Sunday, May 23, 2010

Beinart And 'The American Jewish Establishment'

Peter Beinart's timely polemic on the "American Jewish Establishment" works as planned; and as a knowledgeable columnist-friend emailed me, it deserves to be something of an event, since Beinart is young, thoughtful, a former Marty Peretz mentee, a former booster of the Iraq War--in short, the kind of apostate the Church of AIPAC can't ignore. Who can disagree, moreover, with the piece's main message, which is that America's Jewish leadership is seriously out of step with the great majority of especially young American Jews? (Actually, I made much the same case in Harper's almost two years ago, sketching out how J Street might organize around the netroots and prestige of Jewish supporters in the Obama Campaign.)

Yet Beinart's argument seems flawed to me in its basic framing, and I raise the issue, not to pick nits, but because he inadvertently perpetuates a kind of comfortable American Jewish presumption about how organized American Jews naturally claim privileged participation in Israel's future not only as globalist democrats but as Jews. It offends--dare I say?--the cultural Zionist in me, implicitly promising a kind of Jewish organizational life in America it could never deliver on. If we buy into Beinart's argument, that is, we'll not understand, first, why liberal American Jews would naturally have drifted away even from an Israel that Pete Seeger could still rhapsodize about; and, second, why the American Jews who feel most passionate about Israel are not only bound to be orthodox, but why they both connect to, and threaten, what's most precious about Israel in ways American liberals cannot.

TO MAKE HIS case, Beinart defaults to the words of Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, whom I greatly admire, and whose formulations seem yanked into a context I'm not sure he'd approve of. Ezrahi, Beinart says, believes that "after decades of what came to be called a national consensus, the Zionist narrative of liberation [has] dissolved into openly contesting versions”:

One version, “founded on a long memory of persecution, genocide, and a bitter struggle for survival, is pessimistic, distrustful of non-Jews, and believing only in Jewish power and solidarity.” Another, “nourished by secularized versions of messianism as well as the Enlightenment idea of progress,” articulates “a deep sense of the limits of military force, and a commitment to liberal-democratic values.” Every country manifests some kind of ideological divide. But in contemporary Israel, the gulf is among the widest on earth.

As Ezrahi and others have noted, this latter, liberal-democratic Zionism has grown alongside a new individualism, particularly among secular Israelis, a greater demand for free expression, and a greater skepticism of coercive authority. You can see this spirit in “new historians” like Tom Segev who have fearlessly excavated the darker corners of the Zionist past and in jurists like former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak who have overturned Knesset laws that violate the human rights guarantees in Israel’s “Basic Laws”...
But in Israel today, this humane, universalistic Zionism does not wield power. To the contrary, it is gasping for air.

For Beinart, then, this is the choice; for Ezrahi I'd bet it is more complex. There is bad Zionism, a kind of reactionary nationalism rooted in pessimism and a sense of victimization, and, a good Zionism, rooted in enlightenment, progress, and individualism. In both cases, "Zionism" is a statement about what is good for the Jews, that is, a judgement about potential political arrangements. (In neither case is it about what, if anything, is potentially beautiful about Judaism.) The vast majority of American Jews--so Beinart continues--are enlightened and liberal like their parents, and therefore natural supporters of the good Zionism. But the American Jewish Establishment (don't we still love the ominous vagueness of the word "Establishment"?) has, for its AIPACish reasons, been trying to force feed them on the bad Zionism. The result has been pathetic:

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...Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.

NOW, ONE MIGHT argue that Beinart's psychological archetypes--distrustful vs. progressive, etc.--can be useful in explaining the personalities and even tribes that dominate current Israeli politics (like Ezrahi, I have used them to some extent myself). But these archetypes are of no help in understanding the rival Zionisms that created the state and still have significance in debates about its fate. Nor do they help us to understand what are the serious ways American Jews might yet connect to Israelis.

