On the Crisis of Zionism

Israel has strayed a long way from its ideals, a powerful new book argues. And so have American Jews.

crisis of zionism
Israeli Defense Forces
Israeli Jets fly over Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.
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I got a poem in my inbox the other day from an older relative:

What did you do
American Jew
in 2012 or 1942
‘cause business was good
and they didn't come for You?

What did you do
when the world turned its head
and six million Jews
were soon to be dead
but you just didn't know
and business was slow
and the kid needed shoes
no time for some Jews

What will you do
American Jew
As the nations align
our Homeland maligned
for the whole world to see...
yet our president balks
at the ominous news
saving words of rebuke
for 'intransigent' Jews
and six million more
getting ready to die?

What did you do
and what will you say
when the question is asked
that won't go away...
that you watched
and you waited
your life unabated
and just didn't are
to risk such a dare
...and the grandsons
made Harvard, Hooray!
Pray for Israel

It felt like a portrait of my childhood in verse. In the suburban Midwestern Reform Jewish world I was raised in, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, grown men built plastic scale models of Israeli tanks and F-15 jets and displayed them throughout the house, dangling the warplanes from bedroom ceilings with fishing line. My dad, who had a replica Uzi sub-machine gun on his office wall, wore a tiepin that read, in Hebrew letters, Zachor, which means "remember." What was meant to be remembered was the "six million," the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, a number seared into all of our souls – at home, in Sunday school, at religious services, and at the Jewish Community Center summer camp in the Wisconsin North Woods, where we began each morning by raising the Israeli and American flags side by side.

This all felt right and proper. What didn’t sit so well (with me, at any rate) was the catechism that accompanied the injunction to remember. It held that the next six million, just like the poem says, were still getting ready to die, right here in River City – or in Australia, in Timbuktu, in our own Milwaukee, or anywhere else Jews were granted the privilege – the temporary, conditional privilege — to live. The one safe haven: Israel, whose formidable tanks and planes would hold the line against the eliminationist contempt in which most of the world held us. The message provided a kind of quasi-spiritual ballast to our acquisitive upper-middle-class lives; but as an morally precocious little dude I found it all so far from observable reality, it made me want to puke.

All of which background made Peter Beinart's recollections, in his powerful new book The Crisis of Zionism, seem very familiar – which felt uncanny, because I thought I had been alone.

As an adult, I've always found the stereotype that Jews are liberal a curious one; my parents’ circle was predominantly conservative, not just on Israel but on most political issues. Most of all, they were intensely (and this is a word I remember repeating in my own angry adolescent dialogues with myself) tribal. What I didn’t fully comprehend, until now, was why. Beinart unearths a story of 1970s politics that was unknown to me – except as I so intimately lived it – showing that at the root of this sense of embattled tribalism was a transformation worked by the leaders of right-leaning American Jewish organizations, who traded in their founding (liberal) aspirations to universal justice for a wagon-circling parochalism.

I knew how the 1967 simultaneous Soviet-backed invasion of Israel by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, which put Israel's very survival at stake, profoundly intensified American Jews’ emotional connection to the Jewish state. (One marvelous detail Beinart uncovers: a small Oklahoma synagogue sold its building so they could send the proceeds to Israel to aid the cause.) What I didn't realize was how deliberately establishment Jewish leaders of this period substituted victimhood – the sense that Jews always and everywhere were at risk of being wiped out, should they drop their guard – for liberalism, "as a strategy for defending Israel," and as "the defining ideology of organized American Jewish life." The president of the American Jewish Congress, for example, an organization founded in 1906 that once was so soppily universalist in focus they had considered changing their name to the "Institute for Human Relations," lamented in 1970 that young Jews "lack a sense of 'being Jewish'" because the Holocaust was not "seared into" their memories. So educational materials were developed to do the searing right quick – in part, by way of simulations "designed to help children imagine that they were experiencing the trauma firsthand." (I remember those: We were supposed to pretend to be Jews in Germany, hiding from Nazis – though in my case the exercise was called off at the last minute when parents, to their credit, protested. We did, however, pretend to be Jews running the British blockade of Palestine.)

The next AJC president wrote in 1982 that the reason such trauma education was necessary was "so that our children will know who they really are." Who we really are: a stunning admonition. Who we really were, as a 1974 book coauthored by the head of the Anti-Defamation League and quoted by Beinart were martyrs – and "tolerable" to the rest of the world "only as victims...and when [our] situation changes so that [we] are either no longer victims or appear not to be, the non-Jewish world finds this so hard to take that the effort is begun to render [us] victims again." The usefulness of that bizarre, passively voiced tautology springs from its nihilism: Actually existing Jewish power can only be taken as evidence that the deluge must be right around the corner.

The notion that violent paranoia must be taught as the moral center of Judaism has persisted to recent times, as I learned on a trip to Israel where a young cousin of mine was Bar Mitzvahed at Masada (tellingly, a military site, not a religious one), and during which he and his unwitting friends were directed to read a poem about the Warsaw Ghetto while standing on a monument to destroyed European shtetls:  

At my Bar Mitzvah, I lifted my voice and sang.
At his Bar Mitzvah, he lifted his fists and fought.

