Jewish intellectuals and pundits are writing lately about Peter Beinart’s recent essay in The New York Review of Books. The title of the essay by the former editor of The New Republic magazine is “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” and its thesis is that young American Jews are running fast and far away from the self-appointed Jewish leaders who articulate a brand of Zionism that ignores the benighted policies of the current right-wing government in Jerusalem.
Here’s a taste of Beinart’s argument from the first part of the essay:
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster — indeed, have actively opposed — a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States — so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel — is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.
Beinart says that a great many young Jews — those Jews that the Jewish establishment studiously tries to bring back into the Jewish fold — are looking for a dialogue that starts “by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes.”
And it’s true that you can attend a Jewish communal meeting, say, in the Twin Cities, about “the situation” in Israel, and never hear the speaker — a Jewish macher or Israeli diplomat — mention the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which has been a fact of life for the past 43 years now.
I talked about some of these issues recently with Yael Dayan, an icon of the Zionist left. She was a guest of the Israel Program Center, of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and gave a well-received talk here on May 13.
Certainly one of the most provocative public figures in the Jewish state, Dayan was the first member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, after such meetings between PLO officials and Israelis were legalized in 1993. At the age of 71, Dayan is a veteran of three terms in the Knesset, where she was a champion of gay and lesbian rights and issues of equity for women. She is a leader of the Meretz Party, which has three seats in the Knesset, and chairs the Tel Aviv-Yafo City Council.
Dayan told me that Israel is “late” to peacemaking, “regardless of the Palestinians. There’s no symmetry between Israel and the Palestinians. And this I really wish the American Jewish public would understand. We’re a nation… we have a legal system, an educational system, a health system, an economic system — we are now in the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development]. We are really not to be compared with a people without land,” and split into two factions — in Gaza and the West Bank.
During a cordial morning conversation at a motel in St. Louis Park, Dayan (daughter of the famed Gen. Moshe Dayan, hero of the 1967 Six-Day War) emphasized that a negotiated settlement rests with Israel. She said, “It’s ours to compromise. We are acting from a position of great strength, we’re not a victim — and we lack the generosity of the strong.”
Regarding the “victim” tag, Dayan criticized former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who used the historical persecution of Jews “as a flag… With due respect, it’s an abuse to put Israel in Shoah terms, or in terms of danger to our existence, in the way Jews were in the pre-state days.” She added that “it’s not clean morally to use ‘defense’ and ‘security’ as an alibi” to perpetuate the oppression of the Palestinians.
And we discussed Iran. Dayan said that the fear of Iran — fear of the “evil and unknown… it’s like the fear of bin Laden, the fear of Iran” — represents a great potential danger. Iran is also afraid of Israel, a nation with a nuclear arsenal, she said. “It’s a reciprocal thing: Tehran is as close to Tel Aviv as Tel Aviv is to Tehran.”
At the same time, Dayan said that she is “not against using military measures against [a nuclear threat], but I think it really should be an end of the road solution, and based on much better intelligence than the Western world has today.”
On her U.S. speaking tour, Dayan is speaking on behalf of J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group, at some venues. And just as J Street has been attacked by individuals on the right, Dayan allowed that she has been verbally challenged by those to her left — post-Zionists, anti-Zionists and partisans of the Palestinian cause. The Israeli brand is quite battered these days.
“Our age-old sentiment of wanting to be loved, there’s a limit, too,” Dayan reflects philosophically. “We’re not anymore the gefilte fish that some goyim like to taste.”
Still, she defends open dialogue and resists shutting out points of view with the label of “anti-Semite” — or self-hating Jew.
— Mordecai Specktor / editor [at] ajwnews [dot] com
(American Jewish World, 5.28.10)