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A Tale of Two Zionisms: On Peter Beinart | The Nation

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A Tale of Two Zionisms: On Peter Beinart

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AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents and kindred organizations are a problem in another respect. They are disproportionately influenced by outsize, reactionary plutocrats, who are also connected to the Israeli right: people like cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, the current World Jewish Congress president, and Sheldon Adelson, the petulant casino magnate, ubiquitous in Republican donor circles, who is now almost single-handedly funding Birthright, a program offering American Jewish teens a free ten-day junket to Israel. Given the nonstop tours, apologias and—according to reliable sources—sexual dalliances they are exposed to there, Birthright inarguably “deepens” feelings of connection to the country among American Jewish youth; pollsters even speak of a “Birthright bump.”

The Crisis of Zionism
By Peter Beinart.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai lives in Jerusalem and New Hampshire. He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an...

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American big shots meddle in Israeli politics, too; the Likud increasingly seems just another faction of the Republican Party. Adelson, for one, is spending tens of millions of dollars on Netanyahu’s political career. In 2007, he launched Israel Hayom (Israel Today), a giveaway tabloid devoted to Likud government policies that now boasts the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country. From the beginning, Israel Hayom viciously attacked then–Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his peace initiatives. Olmert, of course, is no saint. Still, he told me vehemently that he holds Adelson responsible for funding the endless snooping by reporters and private investigators into his affairs—and making the results public. In 2009, he was indicted and forced from office for alleged improprieties that Israel’s attorney general could not ignore—as it happens, just days after Olmert told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of his intention to make far-reaching concessions to Mahmoud Abbas in the negotiations over a Palestinian state. This past July, Olmert was finally cleared of the serious charges, though another bribery trial awaits him.

“AIPAC’s most powerful board members,” a former staffer told Beinart, “spent the Rabin years ‘waiting for Bibi to ascend.’ And when Netanyahu did win the prime ministership [for the first time] in 1996, he and his allies in the American Jewish establishment switched from undermining Rabin’s peace efforts to undermining Clinton’s.” For these American Jewish leaders, Beinart implies but doesn’t quite say, it has been comfortable to think about Jerusalem as a kind of Epcot Center for orthodox synagogue Judaism, and Israel as a world Jewish convention to which they are superdelegates. They may defend the country as the Middle East’s “only democracy,” but what really moves them is the idea that the Jewish state is “a refuge” that they can protect and, in a way, venerate. They are happy to help shape an Israel in their own image—a Shabbes-keeping encampment the goyim can’t push around—and Netanyahu, for his own reasons, is happy to con them into believing he can provide it.

Here, however, is an inadvertent trap, which is arguably Beinart’s most contested point. Again, the vast majority of young American Jews, like him, care most intuitively about democratic freedoms, which they enjoy and exercise in joining the American mainstream. They don’t think of themselves as needing refuge; what they do think about is political power, which AIPAC on “the Hill,” much like Israel in its “neighborhood,” often seems to be exerting for questionable ends. Beinart, for instance, has written a fine chapter on the way AIPAC and Netanyahu “humbled” Obama after the president began to seem vulnerable at the end of 2009, once he had spent the bulk of his political capital on healthcare and began to worry about Jewish support within the Democratic Party. By the end of 2010, there was no more talk of a settlement freeze.

The forces behind AIPAC—including tens of thousands of older, educated professionals trying to keep faith with their parents, or struggling with the legacy of the Holocaust—end up doing the bidding of rightist Israeli leaders, with whom they vaguely, reflexively, identify. Yet Modern Orthodox notwithstanding, they are losing their children in the process. Most young Jews identify less with Senator Joe Lieberman than with Jon Stewart’s mockery of him. Jewish organizations are turning them off: not only can they “not imagine needing to flee to a Jewish state themselves, but with the Soviet and Ethiopian exoduses now complete, they see no significant community of Diaspora Jews that does,” Beinart writes. “As a result, they are more likely to genuinely believe that what justifies Zionism is Israel’s democratic character.”

