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Peter Beinart on the future of American Zionism
May 24, 2010
Peter Beinart's NYRB article ("The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment") has gotten quite a bit of attention. Beinart thinks liberal American Jews are pulling away from Israel. The main reason is that
the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
Beinart does a good job describing the dominance of racial nationalism in Israel and the rationalizations, blind spots and hypocrisies of the organized Jewish community committed to minority empowerment in the US. Like John Mearsheimer, he thinks that American Jews are liberals at heart and are pulling away from Israel, especially because the rhetoric of victimization on which Israel is founded is more and more remote from their daily lives.
There are some reasons to doubt this analysis. Commitment to Israel among young secular Jews is likely to increase if there was indeed a real threat to Israel, as happened in the 1967 war. (See my comments on Mearsheimer.) Moreover, there are always gaps between the more committed Jews who man the activist organizations and the great majority of Jews for whom Israel is not the center of their lives. (Mearsheimer calls them the new Afrikaners and the great ambivalent middle.) It's not obvious that the new Afrikaners won't continue to run the show and police the attitudes of the great ambivalent middle as they have been doing for years. This may be so even though, as Beinart points out, AJC polling data indicates that young secular Jews are less attached to Israel than are Orthodox Jews.
But in any case, notice
Beinart is not saying that this will mean that the support of American Jews for
Israel will end. Far from it. Rather, the most interesting part of his analysis
is his claim that the organized Jewish community will have to look to the
Orthodox and other seriously religious Jews to maintain support for Israel:
To sustain their uncritical brand of Zionism, therefore, America’s Jewish organizations will need to look elsewhere to replenish their ranks. They will need to find young American Jews who have come of age during the West Bank occupation but are not troubled by it. And those young American Jews will come disproportionately from the Orthodox world.
And that bodes well for Zionist organizations because demography, as always, is destiny:
Because they marry earlier, intermarry less, and have more children, Orthodox Jews are growing rapidly as a share of the American Jewish population. According to a 2006 American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey, while Orthodox Jews make up only 12 percent of American Jewry over the age of sixty, they constitute 34 percent between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. For America’s Zionist organizations, these Orthodox youngsters are a potential bonanza. In their yeshivas they learn devotion to Israel from an early age; they generally spend a year of religious study there after high school, and often know friends or relatives who have immigrated to Israel. The same AJC study found that while only 16 percent of non-Orthodox adult Jews under the age of forty feel “very close to Israel,” among the Orthodox the figure is 79 percent. As secular Jews drift away from America’s Zionist institutions, their Orthodox counterparts will likely step into the breach. The Orthodox “are still interested in parochial Jewish concerns,” explains Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at the City University of New York. “They are among the last ones who stayed in the Jewish house, so they now control the lights.”
The result will be that there will less of a gap between the fervid nationalism in Israel and the attitudes of a large percentage of American Jews: "If current trends continue, the growing influence of Orthodox Jews in America’s Jewish communal institutions will erode even the liberal-democratic veneer that today covers American Zionism."
In the end, there will be "an American Zionist movement that does not even feign concern for Palestinian dignity and a broader American Jewish population that does not even feign concern for Israel." Again, this last outcome is iffy because I can't see any reason why the activists policing the great majority of ambivalent American Jews can't continue indefinitely. And as the demographic trends continue, the job of policing secular Jews will be easier as they become an increasingly small minority of American Jews.
The interesting part of this analysis is what implications it has for how the rest of America sees Jews and the Israel lobby. The Israel lobby necessarily projects Israel as embodying American ideals: "AIPAC celebrates Israel’s commitment to 'free speech and minority rights.' The Conference of Presidents declares that 'Israel and the United States share political, moral and intellectual values including democracy, freedom, security and peace.'”
It's hard to see how the lobby can have any credibility with Americans at all if these deceptions are abandoned. Certainly the lobby will continue the deception as long as it can. It will continue to pour money into the campaign coffers of politicians who paint Israel as the democratic ally of the US and it will rigorously police the media—not a difficult job because so much of the elite media is dominated by hard core Zionists.
The worst case scenario for the lobby is that the propaganda that Israel embodies American ideals is so far out of touch with reality that even the American media cannot continue the charad, and American politicians would be laughed at as they spout the pro-Israel line.
But there are all sorts of issues besides Israeli racial nationalism where American media and politicians are completely out of touch with reality, particularly on issues related to race, multiculturalism, and immigration in the US. For example, elite consensus on immigration continues to shape media coverage and political rhetoric even though most Americans, particularly White Americans, oppose it.
The media has already shown that it can maintain egregious fictions for a very long time as long as there is elite consensus. But how is the elite consensus going to change in the face of aggressive policing by the lobby? In the same way, elite consensus on issues like race, crime, and IQ continue to be maintained in the face of overwhelming data to the contrary. Some of the same organizations that police unreality in the case of Zionism, such as the ADL, also enforce intellectual orthodoxy related to the other fictions on race, multiculturalism, and immigration that are so central to American political life. Right now things are proceeding just fine for the spinners of deception.
The basic problem that I have with these "end times" for Zionism (and the American consensus on race and immigration) is that they assume a worst case scenario far off in the future somewhere. I certainly would like to believe that the mainstream media and politicians must eventually confront reality in all these areas — including issues related to White advocacy. Certainly we in the White advocacy movement believe that the fictions can't be maintained forever and that White anger will eventually result in a credible movement to take back America, or at least part of it. So it's encouraging to see that a great many smart people think that the fictions about Israel can't be maintained indefinitely. But I'll believe it when I see it.