Actually, the real distinction, from the beginning, was between Zionists who thought in terms of rescue and Zionists who thought in terms of cultural revolution. The former, "political Zionists," tended to focus on the psychology of powerlessness, depict the militant state as a kind of therapy, counting on Antisemitism to define Jewish identity. For them, all Jews (including Diaspora Jews) were nationals, because their efforts at assimilation would lead to disaster. The latter, "cultural Zionists," tended to focus on modernizing a failing Hebrew religious vernacular, which they considered their patrimony, and loved and hated in equal measure. They thought assimilation of Western Jews into liberal society was perfectly possible, if not inevitable. That would be the disaster. They saw the state as custodian of a unique cultural opportunity, which could be inclusive of anyone coming to the land and participating in the revolutionary national life.

And in today's Israel--this Beinart does not see, it seems--you can detect the strains of political Zionism in both the right and left, reactionaries and peaceniks. Hardliners talk about Iran and pal around with AIPAC types. (Think of people like Bibi's brain, Uzi Arad.) Political Zionists in the peace camp, for their part, talk rather about demography. (Some, like Kadima's Haim Ramon, came to the J Street conference.) Both focus on Israel as a Jewish majority state, and are not too bothered by what Jewish means, for they assume the rest of the world will remind them. They are frantic about Israeli Arabs. They think of diaspora Jewish organizations as various political assets to be mined.

The cultural Zionists, however, are almost all on the democratic left, for they think of "Israeliness" as a work-in-progress, requiring critical thinking and democratic spaces, distinct from, even transcendent of, traditional Halachic life. Ironically, cultural Zionists have natural sympathy for diaspora orthodoxy the way a synthesis has a natural sympathy for a thesis. They suppose the Hebrew culture resilient enough to provide a home for all strains of Jewish religious imagination, strong enough to compete in the world, and eclectic enough to assimilate others. They are not afraid of Israeli Arab assimilation into a Hebrew republic. Interestingly, they have no problem with diaspora Jews--indeed, all people everywhere--holding the Israeli state to democratic standards. But they find diaspora Jews arguing about joint responsibility for Jewish civilization pretentious.

WHERE IS BEINART in all of this? Clearly, he fits in a corner of the political Zionist map. He told Jeffrey Goldberg: "...my grandmother used to say, 'the Jews are like rats,' we leave the sinking ship. So yes, I'm a Zionist. I'm close enough to people who still have their bags packed." He takes for granted that American Jews constitute a distinct "community," replete with communitarian institutions and an "Establishment"; that the most important question to be asked about it is, Who will lead it, people with reactionary or liberal attitudes?, sort of the way you ask questions about elections to the Knesset. Halachic Jews, in this context, are a dangerous influence--as Beinart implies "a potential bonanza" for bad Zionism--since they are increasing in number relative to young liberal Jews: "The 2006 AJC poll found that while 60 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews under the age of forty support a Palestinian state, that figure drops to 25 percent among the Orthodox."

It seems not to have occurred to Beinart that American Jewish life is not a parallel political universe to Israel but actually vindicates the cultural Zionist prophesy (much as Germany arguably vindicated the political Zionist one); that America proves the inevitable debasement of Jewish cultural life in modern liberal societies, and the impossibility of sustaining a serious community life there. In America--Beinart shows but does not acknowledge--assimilation is so advanced and congenial that if one is not Halachic to some degree there is no real point to any affiliation with Jewish community life at all.

Oh, sure, if you are of a certain age, you can be vicariously excited taking sides in that great distant drama, about the Jewishness of Israel, or the unity of Jerusalem, or whatnot; you can, like Goldberg, ironically count Jewish home-run hitters the way our parents, less ironically, counted Nobel Prize winners. But as I myself argued in the New York Review more than 30 years ago, the preoccupation of American Jews with whether Israel's "narrative" is good or bad--the preoccupation with Israel altogether--is not so much resistance to assimilation as a symptom of it.