For young American Jews, more than for their elders, it is the policies of the Israeli government that actively—and, for most, retrospectively—determine the legitimacy of the historical Zionist project. As Beinart summarizes it: “Zionism is what Israel does.” And he fears that, in fetishizing Israel’s (and, hence, the Jewish people’s) “survival,” Jewish organizations are ironically abandoning the universal ethical norms that, alone, would make Judaism attractive to new generations. Despite the Birthright bump, more than 40 percent of young American Jews claim a “low attachment” to Israel.

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This emerging test for historic Zionism—is it a national project furthering liberal and universal norms?—closely tracks the original historical rivalries, Beinart writes, for Zionism has always been more than one movement. Historically, Jewish religious communities have been bound together by shared Halachic practice. Presumably, Zionism began with a foundational insight: that Jew-hatred in the West transformed these myriad communities into a “nation,” mainly because Christian bigotry, wedded to the class conflicts endemic in early capitalism, produced anti-Semitism. And it could not be countered without a politically independent safe haven, a state of one’s own to which the Jewish people might repair when efforts at assimilation inevitably failed.

The problem, as Beinart sees it, was that the character of that state was never really settled, not even prospectively. The earliest Zionist activists assumed that the ethical qualities of traditional Judaism, coupled with the experience of being a persecuted minority, would naturally make any Jewish state liberal. Zionism’s founder, the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, did indeed assume a state that would be utterly cosmopolitan. In Herzl’s utopian novel Old New Land (1902), the state is called the “New Society,” and its citizens speak multiple European languages. Herzl assumed that synagogues, mosques and churches would “stand side by side” (so says its hero, in a passage Beinart might well have quoted) “and…our prayers, when they rise, mingle somewhere up above, and then continue on their way together until they appear before Our Father.”

Opposed to this pluralist Zionism, however, was what Beinart calls a “monist” version. This was the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky, to whom Netanyahu’s father was secretary for a while, and whose various predispositions have come down to the son in an undiluted form. For Jabotinsky, as Beinart characterizes him, the most compelling fact of Jewish life was the implacability of its enemies, against whom Zionism would have to erect an “iron wall.” Jabotinsky admired militarist movements, mocked cosmopolitan ideas as “childish humanism” and called for a Jewish majority on both sides of the River Jordan. Arab nationalism was—as compared with the Jewish Risorgimento that Jabotinsky envisioned—“savage.”

As Beinart tells it, Herzl’s liberal Zionism found its embodiment in Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, to which Beinart adverts again and again. The new state, this document promises, will

promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.

Such a comfortably liberal Zionism was taken for granted in the American Jewish diaspora at first. The keynote was struck by rabbinic Zionist leaders like Stephen Wise in the 1940s and famed civil rights leader Abraham Joshua Heschel in the 1950s and ’60s. The Weavers’ first hit song, remember, was a Zionist folk song celebrating Jewish men-at-arms, “Tzena, Tzena.” Beinart notes that an acolyte of Heschel’s, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, presided over a synagogue next-door to the Obamas at the University of Chicago. Obama was befriended and inspired by Jews like Wolf, the local embodiment of progressive Jewish ideals, including a Zionist revolution replete with kibbutzim. Obama came into office surrounded by liberal Jewish advisers and contributors—so much so that Beinart (in his most original chapter) writes of him as our first “Jewish president,” much as Bill Clinton was our first black one.

Alas, Israel didn’t work out as planned. The Declaration of Independence was never implemented in law. In 1949, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, wanted to avoid sharing power with parties to his left and so made common cause with the orthodox parties, which at the time were small and controllable. A liberal constitution had been drafted; Ben-Gurion passed on the chance to promulgate it. Moreover, whereas the Zionism of Ben-Gurion evolved the Haganah, a nationwide defense organization, Revisionism had gone underground, founded the Irgun and turned to terror. It produced fanatic ideologues like Menachem Begin and assassins like Yitzhak Shamir, who dogged Ben-Gurion and whipped up hatred for his labor aristocracy. In recent years, especially after Begin’s election in 1977, monist Zionism inspired the settler movement and helped establish the Likud as Israel’s most influential party, appealing particularly to North African and Russian Jewish immigrants with, at best, a very cool ardor for liberal democracy. By 1991, Shamir had settled more than 100,000 of them in the West Bank and stonewalled peace, and AIPAC became his hallelujah chorus.

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