Peter Beinart sees young American Jews divided over Israel

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Last June, writer and political scientist Peter Beinart launched a broadside at the American Jewish community, accusing it of forsaking its own liberal democratic values in blind support of Israel's rightward lurch, and in the process creating a generation of young Jews who feel no attachment to the Jewish state.

"The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," published in the New York Review of Books, made a lot of waves and fueled a wider argument about when, and whether, American Jews should speak out against Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The discussion will continue 7 p.m. Thursday, when Mr. Beinart will speak at Rodef Shalom Congregation, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and B'nai B'rith Allegheny Ohio Valley Region. Admission is free, but RSVPs are requested by Tuesday at 412-521-2390.

His topic: "Is the love affair over? Young American Jews and Israel."

In his article, Mr. Beinart noted several studies showing that younger non-Orthodox Jews felt less attached to Israel than did their elders. He also cited a 2003 poll commissioned to find out why Jewish college students weren't defending Israel more vigorously on campus.

The poll found the students firm on several points: They reserved the right to question Israel's actions; they wanted peace; some empathized with the plight of the Palestinians; and they rejected stereotypical depictions of Muslims.

These, Mr. Beinart wrote, were all reflections of the defining values of liberal American Jewish political culture -- open debate, skepticism about military force, commitment to human rights.

"In their innocence," he wrote "[the students] did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs."

The result, he said, has been a division of young Jews: the Orthodox, ardently devoted to an increasingly right-wing Israel, and the more secular, ardently devoted to democratic human rights. Forced to choose by an American Jewish establishment that brooks no criticism of Israel, he wrote, the second group is rejecting Zionism as they have seen it practiced.

Mr. Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, is senior political writer for The Daily Beast, the Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and associate professor of journalism and political science at The City University of New York.

In a recent interview, he said he considers himself a liberal Zionist, although that description is becoming endangered.

"I try to be respectful and make it clear I come from a position of love and commitment to the Jewish people," he said. "My own life is deeply imbedded in that community, and I'm raising my children that way."

So, as an insider, he feels a responsibility to speak out where so many community leaders have not.

"American Jewish organizations that say they're committed to Israel have not confronted the fact that liberal democracy is in peril there because of the occupation," Mr. Beinart said. "It's a tragedy because American Jews should be at the forefront of struggling for liberal Zionism. We should be standing with the people who represent our vision of Jewishness, which is as bearers of a tradition that dates to the prophets. We should be helping Israel become a nation that pursues freedom, justice and peace."

As for the response to his article, he said, "I've been heartened by the fact that some organizations like the American Jewish Committee have allowed me to make my case to them. The Reform movement has done that as well. It stems perhaps from their anxiety about young American Jews, that the way we've been doing things hasn't instilled the connection we want or fostered the Israel we want to see.

"It's very moving to talk to so many young people who struggle to reconcile their liberal values with what's happening in Israel," he said.

"So many are doing remarkable things in that regard. I think the Orthodox community is different sociologically, but there is a generational awakening among the non-Orthodox that I have a lot of hope for. These young Jews are coming of age in a very different time from their parents. They've never seen an Israel that's not entrenched in the West Bank."

Mr. Beinart, who writes frequently about the Middle East, said he's hopeful that change is coming.

"I don't think the status quo is sustainable. Things are changing dramatically in the Middle East and Israel can't stand still. The pressure of recognizing they're losing a younger generation will force some greater openness."

Then there will be the pressure of the changing political reality in other Middle Eastern countries, where protests are sweeping leaders out of office and roiling the populace.

"We are going to see governments in the Middle East that are more responsible to public opinion," Mr. Beinart said.

"The important lesson for Israel is that it cannot be deaf to public opinion in the Arab world. It has to make its case by looking critically at its own policies, just as the United States does. And it can no longer blithely assume people hate Israel because they hate Jews. Some of Israel's policies are very hard to defend, even if you're Jewish."

Sally Kalson: or 412-263-1610.


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