Beinart cannot see, in other words, that there really can be no American Jewish Establishment other than the one we have; that the alternative to an Establishment "defending Israel" is not one liberally critical of Israel but the evaporation of secular communal institutions altogether. Groups like J Street are not a solution to the benevolent diaspora crisis cultural Zionism anticipated. They can, and should, rally American Jewish liberals (along with non-Jewish liberals) around a foreign policy vision much like the one President Obama set out at West Point this week: to be pro-peace is to be pro-Israel, and so forth. They can, as democrats, insist on democratic values. But J Street cannot provide "identity." When I walked around the J Street conference, I felt vaguely dizzy hearing, again and again, about tikkun olam.

The point is, if American Jews are going to connect to Israel they had better learn its language, not just its "narratives." If they are not inclined to, fine. If they wish to advance democratic values in Israel as anywhere, great. But Israelis will be forgiven for sensing that American Jews cannot have a real politics without real political institutions (as opposed to "major organizations") and that the Anglo-liberalism in which most American Jews marinate distances them from the culture of Israel, which has great strengths. Even Israeli liberals will be forgiven for connecting more intuitively, if tensely and antagonistically, to American Jews steeped in Halacha. At least with Halachic Jews, there is something to punch against and make poetry from.

15 comments:

Raghav said...

Really excellent post. Really briefly, I wonder whether Beinart's article is, as you assume, entirely a call to ground the diaspora Jewish community in a liberal Zionism; both in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg and especially his interview with Shmuel Rosner, he seems to ground it in the simple democratic liberalism that's common to the American Jewish community (even if it doesn't provide a foundation for it): "I believe [American Jews] have a right to criticize the Israeli government for the same reason they have a right to criticize any other government in the world. People are entitled to advocate for what they believe in outside their own borders as well as in. If American Jews hadn't believed that, Bosnia might not exist today, and Natan Sharansky might still be in jail."

Howard Adelman said...

Just to add to the confusion, cross referencing and intermixing of heritages, I recently cam across a critical Zionist perspective from the secular revival of Yiddish culture with many in that movement being Jewish culturalists critical of the Israelli state and the Hebrew culturalists for repressing the cultural heritage of Yiddish diaspora. So when you write, "The cultural Zionists, however, are almost all on the democratic left, for they think of 'Israeliness' as a work-in-progress, requiring critical thinking and democratic spaces, distinct from, even transcendent of, traditional Halachic life....They suppose the Hebrew culture resilient enough to provide a home for all strains of Jewish religious imagination, strong enough to compete in the world, and eclectic enough to assimilate others," does it have room to accommodate cultural anti-Zioists rooted in preerving and reviving secular Yiddishists? Secondly, I'd be interested o hear of views and scholareship on another thesis; that the various conflicts among different positions are reenactments in new forms, and often inherited by the children of a new generation, of older intra-Jewish conflicts fought out among cultural and political (revisionist, liberal and labour) Zionists versus Bundists, communists, etc. Does anyone know of any research on the historical passage and processes of transmission of these various strains?

Howard Adelman

Conservative apikoris said...

Your argument seems to be that without cultural Zionism, secular American Jews have no legitimate way to express their Jewish identity. However, you present no evidence as to why this might be the case, except some vague arm-waving about "assimilation."

But what, exactly, have the cultural Zionists been able to build in Israel that has been so essential to preserving the identity of the Jewish people? I mean essential to the point that American (or other Diaspora) Jews require its presence to sustain their own communities? Secular Hebrew literature? What's particularly Jewish about it? Sure, it has lots of Jewish content, but so does a lot of English literature written by Diapsora Jews. The fact that the civil holidays in Israel are also the traditional Jewish holidays? But secular Israelis might go to the beach on Shavu'os, whereas Americans do the same on Memorial Day. So what's the advantage? In fact, American Jews have more of an advantage because they can both attend synagogue on Shavu'os and go to the beach on Memorial Day. What has cultural Zionism really accomplished? Merely providing a translation of western civilization into modern Hebrew, a bastardization of the lashon kodesh, is not exactly a great contribution to the preservation of Jewish identity. That's the route to confining the Jewish people into a ghetto, and the modern history of the Jews is all about fleeing the ghetto as fast as possible.

