It is hard, even for many Israelis, to witness the unfolding occupation, or watch the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throw its weight around, or hear the ways Netanyahu justifies the Jewish state, and not wonder what Zionism really was—and whether, if he’s the face of it, the world might have been better off without it. It is also hard for many Americans to watch Netanyahu try to force President Obama’s hand on Iran by threatening unilateral action that would destabilize America’s global position—with a brazenness much like Bibi’s pal Eric Cantor when he tried to force Obama’s hand on the debt ceiling—and not wonder if Israel’s present government and its lobby are as extortive of America’s politicians as the banks, another instance of the tail gracelessly wagging the dog.
In such a climate, the apparent conversion of Peter Beinart—formerly the editor of Martin Peretz’s echt-Zionist New Republic, now an opponent of the espoused Zionism of American Jewish organizations—was bound to make the publication of his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, a polarizing event. Ever since it appeared in March, a great many American Jewish leaders and public intellectuals have taken sides. “One positive thing you can say about Peter Beinart’s critics,” J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward, “is that none of them has smacked him in the face with a rifle butt.” Even Daniel Gordis, who accused Beinart in the Jerusalem Post of indulging in an “Israel-bashing-fest,” admitted that the discussion “is no longer a conversation about what Beinart wrote.”
Beinart’s shifts in reputation have become so much of the drama surrounding his book, in fact, that many have overlooked what a sharp and ambitious polemic he’s written. Over its several hundred pages, The Crisis of Zionism refutes the following claims: that keeping faith with the victims of anti-Semitism means viewing Jewish political power through the lens of the Holocaust; that Israel’s legal substructure guarantees the state’s democratic character; that holding the West Bank improves Israel’s security; that observers of Jewish festivals necessarily derive humanist ideals from them; that Israel’s occupation cannot become something akin to apartheid; that Israelis have, despite the ongoing conflict, managed to avoid becoming racist; that Palestine’s Fatah leaders are mostly responsible for the breakdown of the Oslo Accords; that Hamas is more committed to Israel’s destruction than to the establishment of a Palestinian state; that settlements have not been the main obstacle to peace; that Netanyahu embodies the mainstream of historic Zionism; that Netanyahu and other leaders of the Likud have held back Palestinian rights more out of pragmatism than strident ideology; that President Obama is skeptical of Israel and unsympathetic to American Jews; that Obama was wrong to press for a freeze on settlements early in his administration; and that Israel’s Islamic neighbors, such as Turkey and Egypt, would be hostile to Israel irrespective of what Israel does with the Palestinians.
The Crisis of Zionism aims even more powerful demurrals at American Jewish groups like the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), all largely responsible for making the roster of claims cited above a catechism for congressional briefings. Though Beinart has much to say about the way Israeli governments have conducted themselves over the years, his true targets are the leaders of these American Jewish organizations. He fiercely rejects their allegations that Jews who publicly criticize Israel’s structure and direction, or the current Israeli government, “delegitimize” the state. He is a respectful, indeed a more or less “observant” Jew. He is content to mine Halacha—Jewish law, disciplined study, liturgy, ritual, music—for its contribution to universalist and open-spirited precepts. But he takes pains to distance himself from communities of the “Modern Orthodox” upon whom these organizations increasingly depend. All in all, Beinart’s expansive arguments have a circumscribed goal: to discredit the political forces that impede a two-state solution.
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Beinart’s underlying passion is American liberalism, and so the ideology of the Modern Orthodox constitutes his fattest target. The idea that scriptural wisdom and the strict observance of commandments make a Jew “good” drives him nuts, sort of the way it drove freethinking Jews to shrimp, or indeed to Zionism, in the nineteenth century. But one wisdom received these days has political significance, and it is a measure of how much the meaning of “Zionist” has changed since then. Beinart concedes the creativity of many Jews drawn to Halacha, especially in innovating prayer or expounding critically on the Torah. But the Modern Orthodox are, along with their version of Zionism, self-segregating and a little too attracted to Jewish pathos, which the great historian Salo Baron called the “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history. They are thus temperamentally and ideologically connected to the settlement movement, even willing to join forces with American evangelicals to protect the status quo of occupation. Above all, they have a cavalier regard for liberal civil society in Israel, the very kind of society that has allowed Jews to thrive in America.
Only about 11 percent of American Jews attend synagogue every week and may be inferred to gravitate to Orthodoxy, “modern” or otherwise, but their numbers are growing, as is their alienation from the more amorphous and liberal Jewish majority. Their self-enclosed and rigidly “pro-Israel” (that is, pro-Likud) attitudes are a kind of “demographic problem” in America. “Not long ago, the phrase ‘Orthodox Jew’ conjured an elderly man with a Yiddish accent. Today it conjures a young family pushing a stroller,” Beinart writes. Meanwhile, the major Jewish organizations in question (“Has anyone ever heard of a minor one?” Abba Eban once quipped) have been failing to reflect the values of mainstream American Jews—who, for example, still poll at least two to one in favor of Obama, and even favor a more activist peace process in which the United States might apply pressure on both sides to come to terms.
