A Tale of Two Zionisms: On Peter Beinart
The “Zionist” debate that Zengerle grafts onto reactions to Beinart’s alleged trespasses is creepily indifferent to such nuances. It resembles the debate European intellectuals had about America—or “Amerika”—during the Vietnam War. That debate was about the American way as imperial bully—you know, owing to Jackson’s ideology over Jefferson’s—but because it happened among people who had never heard of Oberlin College or Johnny Carson, it was a debate about whether America was justified in moral terms but that overlooked the beauty, the capacity for self-criticism and love.
If we are going to speak of Israel purely in terms of its democratic deficiencies, then it’s essential to grasp how Labor Zionism went to seed. Tragically, the same institutions the pioneers invented to incubate a modern Hebrew nation eventually got in the way of Israelis making a modern liberal state. This tragedy became full-blown after 1967, in the grotesquery of the settlement movement: Begin, the Revisionists—and now Netanyahu—consciously paved the road Labor Zionism had half-consciously cut. New Israelis in the 1950s and ’60s were so devoted to Labor Zionism’s insular Hebrew, nation-building, historic demographic obsessions (“When will we become a Jewish majority?”), the cult of collective settlement, and traditional life as foil for the artistic overturnings of traditional life, that it was nearly impossible for them to look outward at Palestinian Arab claims, even the enormous pains of the Nakba and the elementary “right of return” of those Arabs forced to flee from 1948 battles.
These preoccupations persist and fuel fears that are not always unjustified. The peace process, true enough, is currently preempted by Netanyahu’s pathetic, “monist” ideology. But it is also stuck because the cultural distinction Israelis take for granted is not something a great many Palestinians and their hallelujah chorus take for granted. Real Zionists needed the discipline of concert pianists to revive the Hebrew language. They hear Palestinians speak of return or a “one-state solution” and imagine they are being offered a world in which piano music would be expunged. To be clear: none of this justifies the status quo or vindicates Beinart’s critics. If Israelis can avoid Netanyahu’s starting a regional war with Iran, don’t bet on their avoiding a kind of Bosnia, as the settler-driven occupation grinds on and both sides descend further into hatred and racism. We need Beinart’s misgivings and sense of urgency.
And yet the same cultural Zionist legacy Americans tend to ignore—the very one that has obstructed the completion of democratic institutions—is crucial for building a future with Palestine. Indeed, the grandeur of Hebrew culture gives veteran Israelis of all pedigrees a certain poise in coming to creative political compromises Americans might not even see. For the “Zionists” at AIPAC, militant return is right; Judaism, divine; anti-Semitism, inevitable; Jerusalem, “ours.” In contrast, Israelis eager for a settlement, and relying on the resilience of Hebrew culture, can be more pragmatic about political arrangements. Olmert, a Hebrew child of Binyamina, founded in 1922 during the Third Aliyah, could imagine a shared capital: he offered Abbas, and Abbas accepted, two sovereignties with one administrative municipality—in effect, confederal institutions—but he never considered that he was thus betraying historic Zionism. On the contrary, he assumed he was building on the cultural resilience of Jerusalem’s, and Israel’s, Hebrew-speaking population, which was Zionism’s real accomplishment. The land was supposed to liberate a people, after all. It was not the other way around.
This approach will have to evolve much further in order to redeem the “two-state solution,” if it is not too late to avoid a war of ethnic cleansing; talk of “separation” has come to seem stale to both sides, what with Palestinians determined to press their right of return, and Israelis in shock at the thought of removing hundreds of thousands of settlers. And what of Israeli Arabs, who count for 20 percent of Israel proper? Anyway, it is hard to think how two city-states, Israel and Palestine, could share everything from water to bandwidth, tourists to tax collection—or residents who are citizens of the other’s country—without expanding the confederation Olmert and Abbas gestured toward. The American debate around Beinart’s book seems too noble for these complexities.
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Which brings us back, finally, to American Jews. Beinart and others, to their credit, wish to see a progressive revival in Jewish organizational life. They are no doubt shrewd to see how Modern Orthodox, AIPAC and the like, repel liberal youth. But if we take cultural Zionism seriously, could we imagine a progressive leadership, even one led by Beinart, turning them on—or would Jewish youth have long since tuned out? An uptick in Jewish day school attendance, if this were likely, or the expansion of Havurot—informal, hip prayer groups—which Beinart advocates, might stave off the process of assimilation a little, and even produce some J Street recruits. But, realistically, is it not inevitable that most American Jews who now “care about” Israel are precisely those who, whatever their other failings, are capable of entering a cultural dialogue with Israelis; and have these Jews not been mostly shaped by Modern Orthodox or some other rigorously Halachic community? In this context, the most trenchant American writers who make Jewish lives their subject—from Saul Bellow to Philip Roth to Michael Chabon—do not so much stave off the debasement of secular Jewish life in America as portend it.
Make no mistake: the cloistered Judaism of Teaneck and the oxygenated pop culture of Herzliya are not of a piece. And Israeli liberals and peaceniks are happy to accept moral support from progressives everywhere, including from The Daily Show. If Likud’s “peoplehood” demagogy and religious sentimentality give comfort to American Jews like Adelman, they made Israeli liberals like the late Yehuda Amichai more than a little queasy. Nevertheless, even Israelis on the democratic left, living their hybrid of enlightenment and tradition, will feel more natural (if not more comfortable) with orthodox Jews than, say, the assimilated Jewish readers of this magazine. The Haskalah always needed the Halacha, at least in the way that people who think outside the box need a box. Amichai’s arguably most quoted poem goes like this: “God full of mercy—were he not so full of mercy, then there would be mercy in the world and not just in him.” How will you appreciate the brilliance of the irony if you do not immediately notice him riffing on the traditional prayer said at Jewish funerals, El Male Rachamim?
Western liberal life, in other words, is pretty much what cultural Zionists predicted for Jews moving west. Zionists recoiled from this, not because there was anything particularly wrong with it, but because there wasn’t anything particularly Jewish about it. America’s Modern Orthodox may be suckers for the settlers and Greater Israel, but some of their more restless children will graduate from the stroller and embrace the liberal ideals Beinart advances—will be, paradoxically, America’s most likely candidates to “get” the Hebrew enlightenment unfolding in the streets of Israel’s cities. They, not constituents of the American Jewish liberal majority, will have a shot at connecting with an Israeli’s sense of history, communitarian hopes and popular culture. But we are talking about a very small number.
Beinart, no doubt, knows the American Jewish establishment far better than I do. But I wonder if he’s considered whether there can be an organized Jewish community other than the “monist” Zionist one American Jews have; whether the capacity for Jewish pluralism is what Zionism aimed to enable by creating a Hebrew republic—precisely because they knew it couldn’t be realized anywhere else. The real question Ahad Ha’am began asking as soon as he confronted Herzl in person in 1897—and then slammed Old New Land, where spoken Hebrew isn’t even entertained—is whether “political” Zionism is really a brake on assimilation or a symptom of it. “As he contemplates this fascinating vision,” Ahad Ha’am writes of Herzl in 1897, but might have been writing of AIPAC today, “the mere idea of [a Jewish state] gives him almost complete relief…. Its pursuit alone is sufficient to cure him of his moral sickness, which is the consciousness of inferiority; and the higher and more distant the ideal, the greater its power of exaltation.”
Nation blogger Dana Goldstein presents a brief ”In Defense of Peter Beinart.”