In my opinion, Jewish identity hinges almost totally on religion. If you can't incorporate Torah into your vision of the meaning of "Jewish," you might as well just assimilate and save your descendants the hassle of dealing with their problematic heritage. This doesn't mean that the only thing to do is become Orthodox. Non-Orthodox Judaism has developed a wide range of approaches that allow even the most secular person ways to encounter the Torah. Unfortunately for the cultural Zionists, most of this activity is happening in the Diaspora, mainly because of the Orthodox monopoly of religion in the State of Israel, but also because of the attitude of the mass of secular Israelis, who see non-Orthodox Judaism as being fundamentally unauthentic. They believe that merely by living in their ghetto state they achieve the transcendent benefits of their Jewish identity, even if they eat pork and prance around in bikinis on the beach on Shavu'os.

What this all means is that it's not clear that cultural Zionism is the superior vehicle for preserving Jewish identity. American Jews will need to develop their Jewish way of life without having to defer to their brethren in the Holy Land.

Y. Ben-David said...

C-Apikorus:

I largely agree with your description of the failure of "cultural Zionism" to develop a true indigenous culture in Israel (Dalia Rabikovich, among other secularists, pointed this out years ago), but I disagree with your argument that non-Orthodox religious trends have not caught on in Israel because of the supposed "Orthodox monopoly" in Israel. I myself live a few meters away from the one and only non-Orthodox (Conservative) synagogue in my town which is a suburb of Tel Aviv (it has about 140 Orthodox synagogues). I note that it has a few dozen members and it has not grown much in the 20+ years I have lived in this town. No one is preventing the non-Orthodox from building synagogues and other institutions in Israel. They even get at least some financial aid from the state. In spite of this the number of Reform and Conservative congregations has not increased much in the last 30 years. While you are correct that secular Israelis don't seem to show much interest in non-Orthodox Judaism, for whatever reasons, there is no reason that hundreds of thousands of R and C Jews can't make aliyah, as indeed thousands of O Jews have. The Conservative movement, in particular, has always been pro-Zionist and this should provide an impetus to make aliyah. The official declaration of principles of the Conservative movement states that the ultimate destination of the Jewish people is Eretz Israel and I believe it is time to put to move that principle from theory into fact. The economic liberalization of Israel now makes it possible for Americans to come to Israel and live a lifestyle not unlike what they are used in the US so the excuses for not making aliyah are evaporating.

Potter said...

Also regarding Beinart's part two "Why Israel has to do Better"- I am hardly finished with the responses and the links here but -before reading this criticism above I felt Beinart's to be an excellent articulation of what is happening here, nothing we don't know, no brilliant insight, but well put, well organized and something to be thankful for if only for the discussion- but it's more than that. His breakthrough is what matters also.

I am trying to understand Dr. Avishai's criticism - and so also reading the comments ( responses) on the TPM post some of which which are very good.

We are, it appears, moving away from the day when at least the non-orthodox Jewish community here in the USA is so concerned about Israel, away from the day that a case can be made that we ought to be, that Israel is an extension of ourselves, part of our identities. Israel is losing support here, the Israel on this path especially.

Another thought related- that political Zionism is not the only response to Jewish history, not the only response to the horror of the Holocaust.

Y. Ben-David said...

Potter-
What would the other responses to the Holocaust (other than political Zionism) be? Please don't tell me "socialism" or "political liberalism" or "progressivism" because much of the political Left in France collaborated with the Nazi occupation (up until the invasion of the Soviet Union) with the Communists founding something called "National Bolshevism" to ally itself with the Nazis, a socialist was in charge of rounding up Jews in Paris to be sent to the death camps. Also "progressive" states like Holland and Norway cooperated in rounding up the Jews far more efficiently that "reactionary" states like Italy and Bulgaria which resisted doing this.

