The Haaretz Friday supplement carried an interview with Peter Beinart, the American Jewish journalist who created a stir with his NY Review of Books blast at the American Jewish establishment over its overly accepting attitude toward intolerant trends and illiberal policies in Israel, which he sees as contributing to a serious alienation from Zionism by many young American Jews. It’s a long article from which I’ve selected a central passage. Beinart’s responses are in quotation marks:
If we look at your past writings, you seem to have undergone a transformation in regard to Israel.
“First of all, I had not been writing that much about Israel. Like many people, I was hesitant to write about it too much because I think I was conflicted internally about being very publicly critical of Israel. I was also concerned about how some of my friends would feel about it. There’s also a feeling that our lives are very easy, and that we sit there in America, and our children don’t go into the army. But I think a couple of things happened. For me, I think the rise of [Avigdor] Lieberman was a significant moment. What upset me was that, the minute he emerged and people in America started to hear about him, the reaction from most American Jews was that there’s no problem here: he’s misunderstood. They would always say, ‘He’s for civil marriage’ − as though that had anything to do with his views on the Arabs. I thought it was like the frog in boiling water. At a certain point, you have to have the capacity to be outraged.”
Beinart is the son of South African parents who immigrated to the United States. His grandmother was born in Egypt and spent time in the Belgian Congo. “I learned my Zionism from my grandmother, who always said that one day we would all go on aliya to Israel. That was a Zionist perception of Israel as a haven,” Beinart says. “But I think that most young American Jews don’t feel that way. They feel America’s perfectly safe. They feel the opposite: Israel’s dangerous, America’s safe. That made me think that we in the United States need to create a different kind of Zionism. I think that if there is anything that might attract these young Jews and connect them to Israel, it’s precisely the voices that are now under attack. Human rights activists and liberal journalists in Israel are what revived my Zionism.”
You attend an Orthodox synagogue and gave your children very Jewish names.
“Yes, Ezra and Naomi. I think it’s important to provide kids in the United States with a sense of a particular Jewish identity in a whole series of ways. The names are the superficial elements, but still valuable. In our society, even much more than the other diaspora communities like Canada or Australia or Britain, the pull of assimilation is extremely strong. American elite Christians have welcomed American Jews with open arms and said, ‘Marry our children. Please marry our children.’ So I like the fact that my son, even though he’s only 4, because he’s gone to shul [synagogue] every week since he was born, and to a Jewish preschool, feels he has a connection to being Jewish that, if we hadn’t done those things, he wouldn’t have at all.”
Marching to a different tune
Beinart’s warning about the mood among young American Jews is based in large measure on the research of Prof. Steven Cohen from Hebrew Union College. Cohen found that Jewish identity and commitment to Israel have weakened in the community’s younger generation. Beinart also draws on studies by a leading Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, who last week published new findings showing a serious blow to Israel’s image among the general American public as well, mainly after the incident of the intercepted ship in the Free Gaza flotilla. Luntz’s research, which was commissioned by The Israel Project, an organization committed to improving Israel’s image, warns of “dangerous deterioration” in the attitude of Americans toward Israeli policy. The findings, which were transmitted to the Prime Minister’s Office and reported by Channel 10, show that only 34 percent of all Americans support the Israeli action against the flotilla. Luntz notes that whenever Israeli spokespersons hurl accusations against the international community, they lose their audience − and this in the country that is considered Israel’s greatest friend. …