Reinvigorating Liberal Zionism, a Response to Peter Beinart
by Daniel E. Levenson
The New Vilna Review / May 22, 2010
In a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, entitled "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," journalist Peter Beinart writes about how Liberal Zionsim is waning in America and explores the various ways that American Zionist and Jewish organizations have contributed to its decline. In this same piece he also looks at the deepening divide in Israeli society between the left and right, and highlights some of the more disgusting things that right-wing Israeli politicians have said in the past about the Palestinian people.
One of the claims that Mr. Beinart makes throughout his piece is that there is a generational disconnect between a previous generation of Jews who can recall the events of 1948 and 1967 in vivid detail, and the present generation which cannot. He makes the argument that the latter has internalized the liberal ideas of previous generations of American Jews, but rejected their Zionist principles and any sense of a need to protect Israel in both real and ideological terms. I have encountered many such people myself, and I agree that there is a large degree of polarization within the American Jewish community between the left and the right, as well as between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, but I think there are people out there in their twenties and thirties who would consider themselves to be liberal Zionists in the old sense of the term, as he describes it, and I would count myself among their numbers.
Such individuals believe in human rights, a two-state solution, and that Israel sometimes does things that cause death and suffering and with which we do not agree. We also believe, however, that Israel has a right to defend its citizens against all enemies, whether the combined force of 5 Arab nations in 1948 or terrorist rockets from Gaza in 2010. We did not need to be alive in 1938 or 1948 or 1967 to be convinced of these things. We have come to these conclusions based on our reading of history and our own personal experiences as intelligent, thinking people capable of reasonable discourse and inquiry.
The present-day generation of young adult liberal Zionists has witnessed the intifada in the media and first-hand in Israel, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the increase in determined and vicious ultra-left wing rhetoric that questions the right of Israel to exist and the hateful incitement of the ultra right wing in both Israel and the United States that seeks to further its own agenda by dehumanizing Arabs. There will always be people who are firmly at one end or the other of the political spectrum, and there will always be those who get swept up in political rhetoric without a deeper understanding of the issues, and I agree that there are serious divisions within American Jewry today when it comes to how we think and talk about Israel, but to say that true liberal Zionism is on its death bed in America is inaccurate.
Mr. Beinart is clearly concerned with the question of how to strengthen liberal Zionism in the US and he writes that "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." I disagree that liberal Zionism is as near to death as the tone of his piece implies, but I do think it could use a shot in the arm in the United States. So how then will this new generation of liberal Zionists continue to grow and prosper?
One answer is education. Most American Jews probably do not have a very good grasp of even the basic details of Zionist history, of the ways that events in the days after World War II in both Europe and the Middle East deeply impacted the birth of the State of Israel, and the challenges it would face from the moment it was founded. American Jews who would be liberal Zionists need to understand something about the shifting balance of world power in the first half of the twentieth century, the tragically intractable position on partition championed by the Saudi royal family in the 1940's, and the betrayals of the late Yasser Arafat, who perhaps managed to do more damage to both Israel and the dream of a Palestinian state than anyone else in the history of the Middle East. They also need to learn about the history of the settlement movement, of the relationship between the ultra orthodox and the founding government of Israel, and how some aspects of religious Zionism and some democratic principles seem to be at odds today. They need to hear about the crimes that Jewish settlers have committed against innocent Palestinians with assaults on individuals and property, and about what it's like to live in constant fear of suicide bombers and rocket attacks.
The problem, of course, is that most people don't want to spend the time to really learn about these issues, and I think that this is what is at the heart of the dysfunctional state of American Zionism at the moment. To be a true liberal Zionist, in the spirit that Mr. Beinart describes, is to be an educated Zionist, in my opinion. It is not a neat or easy solution, and we may make some mistakes along the way, but it is the only solution which will produce a new generation of liberal Zionists – men and women committed to liberal values, but keenly aware of the complex nature of the challenges that Israel has faced since 1948 and continues to grapple with today.
-Daniel E. Levenson
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
The New Vilna Review
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