Peter Beinart, the former editor of The New Republic, laments the failure of the American Jewish establishment to present the universalizing, leftist, secular side of Israel to young Americans whose interest in Israel is small compared to that of their elders. His New York Review of Books essay contains no new information. He bases his view on Frank Luntz’ 2003 polling data of Jewish college students, which I had discussed a year ago in a First Things essay entitled ”Jewish Survival in a Gentile World.” Young, secular Jews (as well as young Reform Jews, if you can find any) don’t care about Israel. They lack the impulses of their secular parents, who came from a religious world and still maintain Jewish loyalties.
So what else is new? And why should we care? Beinart cares, because the ground he occupies is shrinking. He identifies with secular Zionists of an older generation:
These Jews embraced Zionism before the settler movement became a major force in Israeli politics, before the 1982 Lebanon war, before the first intifada. They fell in love with an Israel that was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology of occupation. And by downplaying the significance of Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas, American Jewish groups allow these older Zionists to continue to identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth, an Israel that now only exists in their memories.
Beinart offers a condescending glance at the “warmth” and “learning” of Orthodox Jews, but neglects to mention the most startling factoid in Jewish demographics: a third of Jews aged 18 to 34 self-identify as Orthodox. “Secular Jew” is not quite an oxymoron–the Jews are a nation as well as a religion–but in the United States, at least, secular Jews have a fertility barely above 1 and an intermarriage rate of 50 percent, which means their numbers will decline by 75 percent per generation. It is tragic that the Jewish people stand to lose such a large proportion of their numbers, but they are lost to Judaism in general, not only to Zionism. That puts a different light on the matter.
Jews comprise just 2 percent of the American population and our voting patterns are of small importance except in very close elections in New York and Florida. Nonetheless the State of Israel is an issue of impassioned importance for a very large number of Americans, including evangelical Christians who comprise a little less than a quarter of the electorate. Their support for Israel includes an important religious component, and they are far more interested in the minority of observant Jews than the mass of secular or lightly-affiliated Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal.
American support for Israel is running at all-time highs in the Gallup and other opinion polls, thanks to Christian support for the Jewish State–and no thanks to Jewish liberals. The secular Zionists with whom he identifies “aren’t reproducing themselves.
Their children have no memory of Arab armies massed on Israel’s border and of Israel surviving in part thanks to urgent military assistance from the United States. Instead, they have grown up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril. Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.
Liberalism assumes that clever and and enlightened people can engineer happy outcomes for everyone. The notion that some peoples fail of their own deficiencies is anathema to liberalism, whose premise is that enlightened intervention can solve all the problems of any society. That is what Jewish college students are taught.
It certainly is getting harder and harder to be both a liberal and a Zionist. To support a Jewish state on purely secular grounds is the conceit of generations that long ago faded away. There is no more illiberal notion than the Election of Israel. To a generation whose heart bleeds for every endangered species, the prospect that peoples may perish of their own cultural failings is an unthinkable, horrendous, nightmarish proposition.
Nonetheless Israel’s position is stronger than ever in the hearts of Americans. The Orthodox may be fewer in number, but more young Americans are spending time in Israel, studying in Israel, and moving to Israel than ever before. The rapid growth of the young Orthodox Jewish population is making an impact on Israeli demographics (which are in excellent condition due to a fertility rate of nearly 3), and will make an increasing impact over time. Skullcaps are multiplying on American college campuses, and many of them sit on heads that spent a year before college at an Israeli yeshiva.
In absolute numbers, the support of young American Jews for Israel is stronger than it ever has been. Zionism is in no danger. The entity that is in trouble is Jewish liberalism.
That is what Beinart mourns: he espouses
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.
In fact, the left wing of Zionism just had its moment in American history. If you blinked, you missed it. J Street, the leftist “pro-Israel” alternative to the mainstream American Jewish organizations, persuaded President Obama–or so one hears from the Israeli government–that if it put pressure on Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, it could force him out and bring in a more amenable government. This effort failed miserably; Obama has ensured that Netanyahu will be prime minister for a very long time, and only served to make J Street’s friends in Israel look like rag dolls.
Beinart’s view prevailed at the White House, and resulted in a humiliation for the President, a humiliation so profound that Rahm Emanuel was hauled out to convene a group of rabbis and acknowledge that his boss had “screwed up the message” in dealing with Israel. After the fact, his lament reads less like a program than a eulogy for the liberal Zionism of the past.