How the Dream Died: Liberal American Jews Are Falling out of Love with Israel

By Wheatcroft, Geoffrey | New Statesman (1996), July 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

How the Dream Died: Liberal American Jews Are Falling out of Love with Israel


Wheatcroft, Geoffrey, New Statesman (1996)


The Crisis of Zionism

Peter Beinart

Times Books, 304pp, [pounds sterling]18.99

Knowing Too Much

Norman G Finkelstein

OR Books, 466pp, [pounds sterling]12

In July 1965, the late Bernard Levin published an essay in the New Statesman entitled "Am I a Jew?" He knew the answer perfectly well. What he was trying to examine was what "being a Jew" meant to him: an assimilated, educated bourgeois living in England in the second half of the 20th century, with no religious faith and no particular interest in Jewish tradition or culture. Nor was he an ardent Zionist: "My attitude to Israel--admiration for the incredible achievements, hope that it will continue, combined with the strongest condemnation of her crime against her original Arab inhabitants and the campaign of lies she has waged ever since on the subject--does not seem to mark me off in any way from a Gentile of similar political outlook". The use of the words "crime" and "lies" was, in fact, then quite rare.

Quite apart from the history of Zionism as a political movement, or the tragic and intractable conflict in the Holy Land, there is a fascinating subject here for what Keynes called "the historian of Opinion". That is what two new books by Jewish American writers address. The "crisis of Zionism" of Peter Beinart's title refers not to the Arab-Israeli conflict as such, but to its effect on American Jews, increasingly disenchanted with Israel. Norman Finkelstein's book looks at the same question.

Of the two, Beinart's is the more interesting because it's the more surprising. Anything but a "non-Jewish Jew", he sends his children to an Orthodox school, remains a Zionist who believes that "the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land" and, as a youthful editor of the strongly Zionist New Republic, supported the Iraq war and the "war on terror". All of that makes him an unlikely dissident, although he joins an increasingly large group.

More and more Jewish Americans--although in truth they may be less and less "Jewish", in everything from religion to cultural identity to undiluted descent--are repelled and embarrassed by Israel, its politicians, its army and its settlers. The rate of intermarriage increases all the time (complicating the question "Who is a Jew?"), younger Jews are likely to befriend Muslims at college, while well-publicised Israeli deeds in Gaza and the West Bank become ever harder to defend. Young people educated in a secular mode of self-questioning are insulted to be told, as Beinart puts it, that "they should start with the assumption that Israeli policy is justified and then work backwards to figure out why".

A gulf has opened, and is widening all the time, between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official "Jewish establishment" (the Anti-Defamation League, Aipac and others), elderly, rich and right-wing, though also self-perpetuating and unrepresentative. Beinart has a not entirely convincing chapter on Obama "The Jewish President", who supposedly imbibed many of his values from rabbis and other Jewish savants in Chicago, and is closer, we are told, to true Jewish values than that establishment or the zealots governing Israel.

However that may be, it's a striking fact that four years ago 78 per cent of Jewish Americans voted for Barack Obama. Although the figure will be lower this November, Jews as a whole are measurably more liberal than the national mean. They have watched with perplexity as Obama was both insulted and outplayed by Binyamin Netanyahu. But in any case the essential story here concerns not the White House or liberal Jews but Capitol Hill. Congress now gives "unwavering support" to any action Israel takes or might conceivably take, even in direct defiance of the president and in a manner obviously contrary to the national strategic interest. …

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