Can the Center Hold?

Fear pervades the Jewish community today. The fallout from the Gaza flotilla episode continues to reverberate in unpredictable and unsettling ways. Israel finds itself in a very difficult bind. It faces growing political isolation and, at the same time, has to deal with Hamas and Hezbollolah — both tough and unpleasant neighbors perched on its borders. Meanwhile, the greater strategic threat, Iran, is led by a clever dictator who spews bile at every turn and constantly outmaneuvers the West in his dangerous quest for nuclear weapons.

That said, Jewish communal leaders are wrong to compare the present situation to the 1930s in Europe when Nazism took rise; our era, in which there is a militarily powerful Jewish state whose chief strategic ally is the world’s major superpower, is far from that dark time. This kind of misreading of the past, sincere as it may be, points to a malady in American Jewish communal life: the repeated invocation of Jewish victimhood as an instinctual response to crisis. That model no longer works. The crisis-driven agenda has been employed too frequently and too ineffectively to speak to a majority of American Jews, who have voted with their feet by fleeing organized communal life.

It is this very realization that anchors Peter Beinart’s essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published last month in The New York Review of Books. Beinart argues that the existing paradigm of Jewish communal activity is broken, and that must terrify the leaders of the organized American Jewish community. For they have hinged so much of their personal and institutional mission on one criterion and one criterion alone: Not Yiddishkayt, not Jewish observance or literacy, not knowledge of Hebrew, not a sense of a global Jewish well-being, not even a deep personal or cultural connection to Israel. No, their sole criterion is support for the government of the State of Israel. Those who refuse to submit to the orthodoxy of unquestioning support are branded as naïve, self-haters or, in one especially notorious case (proudly supported by a major national Jewish organization), liberal anti-Semites.

Others before Beinart have suggested that this crisis-driven agenda, symbolized by the enterprise of “Israel advocacy” (on which so many of the community’s precious resources have been spent over the last eight years or so), is not working. But no one has documented it as incisively or thoroughly as Beinart. And no one has suggested as clearly that it is liberal Zionism, and liberal Zionism alone, that can save the communal agenda from its worst excesses. Beinart is a true believer in the redemptive power of liberalism, and not only in this case. In 2006, he published a book, “The Good Fight,” whose subtitle is “Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.” On the subject of American Jews and Israel, Beinart insists that the Zionist cause can be saved, but only by recovering a measure of moral and political bearing. This means denouncing without apology the racist ideas of Israeli politicians such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman or Knesset member Effi Eitam; it also means ceasing to minimize Palestinian suffering or rationalize bad policies or operational failures, as if somehow that serves the cause of Israel.

At its core, Beinart’s proposal is eminently sensible. Liberalism, as he intends it, means reclaiming the sane center. It marks itself off from the extreme pole that regards Israel as the chief, even sole, source of evil in the world. It also marks itself off from the pole that regards Israel as incapable of misdeed or injustice. But the main question, at this crucial juncture, is: Can the center hold?

There are reasons to fear that, alas, the answer may be no. In the first instance, it is not merely that the alphabet soup of national Jewish organizations have more or less abandoned their original tasks in favor of apologetic and unreflexive support for the government of Israel, as we’ve had ample occasion to see in recent days. (We might call this the AIPAC-ization of Jewish communal life).

It is also that this tendency has become deeply rooted in almost every level of organized Jewish life. It has taken hold in the curricula of Jewish schools, where uncritical and often chauvinistic Israel education crowds out a more honest and humane view that acknowledges the rights of Israelis and Palestinians alike. It has taken hold in synagogues across the denominational spectrum, where rabbis race to outdo one another in assembling the largest delegation to the annual AIPAC convention (while almost entirely ignoring pro-Israel, pro-peace groups such as New Israel Fund, J Street and Americans for Peace Now). It has taken hold in the unholy alliances that Jews forge with putative friends outside of the Jewish world who have their own theological motives for supporting obstructionist policies in Israel.

The result of this crisis-driven agenda is the creation of a new type: not simply the Orthodox Jewish patriots of whom Peter Beinart writes, but also non-Orthodox Jews, precisely the kind of liberals whom Beinart wants to empower, who have been prodded by the crisis-driven agenda to embrace a new, single-issue religion: AIPAC-style political support for Israel.

The dictates of this “religion” require that the questionable never be questioned and the indefensible always defended. What is so striking — and sad — about this belief system is not only that it entails a degree of moral abdication from its adherents, a rather un-Jewish proposition in itself. It is that it has been so blindly self-defeating. The support of American Jews — Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike — has enabled one Israeli government after another — Labor no less than Likud — to push ahead with a policy that may well spell the country’s own demise. Forty years of settlement construction in the territories, leaving aside the question of whether it does or doesn’t violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, may well have reached the point of irreversibility. If Israel cannot uproot the settlements of the West Bank, there will be no territorially viable Palestinian state. And if there will be no Palestinian state, then the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will become one polity: a single entity of Jews and Arabs in which there will either be one-person-one-vote democracy or suppression of one group by the other. Neither outcome bodes well for a Jewish majority in a Jewish state. How did we permit this suicidal engorgement to proceed for 40 years?

Beinart says enough is enough; he delivers a bracing wakeup call in his essay, urging American Jews out of their slumber of self-deception. We had better answer the call now, lest it be too late.

We need a new paradigm of American Jewish communal behavior that is independent-minded, Jewishly grounded and ethically attuned — far more so than the tired one that is disintegrating before our eyes. This new paradigm must reorient our understanding to the point that we grasp that the great test of Israel’s soul is not on the college campuses of this country, charged as they may be at times. The test of Israel’s soul is in the waters off the coast of Gaza or in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood where Palestinians have been summarily evicted from their homes of 50 years to make way for Jews. If liberal Zionism — or Zionism of any sort — is to have a chance in this century, it is there that the battle for its soul must be waged.

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.