At my Bar Mitzvah, I wore a new tallit over a new suit.
At his Bar Mitvah he wore a rifle an bullets over a suit of rags.

At my Bar Mitzvah, I started my road to life.
At his Bar Mitzvah, he began his road to martyrdom.

It follows that the actual world we kids inherited, in which Jews now serving on the Supreme Court outnumber Protestants three to zero and a Jew serves as House majority leader and the Jew who used to be the president's chief of staff runs our third largest city, and in which Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower can really be only a mirage. "Is It 1939?" Malcolm Honlein, the head of the influential Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, asked in a 2010 speech. It just might be, was his answer. Which is why he displays in his office a photoshopped image of Israeli F-15s liberating Auschwitz. Six million Jews are once more getting ready to die.

This was the moral education that I found so dissatisfying in my youth, as it trickled down to medium-sized Midwestern burgs – a disingenous muddle of a irrationalism, intellectual double standards, and whiny special pleading. I learned that because Israel was a "democracy," with Arab citizens and political parties, discrimination against those Arabs was not a problem – but also that it was appropriate for the Israeli Defense Forces to harass Arabs at random because, I remember hearing, "they don't wear signs around their neck saying 'good Arab' and 'bad Arab.'" I was solemnly informed that groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were biased against Israel and that the State Department was full of anti-Semites. I heard men who seemed otherwise utterly apolitical and non-intellectual rehearse elaborate they-started-it narratives starring conspirators like the Mufti of Jerusalem, who gulled Arabs into eagerly abandoning their homes, which happened to make room for Zionist pioneers who had never been anything but magnanimous toward them. I got the message, loud and clear, that those of us living lives of bland comfort far from enemy-circled Israel had no right, no standing to criticize the Jewish state; and to just shut up and send the check to Jewish organizations, the better to salve your conscience.

The ideology extended to theology. The only times during my religious instruction I remember hearing God’s name invoked with any sincere conviction at all was in the oft-repeated and breathtakingly chauvinistic claim that Israel's "miraculous" military victories over much-stronger enemies proved that He was ever on Zion's side. (God had help, I later learned as a professional historian: More American materiel were shipped to Israel in just ten days during the 1973 Yom Kippur War than over the entire eleven months of the 1948 Berlin Airlift, which also helps explain why, in my youth, Richard Nixon was seen by many Jews to have got a raw deal on Watergate.)

All of which left me, in my youth, feeling utterly uninterested in Judaism, which to me appeared inherently barren: If you found dubious the proposition that Israel as it existed protected Jews around the world – rather than making them more vulnerable through the injustices it perpetrated – there was really nothing spiritual left.

And what has the embrace of victimhood wrought for American Jews? "In city after city,” Beinart points out, they "have built Holocaust memorials …. The Jewish schools in those cities are often decrepit, mediocre, and unaffordable, but there is no shortage of places to learn how Jews died .... When a community builds better memorials than schools – when it raises children more familiar with Auschwitz that with Simchat Torah [that means "rejoicing in the law"; proving his argument, I had to look it up] – the lesson of those memorials cannot be: Honor the dead by leading, informed, committed Jewish lives. Nor is the lesson: Honor the dead by acting justly toward those non-Jews which live under Jewish rule...Instead, the implicit lesson is: Honor the dead by preventing another Holocaust, this time in Israel." The memorial-builders, he writes, "began hoarding the Holocaust." Yes! This to me was stunning to read, remembering how a museum in the ghetto devoted to "America's Black Holocaust" made Milwaukee Jews seethe: that word, "Holocaust," belonged to us.

There are, of course, good reasons for Jews to be informed about the history of the bad intentions that much of the rest of the world has harbored toward us. Beinart elucidated them beautifully in a stunning essay in the magazine Transition, which I read when it came out sixteen years ago and remember indelibly. But even more powerfully, that essay also laid out the dangers of circling the wagons. He wrote about his grandmother, who said "Jews are like rats," fleeing sinking ships. In The Crisis of Zionism he lists the ships his own family has been forced to abandon over the generations: first escaping “a Spanish town cleansed of Jews five hundred years ago”; then now-defunct Jewish communities in Greece and Turkey; then the war-torn Belgian Congo, whence they fled to South Africa.

In South Africa, Jews found "rich soil," Beinart writes — "and poisoned soil as well." In a system driven by a "mania for classification and segregation," the South African state "used the traditional Jewish desire to remain distinct as a lever to guarantee their support for a political system based on racial separation and hierarchy." But Beinart found something to admire in South African Jews, something revelatory: They were "less reliant on victimology. While American Jews pour money into Holocaust memorials, South African Jews have focused on Jewish education."

