Sunday With Beinart

I went to the pro-Israel rally in front of the Israel Consulate last Sunday for two reasons. First, to support Israel. Second, to see whether Peter Beinart was right.

The first job was easy. Israel may have poorly handled the interception of the Turkish flotilla attempting to cross the blockade into Gaza, but the extent to which Israel’s detractors have used the incident as a way to spread hate and lies is abominable. Not because Israel can’t withstand hard criticism from friends and foes, but because civilized society can’t survive in a world that demonizes Israel and lionizes Hamas.

So I was happy to stand at the rally beside a little girl whose mom had told her to hold a sign that read, “Free the Palestinians from Hamas.”

My second task at the rally was to see whether Peter Beinart was right when he wrote that increasing numbers of American Jews, especially young Jews, are turned off by the way mainstream Jewish organizations approach Israel.

In a much-discussed, 5,000-word essay in The New York Review of Books published last month, Beinart, the former editor of The New Republic, asserted that the uniformity of pro-Israel voices, and the unwillingness of mainstream Jewry to critique Israel when it strays from the liberal democratic values many American Jews share, is the reason polls show so many Jews, especially younger ones, are lukewarm to the Jewish state.

“Fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists,” Beinart wrote. “Fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster — indeed, have actively opposed — a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead. … Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral.”

Beinart blames a kind of knee-jerk defensiveness and chauvinism that is often the most public face of pro-Israel leaders and organizations. “By defending virtually anything any Israeli government does,” he writes, “they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”

The rally turned out to be an interesting testing lab for Beinart’s theory, which has been much debated, and which professor David Myers and Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa debate later in these pages.

A mass rally is, after all, a pretty blunt instrument. At this one, the message was, in reality, more nuanced than its medium. Many of the speakers, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, reminded the crowd of Israel’s longstanding pursuit of peaceful negotiations and compromise with the Palestinians. One speaker, Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, said she looked forward to the day when Israel could live side by side with a Palestinian state. Her words brought the applause to a halt — you could see imaginary tumbleweeds blowing across Wilshire Boulevard — but she was heard respectfully.

The crowd clearly preferred slogans and cheering to heartfelt analysis. It was a gathering, largely, of the hard-core. One stout, determined woman next to me paraded about a placard that read “Erdogan is a Nazi,” referring to the Turkish prime minister. Really, I thought, do we have to go there? A year ago, Israel and Diaspora Jewish leaders couldn’t do enough for the leader of Turkey.
As former Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss blogged last week, Jewish politicians performed moral gymnastics to minimize recognition of the Armenian holocaust in order not to offend Israel’s strategic ally. And now, a year later, they’re Nazis?

But the woman with the kooky sign, unfortunately, didn’t seem that out of place at the rally. The Israel supporters I spoke to who decided not to go said they didn’t quite understand the point. The flotilla incident was a PR disaster for Israel, at least in the short term — it remains to be seen how the inquiry and subsequent press coverage will play out. The question many nonattendees had was:  Do you rally every time Israel is slammed in the press?

For the estimated 2,200 people at the rally, the answer was a resounding yes. They streamed across Wilshire and up San Vicente waving blue-and-white flags, blasting air horns, cheering as speaker after speaker (after speaker) attacked Hamas, professed love and support for Israel, and slammed the Turks and the flotilla organizers. It had, to be sure, all the hallmarks of a hastily organized event — far too many speakers, who, in any case, could barely be heard on the inadequate sound system and could hardly be seen from their makeshift stage. (“Haven’t these people heard of a bima?” a rabbi in the crowd asked.) Security was of the pre-suicide-bomber variety — a large police presence but no bag inspection or magnetic resonance screening, as there is at the Israel Festival.

But in spite of that — or maybe because of it — the event had a festive spirit. Young Israelis and American Jewish kids danced and sang Hebrew songs in the rear of the crowd. Hundreds of self-identified Christians for Israel waved Israeli flags and held up placards. People schmoozed with old friends under the bright June sun, wrapped themselves in the Israeli flag — literally — and took one another’s pictures with their iPhones.

What there wasn’t at this event was a large cross section of the enormous Los Angeles Jewish community. Either this rally represented the depth of Jewish support for Israel — in which case we’re in trouble — or it failed, somehow, to galvanize the tens of thousands of Israel supporters in this city. Do the math: If hundreds of the attendees were Christian, and many hundreds more were Israeli-born, that means perhaps 1,000 American Jews were there from a community that numbers 600,000. The result was a good visual, but let’s not fool ourselves.

Looking carefully at the crowd, I noticed that a great many were well past middle age, and there were many who were very young — day-school students — and many who wore kippot. In other words, this was not a cross section of L.A. Jewry: This was a rather specific smattering.

One telltale sign was the crowd’s reaction to the speaker from Americans for Peace Now. When David Pine started speaking, he was roundly booed. Israel Deputy Consul General Gil Artzyeli, Jewish Federation President Jay Sanderson and Federation Chairman Richard Sandler urged the crowd to respect the speaker, but the catcalls continued.

In his New York Review piece, Beinart recalled a 2002 pro-Israel rally on the Washington Mall sponsored by major Jewish organizations. “Up and down the East Coast, yeshivas shut down for the day,” Beinart wrote, “swelling the estimated Orthodox share of the crowd to close to 70 percent. When the then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the rally that ‘innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying as well,’ he was booed.”

To Beinart, the boos — whether against Wolfowitz or, I suppose, Pine — send a clear message to many liberal Zionist Jews: You don’t belong at our rallies. But is it that clear-cut? It was a mainstream Jewish organization that invited Brous and Americans for Peace Now, and a mainstream Jewish leaders who defended Pine’s right to speak. And strolling through the audience, I ran into many people who would describe themselves as liberal Zionists — though yes, they might have felt more comfortable at a rally that same day in Tel Aviv, where 10,000 Israelis gathered to protest their government’s Gaza policies.

Could the particular crowd and catcalls at the Wilshire rally mean that Peter Beinart is right? I’m not certain of that, but I am of this: When it comes to Israel, Jewish leaders must be judged not by the passions they exploit, but by the passion they instill.