Bernard Avishai said...

I appreciate the comment thread, and cannot answer in full.

Yes, many American Jews are turning away from "Israel" as a passionate focus of identity. But without Hebrew language, what will replace it other than "values," which are mostly indistinguishable from secular American values, and valorized for that reason, or religious imagination in the William James sense (the best sense, in my view), but which is personal, existential. I was a part of the Harvard Hillel Worship and Study Minyan for twenty-five years, and found it lovely; but almost all of us actually did have Hebrew, so the aesthetics of Judaism worked for us; and very few of us have managed to engage our children to continue in the congregation after the Bar- or Bat-Mitzva. This is pretty much what Achad Haam predicted.

In contrast, the Hebrew cultural life of Israel is poignant, lively, three-dimensional. It is also very personal, but that's the point: it's personal using the Hebrew materials that are excavated from classical Jewish texts, aesthetics, law, and so forth. When I am here, I feel I am closer to being a player in the orchestra, not a member of the audience. Which is not to say the audience cannot have a deep sense of engagement; indeed, my own Hebrew is not great enough for me to to be able write what I read and sing. More in the months to come.

Potter said...

There is so much to quote from the TPM thread that is better written by others than I am able to write even about my own feelings. Let me say though, that there are those in Israel and here, those running the show now, those in support of it, with whom I don't want to identify. Language, the land, does not trump values for me, does not trump what is in excavated texts and evoked by stones which have also moved me greatly. I don’t like the tune that the orchestra is playing, has been playing in the name of “the Jewish people”, an incredibly varied group. The musicians some of whom who also may not like it, keep playing it, supporting it, enough to make that sound.

I relate to what Peter Schwartz commenter from your article on TPM says:

What this means to me is that ethical precepts and an ethical fervor are built in to the culture of the Jewish people. Even if you are completely assimilated in every other way, you aren't truly Jewish unless you're trying to "do the right thing."

IOW, there needs to be at least a little halacha in every authentically Jewish life.
And somehow, this message has been handed through the culture even when "the religion" has been stripped out. This is why there are an inordinate number of Jews on the left, in the helping professions. And in fact, I'd argue, it was the dimly recognized (by him) animating principle behind Beinart's article. Jim's [Jim Sleeper] complaint, I think, and Bernie's too in a way, is that this animating principle has too often been absent from Beinart's writing and thinking.


(what has been absent in Beinart's past writing is not what we are talking about)

Schwartz continued:

Think of it this way:
If I'm not for myself, who will be? 
If I'm only for myself, what am I? 
And if not now, when?
So the first line speaks to the need for political Zionism. The second line speaks to the errors of political Zionism. And the third line speaks to the urgent, no-excuses need to bring these two into balance--and redress the harm done to others, but without simply losing oneself and one's culture and blending, undifferentiated, into the mass of humanity (which isn't really undifferentiated, but is a majority whose members share key precepts and an outlook in the same way that standard American English IS accented, but is often said to be accent-less).

Conservative apikoris said...

"I myself live a few meters away from the one and only non-Orthodox (Conservative) synagogue in my town which is a suburb of Tel Aviv (it has about 140 Orthodox synagogues)."

Of course, the Orthodox Synagogues are supported by the government, and secular Israelis have this bizarre notion that Orthodox Judaism is the only true religion that they hate.

"No one is preventing the non-Orthodox from building synagogues and other institutions in Israel. They even get at least some financial aid from the state."

Yeah, but not as much as the Orthodox get. Plus, non-Orthodox rabbis are not able to officiate at weddings or divorces, and their conversions aren't recognized by the state.

