By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Recently, in this space, I worried as a friend of Israel about the growing irrelevancy of the Zionist cause in the United States. Our kids don't see the dream of a Jewish homeland the way we and our parents do or did. The new generation's impressions of Israel are those of an imperialistic bully, grabbing Arab lands and building illegal settlements--not those of a plucky underdog.
In an essay in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart, a CUNY professor, author and orthodox Jewish scholar, analyzes this phenomenon, with special emphasis on the new generations of Jewish Americans, who have grown up on images of Israeli tanks crushing Palestinian uprisings.
"Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral," Beinart writes. And so, "particularly in the younger generation, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists."
American Jewish leaders have refused to grapple with the moral questions posed by Israeli belligerence--opting instead for a hazy, sentimental "institutionalized elusiveness," says Beinart. "There is an epidemic of not watching among American Zionists today. A Red Cross study on malnutrition in the Gaza Strip, a bill in the Knesset to allow Jewish neighborhoods to bar entry to Israeli Arabs, an Israeli human rights report on settlers burning Palestinian olive groves, three more Palestinian teenagers shot--it's unpleasant."
By downplaying or ignoring these questions, the older generations of American Jews can "continue to identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth--an Israel that now only exists in their memories," Beinart argues. "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."
Not so the kids, who are drawing their own conclusions. "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," he warns.
The narrative of Jewish vulnerability "simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel's. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood--a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948 or even 1967--strikes most of today's young American Jews as a farce."
There are, surely, young conservative Jews in America whose embrace of Zionism will endure. And, because they tend to have larger families, their influence may grow. But the blind zeal of true believers is no substitute for what American Jewry has done in the past: serve as a friendly conscience, as well as a protector, to Israel.
It would be better for America's Jewish institutions to get fully engaged now, Beinart contends, and actively join with the political forces in Israel that share their liberal values. "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," he says. American Jews need to rebuild "an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be."