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An American Jewish Youth’s Endorsement of Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”

By Moriel Rothman
Middlebury College

Welcome to seventh grade Hebrew School class: the unit is Israel awareness. The teacher stands at the front of the room, and stresses the purity of Israel’s cause, the danger of our enemies – Nazis and Palestinians alike – and the need to support Israel unquestioningly. We are young, and we believe everything we are told. But Hebrew School is not our only source of information, especially once we go on to college. Maybe we take a course on the Politics of the Middle East, maybe we meet Palestinians who do not hate Jews or want to blow up buses, maybe we start reading news analyses and opinions, or maybe we go and see for ourselves. Our thoughts then turn back to our formal education about Israel, and something seems off:

We were told that Arabs living in Israel are granted full and equal rights, but we hear bills proposed suggesting that Arabs undergo loyalty tests or be stripped of their citizenship, and we see Arabs being evicted from their houses in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan to make room for Jews. We were raised to be proud of the prominent Jewish role in the Civil Rights movement, but we are called traitors and self-haters when we protest the same type of racism within Israel.

We were told that Israel wants peace, and that it is the Palestinians who oppose it, but we see Netanyahu and Lieberman dragging their feet, and haughtily scorning our President, who we helped bring into office and continue to stand behind because we, too, believe in change. We were raised to believe in the value of liberalism, humanism and of progress: perhaps we missed the disclaimer which stated that the same values do not apply to in the land of Zion.

We were told that Israel supports freedom of speech, but see the 81 year-old Noam Chomsky barred from entry into Israel and the Occupied Territories, simply because the Israeli government “does not like what he has to say.” Neither do many of us like what Chomsky has to say, but we are far more afraid of a Jewish state that decides arbitrarily what can or cannot be said than we are of the words of any knee-jerk professor of linguistics.

We were told that Israel’s army is the most ethical army in the world, but we see Israel’s army, especially in Gaza 2009, behaving in the same brutal and bellicose manner as the armies of other powerful states. And when we turn to our parents’ generation, whom we so admire for their brave and unwavering protests against the American war in Vietnam, we are met with silence, with archaic interpretations of Islam and Arab culture or with muttered proclamations of “necessary for security.” Such contradictions- between what we were told and what is- abound. Perhaps, then, were we also lied to about the validity of the Jewish state, about Zionism, about Israel’s right to exist?

Peter Beinart, in his stunning and devastating piece “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” argues that an increasing amount of liberal Jewish students are becoming alienated from Israel and from Zionism, largely due to the way in which the American Jewish Establishment has asked them – us – to view Israel and to be Zionists.

I believe that what conventional Jewish organizations are ultimately trying to do is both necessary and good. At the core of their agenda, I believe they are truly trying to work to ensure that the Jewish state of Israel is safe and supported, for the sake of the entire Jewish people. However, it is in their messaging and their methodologies that they go wrong, in large part due their simplistic nature, and to their black-and-white formulations. We are told: Israel is good, and thus all of its actions and policies are good, defensive and moral, with perhaps a few unfortunate side effects here and there. But for those of us who have come of age knowing only a post-Oslo Israel that embraces retributive violence and hardline, nationalist politics, such statements are next to impossible to believe and reconcile with reality. When the agenda reads as follows: “Israel’s war on Gaza was just, Israel’s settlement policy is just, Israel’s Jerusalem policy is just, Israel’s existence is just,” those of us whose liberalism, humanism, and Jewish moral values do not allow us to swallow, at least in such uncompromising terms, the first three statements may very well, as Beinart warned, be inclined to disregard also the fourth.

Ross Douthat challenges Beinart on his assertion that we, the American Jewish youth, are distancing ourselves from Zionism because of Israeli policy, asserting instead that chances are, it has nothing to do with Israeli policy or actions, but rather is because we are “simply less Jewish.” Maybe indeed there are some young Jews who are less connected to Zionism because they are less connected to Judaism, but to dismiss Beinart’s argument, and thus all of the Jewish youth who are finding themselves alienated by Zionism, is fallacious and wrongheaded. I will answer Douthat’s challenge by challenging the concluding point made by Beinart himself.

In the final paragraph of his piece, Beinart writes that “comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication” and that what we need is an “uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it could still be.” Here, in responding to both, I take issue with the words “has become.” To write that comfortable Zionism “has become” a moral abdication implies that there was once a point in history in which it was not, in which it was fully moral to embrace a Zionism that saw everything done by Israel as good. While there may indeed have been times in which unquestioning support of certain elements Zionist project was necessary, there was never a point in which we could truly, in line with our Jewish values, from “treat thy neighbor as thyself” to “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof”, be fully comfortable with what Zionism was, nor will there be such a point, until the day in which Zionism no longer comes at the expense of the Palestinians, and on that day, “Zion shall be redeemed in justice.” Perhaps it is the relative security Israel is experiencing, coupled with its reactionary governing coalition and heavy-handed, settler-friendly military policies that has awakened us, the liberal, American Jewish youth to the fact that comfortable Zionism, the Zionism that has been fed to us by the American Jewish establishment, is a moral abdication.

But we Jews, all of us, being a people of complexity, of challenges and of questions, must know that there can be no comfortable Zionism until there is peace. And to the American Jewish Establishment, Beinart is correct in warning that unless you start speaking to us in ways that recognize that, we are liable to stop listening.

Moriel Rothman was born in Jerusalem, Israel, is a rising Senior at Middlebury College in Vermont and is a candidate for President of the J Street U National Student Board.