brave new world…

Posted on Sunday 23 May 2010

Friend ShrinkRap haunts the fertile ground of the New York Review of Books and often posts on the wonders he finds there. His post Young American Jews and Zionism is a fine example. ShrinkRap ends with:
I do not pretend to know the answers to the problems in the mideast, but I am convinced that Israel-right-or-wrong is not the answer, just as Palestine-right-or-wrong is not the answer either.
Here’s a piece of the article he’s talking about:
The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment
New York Review of Books

by Peter Beinart
June 10, 2010

In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel. In response, he unwittingly produced the most damning indictment of the organized American Jewish community that I have ever seen.

The philanthropists wanted to know what Jewish students thought about Israel. Luntz found that they mostly didn’t. “Six times we have brought Jewish youth together as a group to talk about their Jewishness and connection to Israel,” he reported. “Six times the topic of Israel did not come up until it was prompted. Six times these Jewish youth used the word ‘they‘ rather than ‘us‘ to describe the situation.”

That Luntz encountered indifference was not surprising. In recent years, several studies have revealed, in the words of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis, that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,” with many professing “a near-total absence of positive feelings.” In 2008, the student senate at Brandeis, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in America, rejected a resolution commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Jewish state.

Luntz’s task was to figure out what had gone wrong. When he probed the students’ views of Israel, he hit up against some firm beliefs. First, “they reserve the right to question the Israeli position.” These young Jews, Luntz explained, “resist anything they see as ‘group think.’” They want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its flaws. Second, “young Jews desperately want peace.” When Luntz showed them a series of ads, one of the most popular was entitled “Proof that Israel Wants Peace,” and listed offers by various Israeli governments to withdraw from conquered land. Third, “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.” When Luntz displayed ads depicting Palestinians as violent and hateful, several focus group participants criticized them as stereotypical and unfair, citing their own Muslim friends…
It takes very little pondering to realize that ANYTHING-right-or-wrong reduces quickly to always right, and that always right is always wrong. I expect that even that last sentence isn’t even always right, but I’m sticking to it as the best way to think, at least for me. I find this article very encouraging. I’ve all but given up engaging in discussions of the Israeli Palestinian issue with my Jewish friends. The only acceptable positions are Zionism and anti-Semitism – and neither one of those remotely describes how I feel about any aspect of the question. In the privacy of my own mind, I am opposed to all of the "Semitisms" – the Jewish and Moslem notions of being the chosen people, special in the eye of God, entitled to holy lands. I see the Christian projections of these ideas in the same way. As soon as you say you’re special, you’re saying that others aren’t and thereby institutionalizing prejudice. If there’s a historical precedent that suggests that such thinking is ever a good idea, I don’t know what it is. In fact, the history that makes this topic impossible to discuss – the holocaust – is itself an example of "specialness" run riot.

So I find this article encouraging and hardly surprising. It sets me to thinking about an even more general topic. I’m not convinced that people who have lived their lives immersed in piece of history can actually really learn from it.  Specifically – being the target of prejudice seems to create, for a time, strong and understandable prejudice in the victim. It appears to take one or more generations to get enough distance for introspection – much longer if the contemporary interpretations are institutionalized eg segregation in the American South following the end of slavery.

Beinart’s article ends on a similar note [to me, a very hopeful note]:
This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood—a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967—strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce.

But there is a different Zionist calling, which has never been more desperately relevant. It has its roots in Israel’s Independence Proclamation, which promised that the Jewish state “will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets,” and in the December 1948 letter from Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and others to The New York Times, protesting right-wing Zionist leader Menachem Begin’s visit to the United States after his party’s militias massacred Arab civilians in the village of Deir Yassin. It is a call to recognize that in a world in which Jewish fortunes have radically changed, the best way to memorialize the history of Jewish suffering is through the ethical use of Jewish power.

For several months now, a group of Israeli students has been traveling every Friday to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where a Palestinian family named the Ghawis lives on the street outside their home of fifty-three years, from which they were evicted to make room for Jewish settlers. Although repeatedly arrested for protesting without a permit, and called traitors and self-haters by the Israeli right, the students keep coming, their numbers now swelling into the thousands. What if American Jewish organizations brought these young people to speak at Hillel? What if this was the face of Zionism shown to America’s Jewish young? What if the students in Luntz’s focus group had been told that their generation faces a challenge as momentous as any in Jewish history: to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth?

“Too many years I lived in the warm embrace of institutionalized elusiveness and was a part of it,” writes Avraham Burg. “I was very comfortable there.” I know; I was comfortable there too. But comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication. Let’s hope that Luntz’s students, in solidarity with their counterparts at Sheikh Jarrah, can foster an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. Let’s hope they care enough to try.
    May 23, 2010 | 11:33 AM

    I agree that this is a hopeful, balanced article that needs to be read by everyone who cares about Israel and its future. Unfortunately those most in need of hearing its message will likely dismiss it as being part of the (perceived) pro-Palestine New York Review of Books; but that is the problem: anything less than 100% approval of everything Israel does is denounced, and the messenger smeared as anti-Semitic.

    It’s very clear now why Peter Beinert is no longer editor at The New Republic, given it’s publisher/owner’s knee-jerk denunciation of anyone who criticizes Israel’s stance on anything. It’s also why I no longer subscriber to TNR but look forward to the NYRB.

    Joseph P.
    May 23, 2010 | 12:30 PM

    The Jewish-Palestinian issue is more honestly discussed in Israel than in the United States. For instance, the most widely read paper in Israel, the Jerusalem Post, has an interview with Peter Beinart where he elaborates on his on opinions that American Jews “should stand with people struggling for human rights” in Israel. The popular online magazine Haaretz’s lead editorial is by Gideon Levy, titled, “Israelis’ ideal state: A country without criticism.”

    It is primarily in America where the neo-con influenced editorial boards of most of the major news organizations cast the question support of Israel as one of “ANYTHING-right-or-wrong.”

    May 23, 2010 | 1:52 PM


    Thanks for the comment. I’ve taken the liberty of adding the links [above] to the articles you mention in case others want to look. Very encouraging to me [I’m afraid that all of my own friends are in the “older” group these days][…

    May 23, 2010 | 2:36 PM

    Joseph is quite right about the more honest discussion going on in Israel than in the US media. However, those more reasoned voices don’t seem to have much clout in the Israeli government these days.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.