* * *
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.”
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
Beinart’s claims are not unfamiliar. He edges up to being audacious only insofar as, caring as he does about American Jewish organizational life, he is willing to challenge its leadership from within. In practical terms, The Crisis of Zionism calls for nothing more than boycotting settlement products and refocusing on Jewish day schools, presumably to inculcate a more positive religious-cultural experience. Nor is he writing some new history of Zionism. Rather, he’s explaining contemporary political rifts—between Netanyahu and the peace camp, AIPAC and J Street, and so forth—according to what he understands to be old Zionist ideological antagonisms.
Beinart’s most original writing, really, is this tale of two Zionisms: one good, the other not so much; one saying, “Never again,” the other, “Never again to Jews”; one inspiring peace and a two-state solution, the other inspiring the settlement project and, inevitably, either ethnic cleansing or apartheid (Beinart’s parents were immigrants from South Africa). The latter Zionism fits Bibi so snugly, Beinart told Haaretz, “because Bibi wants a Zionism and a Judaism that kicks to the side any notion of the Jews having a special ethical mission, and that’s what the Christians want as well.”
And it’s precisely around this issue—the prestige of each of the two Zionisms—that the lines over The Crisis of Zionism have mostly been drawn. Such different figures as former World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who is typically indifferent to Israel, have jumped to defend Beinart’s right to speak and his bravery. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg have assailed Beinart for breaking ranks and being righteous. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens dismissed The Crisis of Zionism as “factually cavalier and emotionally contrived.” Talking about the Jews’ ethical mission at some distance from the threat is, Goldberg scoffs, just “moral superiority.” Beinart counterattacked with equal fervor: “Does [Stephens] grapple at all with the moral problems inherent in holding millions of West Bank Palestinians as non-citizens for 44 years?” Is he not ignoring the occupation’s incitement because he wants us to think, hell, it isn’t really theft if settlers are taking land from those trying to kill Jews?
I should state here that I know and admire Beinart, who edits a section on the Daily Beast, to which I contribute a column. I am also grateful for the fight he’s undertaken. Jason Zengerle, surveying in New York magazine the often ad hominem attacks Beinart has endured, implies that responsible American Jews should criticize Israel’s occupation “like a mother rather than a mother-in-law.” Israeli liberals—whom one can read daily in the pages of Haaretz—are counting on American Jews to criticize the occupation as Americans; not only Israelis, after all, have died in the sands of the Middle East in recent years. I also empathize with Beinart, in part because I ran into an earlier version of the Jewish organizational buzz saw (as well as insider journalists who, like Goldberg today, accused me of condescension from afar) when I published The Tragedy of Zionism in 1985. Peretz’s New Republic announced on its cover that I was a “Jew Against Zion.” Apart from Arnie Wolf’s, virtually every synagogue and Hillel House in the country was suddenly closed to me.
Still, for all the power and timeliness of Beinart’s polemic, and in spite of my respect for his having acquired the right adversaries, I can’t help but feel that the most remarkable achievement of historic Zionism is elided by this very American framing of Zionism’s old debates. Indeed, what’s missing is the very revolution for which many of us came to Israel in our youth. Missing also is a crucial conceptual pivot. Things are very bad in Israel right now. To ameliorate them, we’ll almost certainly have to think beyond the two-state solution in the ordinary sense and consider the various confederal arrangements that emerge whenever serious negotiations with Palestinians are conducted. And to see why even Israeli centrists entertain such arrangements, while AIPAC’s “Zionists” cannot, we’ll need to understand the Zionism that actually built the country more fully. At the same time, the negative consequences of historic Zionism for Israeli democracy were not just theoretical, and its implications for Jewish life in America were not just mobilizing. The Crisis of Zionism is finally an argument about Israel. The country’s purposes cannot be grasped only through American Jewish experiences.
* * *
Was Zionism at bottom an answer to Western anti-Semitism, and were Zionists divided mainly by attitudes toward liberal standards? Not really, though it could certainly look that way from this side of the twentieth century. Beinart is right that there never was one Zionism and that liberal ideas were in some sense defining. But the real rift, at least since the first Zionist Congress in 1897, fell not between Herzl and Jabotinsky, but between Herzl and Eastern European activists like Ahad Ha’am and his disciple Chaim Weizmann who, in their majority, hijacked the institutions of what is now called the World Zionist Organization within the decade after the grandiose Viennese journalist died in 1904. The divide, in other words, was between Zionists who thought purely in terms of rescue and those who thought in terms of Hebrew cultural revolution, between Zionists who wanted to reshape Jews and those who wanted to reshape Judaism.