The Crisis of Zionism raises up as heroes a new wave of liberal young people leading informed, committed Jewish lives right here among us. The facts he elicits about them should be profoundly sobering to establishment Jewish leaders like Malcolm Honlein with his Israeli F-15s: men and women in the "independent minyanim" movement (minyanim are small prayer groups), who "grew up Reform or Conservative [the less hardcore-religious branches of Judaism], but through Jewish school, summer camp, or adult study … gained a level of religious literacy far beyond that of most Reform or Conservative Jews." Members of this Jewish renaissance marry other Jews 93 percent of the time: What ensures Jewishness, he concludes, "is not victimhood, but Jewish knowledge as a vehicle of Jewish meaning." Even more stunningly, a survey of the new movement's leadership found that although they "had spent more time in Israel than their elders and were more likely to speak Hebrew" – 56 percent had lived there more than four months at a time, double that of older leaders – and "only 32 percent strongly agreed that Israel was a very important part of their Jewish identity."

But why? "They are," Beinart says, "deeply troubled by Israel's policies" – specifically its insistence on expanding settlements in the territory west of the Jordan River that Israel began occupying following the 1967 war. Though Israel is often described as the "only democracy in the Middle East," these occupied territories are not democratic: Israeli settlers there, for instance, enjoy their own system of roads, from which Arabs are banned, and when Arabs violate Israeli law they are tried before military courts where only one percent are ever found innocent. And, he argues, since the settlers and their representatives – people like the settler who deliberately drove his car into a cabinet minister, then was made a representative of the settlers' governing council; the settler who shot a classics professor in 2002 who was helping a Palestinian farmer harvest his vineyards, and went free; and the head of the West Bank's rabbinical council who called Baruch Goldstein, the settler-assassin of twenty-nine Muslim worshippers, "holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust" – are becoming more integrated into the governing institutions of Israel itself, this threatens the survival of a democratic Jewish state itself.

It is a debate I am unqualified to adjudicate. The deeply unsatisfying tribalism that marred the religious education of my youth laid an unpromising foundation; and though I respect the way in which many people I love have carved deeply satisfying spiritual lives for themselves in Judaism, many in the same independent minyanim movement Beinart so admires, my religious direction tended elsewhere. As for Israel, I don't think of it much. Even in a career as a political writer given to disputation, the sheer viciousness (which you'll see from the hate mail this piece produces: I plan to publish it) faced by those who criticize not merely Israel, but certain specific de rigeur formulations about Israel, turned me off the entire subject. Instead, and I've never admitted this publicly before, the deeply saturated irrationalism surrounding it as I was growing up was what made me fascinated with political irrationalism as such – and helps explain why I ended up a scholar of the American far-right.

That reflexive intimidation, in the end, is what most fascinates me about The Crisis of Zionism. I'd heard great things from friends about the book  — but read almost nothing admiring about it in the public prints. People are cowed at the thought of taking on the shrieking Israel absolutists, the ones who imagine themselves every day saving six million lives and their critics as hastening the slaughter. Apropos: In one stunning story Beinart tells in his book, a group of young Jewish leaders declined to stand together at a Jewish gathering and sing the national anthem, but also declined to join a public resolution opposing settlement growth: "In the organized Jewish world, left-leaning young Jews often rely on establishment Jewish institutions for financial support. And publicly criticism is an excellent way to endanger that support." Again and again, he prints quotations from unidentified sources, who apparently fear attaching their name to even innocuous opinions: like the former official of the American Defamation League who says it is "first and foremost a fund-raising organization"; and the "prominent Jewish journalist" who remarks that one major institutional conference "looks like the day room at the old-age home."

Another anonymous source is a "senior State Department official," who recently traveled with Secretary Clinton from Jerusalem to Ramallah in the West Bank: "There was a kind of silence and people were careful, but it was like, my God, you crossed that border and it was apartheid." For the most prominent victim of this climate of intimidation, and the retreat from reason and empirical observation it enforces, is the president whose Chicago home sits across the street from a venerable synagogue where, Beinart argues, he learned from the Jewish community that embraced him a Zionism that was both deeply felt and opposed to settlement growth. But then Barack Obama moved into the White House, where he found it impossible to follow through on his convictions, thanks to "Jewish pressure," as a revealing headline in Time magazine puts it.

Jewish pressure issues from people like Malcolm Honlein, not from any preponderance of actual Jews; polling finds "the gap between Jews and other Americans has not narrowed at all" on approval of Obama, and only 10 percent of American Jews make Israel their primary voting issue. "Members of Congress," Beinart concludes, "worried that the administration did not fully grasp what he had gotten himself into" when he made a halt to the growth in settlements by the Israeli government a precondition for further diplomatic progress. Now, however, he has given up, and his statements sound like “they were faxed to his office by the Israeli prime minister’s office,” according to one Israeli commentary Beinart quotes. "'If you're going to pick a fight with a bully, you need to win.'" This quote is from a "Congressional staffer who works on Israel policy" – who, naturally, asked not to be named.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

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