"there is no reason that hundreds of thousands of R and C Jews can't make aliyah, as indeed thousands of O Jews have. The Conservative movement, in particular, has always been pro-Zionist and this should provide an impetus to make aliyah. The official declaration of principles of the Conservative movement states that the ultimate destination of the Jewish people is Eretz Israel"

Why would non-Orthodox Jews want to come to a place that's a culturally alien to them as the current state of Israel? As for the declaration by a religious institution, it's just a bunch of words, the rank-and-file membership don't believe it, any more than they accept that halacha is binding.

"The economic liberalization of Israel now makes it possible for Americans to come to Israel and live a lifestyle not unlike what they are used in the US so the excuses for not making aliyah are evaporating."

You ignorant and arrogant Israeli. You think that Americans don't make aliyah becuase they think their standard of living will go down? You are so stuck in the 1950's. American Jews don't make aliya becuase they think that Israelis are rude, arrogant, noisy, pushy, etc. And even some Israelis agree. Years ago I read apiece in the Jerusalem Post that described yordim who moved to New York for the relaxed, laid-back, slow-paced lifestyle.

And let's not forget Israel's dysfunctional political system. The US has a terrible system, but Israel's is even worse. Even if "hundreds of thousands" of non-Orthodox American Jews were to make aliyah, I don't think they'd be able to change anything. The Israeli public has been fear-mongered to accept a fascist, racist view of the outside world, and Israel has pretty much on its way to becoming a ghetto state not to dissimilar from the land of Czarist oppression from which the ancestors of most American Jews fled.

Basically, I don't want to live in Israel becuase I don't want to live in a country that mistreats people becuase of their religion, I don't want my daughter to have to prove to some chareidi "rabbi" that she's Jewish in order to get married, I don't want to son to be drafted to serve in an immoral army of occupation, and when I die, I don't want some chareidi cehvra kadisha telling my grieving next of kin how they are supposed to conduct my funeral. I really don't care whether or not it's now possible to live in Israel and own a detached home and two cars.

Conservative apikoris said...

"In contrast, the Hebrew cultural life of Israel is poignant, lively, three-dimensional. It is also very personal, but that's the point: it's personal using the Hebrew materials that are excavated from classical Jewish texts, aesthetics, law, and so forth."

And, in the end, it may be no more (or less) Jewish than that of the American Jews who have adapted the same stuff. I don't know why talking about secular stuff in Hebrew all of a sudden makes it "Jewish." American Jews have trouble passing Jewish stuff on to their kids, becuase their kids (like all kids) resent having stuff, especially stuff that's inconvenient, pushed on them by adults. And kids are natural bullshit detectors, they know when someone is trying to indoctrinate them, and naturally resist it. Besides, what makes you think that secular Israelis are necessarily such great experts in Jewish culture, just becuase they speak modern Hebrew? I know plenty of secular Israelis, and they're as ignorant about Judaism as any American Hebrew-school dropout.

"When I am here, I feel I am closer to being a player in the orchestra, not a member of the audience."

I never had that feeling when I lived in Israel. And back here in the States, I feel just as much of a player as anyone. Mastering basic Jewish rituals, and even enough Hebrew to follow the prayers and even lead services isn't rocket science. Even the Talmud isn't rocket science, it's just poorly written and incomprehensible without a teacher. As for the fact that most of my Jewish intellectualizing is done in English, so what? Jews stopped using Hebrew as a spoken language thousands of years ago. The Jews survived and thrived quite well on Aramaic, Yiddish, and Ladino, so why not English? I'm sure the zhargon cooked up by Ben Yehudah would not be fully comprehensible to a resident of David's kingdom, so why is it all of a sudden the touchstone for Jewish authenticity?

I don't doubt that Israelis do a lot of neat Jewish stuff, and, of course, there's a sentimental point to doing some of it in the place where our people developed its identity, but The Jews do all kinds of neat Jewish stuff all over the world.

Bernard Avishai said...

CA, this deserves a longer answer. I share many of your perceptions, but I seem unable to explain what divides us, so I will try to in the future. In the meantime, thanks.

Potter said...

Conservative Apikoris- well put. Thank you.

I look forward to this discussion.

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