The former Zionists—Herzl’s “political” Zionists—indeed tended to focus on the psychology of powerlessness and depict some future state apparatus as therapy. They counted on anti-Semitism to define Jewish national identity and thought of political action as a means of gaining imperial support; if support flagged, then Jews would arm themselves to assure “self-determination.” For political Zionists, all efforts at assimilation would lead to disaster. The key was to get out from under anti-Jewish bigotry. (In these ways, Herzl and Jabotinsky were really not much different.)
Ahad Ha’am’s “cultural” Zionists, in contrast, focused on modernizing a failing Hebrew religious vernacular—they loved the word “modern”—that they considered their patrimony. They were products of the Jewish “enlightenment,” the Haskalah, exposed to the West’s philosophical liberalism after the Napoleonic conquests, yet marinated in the thick brine of traditional life in the Eastern European Pale of settlement. They thought assimilation of Jews into Western liberal society was perfectly possible—and inexorable if mass emigration westward from the Pale continued. But that would be the disaster. Cultural Zionists saw some future national home—the state would come later—as the custodian of a unique cultural opportunity, which could be inclusive of anyone coming to the land and participating in the revolutionary national life. The key was to appropriate the legacy of Halachic life, but with the ironic distance a modern historian might assume. They saw Judaism as bedrock to be quarried, a civilization, yet they were determined to get out from under rabbinic authoritarianism.
The first task for cultural Zionists, then, was to fashion the Jewish nation. Anti-Semitism could be relied on only to create Jewish solidarity. They morphed into “Labor Zionists” when, as colonists, they realized that the old land—and their new selves—could not be developed without socialist principles. To take root in Palestine, the Hebrew language needed self-segregated, contiguous collectives; otherwise, Jewish colonists would become Arabic-speaking overseers of Arab labor. Their liberal ethics were not yet focused on the workings of a modern state apparatus, certainly not on how to create a pluralist democracy with Arabs and non-Jews. Liberal ethics were rather embedded in a general commitment to emancipation, conscience. Hebrew, once revived, would provide Jews with an awareness of a past civilization, its texts, laws and liturgy, all of which would be manna for an unconventional Jew.
From 1905 on, socialist pioneers built the institutions of an independent (hence, separate) political economy—from the Jewish National Fund to the Hebrew University—which continued to influence Israeli civil society after the state was organized. The pioneers assumed civil liberties, and that elections among Jewish colonists in their separate labor unions and political movements would be open and fair. There was a small contingent of “religious” Zionists, and a small ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem and elsewhere, but the Zionist pioneers contained them and assumed they would wither away. After 1948, however, labor institutions absorbed a population three times the size of the pioneering Yishuv: mainly Holocaust survivors and refugees from North Africa, many with religious attitudes that resembled those that the European Zionists had tried to escape (state-supported ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students—a few hundred when Ben Gurion put off a constitution to pander to the orthodox—are now approaching 100,000). Labor Zionists cherished civil and artistic freedoms, but questions of how to promote political liberty in a pluralist, inclusive state, once the separation engendered by Zionist activity ended, seemed a distant problem. It did not really surface until 1966, when the state of Israel finally ended military rule of Arab towns. After the 1967 war, the questions were buried by triumphal euphoria and new territorial conquests.
Thus, in today’s Israel, and in the American debate about Israel, the only official Zionist ideology is “political”—natural enough, since official rites of Holocaust remembrance have made assertive statehood seem to have been Zionism’s purpose all along. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: Zionism is what Israel does. Labor Zionism, for its part, was so successful that if you walk into a Tel Aviv restaurant today, you cannot imagine what it took—dictionary writers, lonely philologists, kibbutz decisions, broken marriages—to make the Hebrew menu possible; fish are the last creatures to notice water.
Israel, in other words, is curiously political Zionist in theory and cultural Zionist in practice. Politicians all bow to the force of anti-Semitism, the “state of the Jewish people,” religious heritage, the diaspora as diplomatic asset, and so forth, but pretty much ignore Zionism’s most radical achievement: couples walking down Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, not in orthodox garb, but in Birks and tank tops, bantering in a Hebrew Moses could understand and pushing their strollers. Theirs is an urbane culture subtending the poetics of Yehuda Amichai, the folk rock of Yehudit Ravitz, the Gesher Theater. Polls show that Israelis now identify with orthodox ways more than they did ten years ago, a trend that would have dismayed the old cultural Zionists. But 68 percent still want restaurants open on the Sabbath, which is probably the best test for “secularism.” Anyway, what appears to be occurring is a fusing of personal freedom with traditional practice—shrimp, then Seders—yet in a popular culture that implies just what the cultural Zionists assumed: that Jews will survive modernity for the sake of being Jewish, but will not be Jewish for the sake of “survival.”
* * *
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.
* * *
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.”