An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Special Relationship

Foreign Policy gathered eight prominent figures in the Jewish community to discuss Peter Beinart's recent essay, and whether the ties that bond American Jews to Israel remain strong.

By , Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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 relations.

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.

If 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 private ambivalence.

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 Jewish establishment.

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 synagogues, 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

Peter 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.

Lately, 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 American society.

Attacking 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.

Who’s 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

Peter 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.

Peter 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. 

It’s as if one tried to explain voter anger in 2010 without reference to the recession. 

Yet 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 people. 

Peter 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 risk-taking.

Historically, 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 Jewish community. 

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 Jerusalem.  

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 Jewish identity.

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.

David Kenner was Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.

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