The Crisis of Zionism

Is the American Jewish establishment putting Israel's democratic ideals at risk?

The Crisis of Zionism By Peter Beinart Times Books 304 pp.

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.

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.

Beinart decries this ongoing trend, which he argues derailed President Obama’s decidedly Jewish-liberal approach to Israel and the Palestinians. He urges liberal American Jews to deepen their commitment to the socially conscious Judaism that is their heritage. In his opinion, this will tether their affinity for Zionism and Israel to social justice. Otherwise, “the more they drift away, the more American Zionism will be dominated by Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians: groups unlikely to maintain even the pretense that what makes Israel precious is its fidelity to liberal democratic ideals.”  

The author makes a valid point, but reminds one of liberals who fail to examine their role in spurring phenomena with which they later find themselves in conflict. The European Jewish founders of Israel grew uncomfortable with the influx of Oriental Jews from Arab and Muslim countries in the decades following Israel’s establishment in 1948. They discriminated against these immigrants and did their best to block political expression of their cultural specificities. Eventually, many Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin turned inward, finding succor in a faintly messianic politico-religious party called Shas, which was founded in 1984. Culturally conservative from the start, Shas initially showed signs of flexibility when it came to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but with time hardened its positions. As a result, Israel’s Ashkenazi elite took to blaming Oriental Jews for hindering peace efforts, alleging that they retained lingering memories of mistreatment at the hands of Arabs, and were thus unduly guided by emotion when approaching the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Unlike their counterparts in Israel, the liberal Jewish elite in America have never sat at their country’s helm, nor have they discriminated against anyone. But Beinart should have faulted them for their dismissive attitude toward Orthodox Judaism, which for decades they viewed as an archaism on the verge of extinction, and their apathy in the face of a changing American Jewish political landscape. Instead of ignoring the Orthodox, liberal Jews should have coaxed them out of their sectarianism. And instead of meekly accepting – and in individual cases opportunistically aiding – the transformation or displacement of Jewish organizations over which they held considerable sway, they should have fought back. Now they must grapple with the insular Orthodoxy and hardline Zionism in their midst. Beinart is too quick to absolve liberal Jews of responsibility for their predicament, but he is correct in arguing that only they can re-infuse both American Judaism and American Zionism with a universal ethos.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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