The Crisis of Zionism
Is the American Jewish establishment putting Israel's democratic ideals at risk?
For the past couple of decades, it has become common to hear members of Israel’s Ashkenazi elite – a group that is secular and mainstream Zionist – complain that their country is becoming unrecognizable to them, given the increasing influence of Orthodox Judaism and the rise of chauvinistic Zionism. The political descendants of Israel’s secular European Jewish founders fear marginalization in a state meant to reflect them – majority Jewish in population, European in sensibility, secular in matters of religion, and Zionist but not necessarily anti-Arab in politico-national orientation. If only they could get their country back, maintain members of this elite, Israel would be a Western-style secular democracy that could guarantee the rights of religious Jews, refrain from discriminating against its Arab citizens, and make a just peace with the Palestinians.Skip to next paragraph
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This line of reasoning is quaint and self-serving – but not without merit. For the American version of the argument, we now have Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, an expansion of his 2010 New York Review of Books essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” Beinart, an author of two previous books and the senior political writer for The Daily Beast, laments the blinkered view of Israel held by the major American Jewish organizations, which he claims do not represent most American Jews. “At the core of the tragedy,” he writes, “lies the refusal to accept that in both America and Israel, we live in an age not of Jewish weakness, but of Jewish power, and that without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else.”
Beinart speaks eloquently about Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel, which he claims “imperils” Israeli democracy. To be sure, one wonders how long Israel must rule over the Palestinians for Beinart to say that the occupation is destroying – rather than merely imperiling – its democracy. But the author, a committed Zionist with a strong affinity for Israel, does not content himself with hand-wringing. He calls on American Jews to boycott West Bank Jewish settlements and their products while affirming support for Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state, repeating others’ warning that: “If … Israel occupies the West Bank in perpetuity without granting citizenship to its Palestinian inhabitants, it will remain a Jewish state, but become an apartheid one.”
In the author’s view, the problem started in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Noting that Israel’s victory over the Arabs had increased leftist hostility to it, and convinced that remaining sympathy for Israel stemmed from the Holocaust, some American Jewish activists decided to narrow their focus from social justice and civil rights to Israel advocacy and Jewish victimhood. The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League were reoriented accordingly, while organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – dedicated solely to strengthening US-Israeli ties – gained prominence.