more about Israel’s security needs than those who have commanded Israel’s security forces for their entire careers?
How are we to explain the intellectual sloppiness? Perhaps it’s because American Jewish progressives, with IfNotNow at their helm, have decided to destroy Birthright, and Beinart would rather join the crowd than try to lead them back to a responsible position. Or perhaps (as he notes) it’s because he finds Sheldon Adelson so distasteful that he wants any program that Adelson funds taken down?
Adelson is, without question, a divisive personality. But is that reason enough to destroy a program that has brought hundreds of thousands of young American Jews to have a meaningful engagement with Israel? Instead of destroying Birthright, why don’t Beinart, IfNotNow and others raise the tens of millions of dollars it would cost to run an alternative program? If 70% of American Jews vote Democratic, one can only assume that there is much more money to be raised from the American Jewish left than there is from the right. So why does that money not get raised? The reason has to do with the particular form of Zionism characteristic of much of the American Jewish left (there are obviously many exceptions), of which Beinart is an exemplar.
Peter, of course, is hardly alone in this Israel-bashing-as-Israel-helping sport. In the course of his New York Times column and his prediction that the relationship between American Jews and Israel is on the rocks, Jonathan Weisman (the author of a very interesting recent book on American anti-Semitism), quotes Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Washington, DC. For the record, once again, I’ve known Rabbi Zemel for years, admire him and like him, and know how deeply committed he is to Israel. But even with Rabbi Zemel, the tendency to want Israel to be what American Jewish progressives envision for Israel (rather than what Israelis seek) leads to more of the Israel-bashing-as-Israel-helping tendency. Weisman writes that on Yom Kippur, “Rabbi Zemel implored his congregation to act before it is too late, to save Israel from itself.”
A Reform Congregation in DC should save Israel before it is too late? Does no one see the hubris (and the humor, frankly) in such a suggestion? Who are these people who are being urged to save Israel? Can they read the op-ed page of a Hebrew newspaper? Since they cannot, and since the vast majority of the Hebrew press is not translated into English, why do they imagine that they know what’s best for Israel without being exposed to what millions of Israelis think, without access to Israeli discourse on the subject? (Not speaking Hebrew is no crime, of course, but should it not engender at least some humility when it comes to speaking about Israel?) American progressives imagine that they have what to teach liberal, secular Israelis because they are… more intelligent than Israelis? Better educated? More moral? More deeply committed to Israel’s decency?
How well do these people know the country they’re being asked to save? What can they say about the ideological worlds represented by readers of Haaretz and Makor Rishon and what animates the worldviews of each? Can they name five Jewish communities along the Gaza border and speak about how they’re different? How those communities see the conflict? They cannot, of course, and as very few have spoken at length to people trying to raise their families in Sderot or Sha’ar HaNegev, they have no real idea what life is like there.
And what does their rabbi want them to actually do? If 82% of Israelis now define themselves as center-to-right-wing (which Shmuel Rosner’s new book – sorry, in Hebrew only – says is the case), how can American liberal Jews save Israel without subverting the will of Israel’s majority? At the same time, though, how can American Jews both boast about Israel’s robust democracy and also decide to override it in the name of their American, suburban, progressive ethos? Does what Israelis want not matter? Is Israel’s democracy not sacred? Or is it simply less sacred than the moral comfort of American Jewish progressives?
Though I believe that their suggestions (revise Birthright’s curriculum and have American suburban Jews save Israel) are misguided, one can, and should, at least acknowledge that Beinart and Zemel both care about Israel and believe that what they are doing is best for Israel.
That, though, cannot be said for more extremist elements in the American progressive community, where positions that are ostensibly meant to make Israel “better” are clearly just camouflage for a desire to do Israel harm. No group embodies this better than IfNotNow, which, as a recent New York Magazine article noted, had participants say Kaddish for Palestinians who were killed by Israeli soldiers along the Gaza border. ““We do not organize Kaddish prayers for ‘Arab terrorists’ or ‘Hamas members.’ We say Kaddish and mourn the unconscionable Israeli violence on Palestinian protesters,” one of INN’s leaders said to New York Magazine.
Many of the young people who are involved in or leaders of INN are bright and sophisticated, the graduates of America’s finest colleges. So it is rather astonishing that they did not apply any of the critical thinking skills that got them into college and then through it to bear on this issue. If the killing of Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border (which is unquestionably sad) is so obviously “unconscionable Israeli violence,” why did the Israeli political left not protest? Why were even Meretz and Labor mostly silent after many Gazans were killed at the border? Do American Jewish progressives ever ask themselves what they know that Israelis do not? (The Israeli left understood that allowing the fence to be toppled would immediately endanger the lives of thousands of Israeli civilians, and sadly, understood that lethal force was necessary to protect Israel from agents of Hamas, no matter how young they were.)
Do these young American Jewish progressives believe that they are more progressive than Israeli progressives? (They cannot know, of course, because they cannot read and understand what Israeli progressives write.) Do they believe that they are more moral than the Israeli left? Do they know better than Israeli leftists what’s better for Israel?
Or, more likely, is it that bottom line they care about their progressive credentials much more than they care about Israel? (Recall, by the way, that IfNotNow do not refer to themselves as Zionists and refuse to endorse the idea of Jewish State.)
It is, of course, absolutely the right of American Jewish progressives to have those priorities. But it is also Israelis’ right to ask themselves which American Jewish voices are genuine partners. Those who think that all “settlers” are the same, who want to make the occupation the focal point of Israel-discourse, are not genuine partners. Those who tell their congregations, who cannot read Hebrew, who have not spent a night in a bomb shelter, who insist that the occupation end even though Israel’s left-leaning commanders all believe that cannot happen now, are not partners. Those who say Kaddish not for hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed by Asad or Kurds killed by Turkey, but for those who endangered the Jewish state by threatening to take down the border fence, are also obviously not partners.
They’re posturers, for their own American progressive socio-political agenda, and Israelis intuit that. To heal the rift of which Weisman correctly writes, there is much that Israelis will have to change about themselves and the ways in which they view and assess Diaspora Jewish life. By the same token, though, if American Jewish progressives want Israelis to be in dialogue with them, it is time to end the assumption that the repository of morality, wisdom and decency resides exclusively on the Western edge of the Atlantic. A lot less hubris and bit more interest in why Israelis think what they think would go a long way to making sure that somehow, in some manner, we help this relationship survive.