‘NY Review of Books’ goes after the Israel lobby, Jewishly

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The NY Review of Books has an important piece in its forthcoming issue on the idea that the American Jewish establishment has rigidly sided with Israeli leadership and abandoned liberal American values and endangered the Zionist project. I.e., the New York Review is slamming the Israel lobby from a Jewish place. Or giving it a friendly slap–the word "lobby" is never used. The author is Peter Beinart:

In Israel itself, voices from the left, and even center, warn in increasingly urgent tones about threats to Israeli democracy. (Former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have both said that Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state” if it continues to hold the West Bank. This April, when settlers forced a large Israeli bookstore to stop selling a book critical of the occupation, Shulamit Aloni, former head of the dovish Meretz Party, declared that “Israel has not been democratic for some time now.”) But in the United States, groups like AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace.

The result is a terrible irony. In theory, mainstream American Jewish organizations still hew to a liberal vision of Zionism. On its website, 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.” These groups would never say, as do some in Netanyahu’s coalition, that Israeli Arabs don’t deserve full citizenship and West Bank Palestinians don’t deserve human rights. But in practice, by defending virtually anything any Israeli government does, they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire….

Not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as well. In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world’s most respected international human rights groups.

The piece concludes with good sociological insight and a call on American Jews to revive Zionism among the young, based on liberal anti-Sheikh Jarrah principles:

This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s…. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood—a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967—strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce.

But there is 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.

…What if American Jewish organizations brought these young people [protesting Sheikh Jarrah] to speak at Hillel? What if this was the face of Zionism shown to America’s Jewish young?

A few thoughts:

–The piece is undoubtedly important, because the New York Review of Books has power. Maybe now Rick Hertzberg of the New Yorker will write about the Sheikh Jarrah protest he attended. David Remnick will move further left on the issue. More centrist American achievement Jews will finally come out against the colonization program and even the East Jerusalem messianism, because they realize it won’t hurt their careers; Robert Silvers of the NY Review is saying the water is safe. Moshe Halbertal is at the Sheikh Jarrah protests, so is Bernard Avishai; they have helped to move the left-center, and good for them.

–The piece demonstrates the fact that the NY Review is a follower not a leader. All these ideas have been expressed before in Jewish life. Haaretz has expressed them, Jerry Haber at Magnes Zionist has expressed them, Rebecca Vilkomerson at Jewish Voice for Peace, Cecilie Surasky at JVP, Richard Silverstein, Daniel Fleshler, I could go on and on. Max Blumenthal has been a siren on the fact that Jewish-American liberal values are being corrupted by Israel’s militarism. Tony Judt said verbatim four years ago that American Jewish leadership thinks it’s 1938 and they’re nuts. The New York Review turns to none of these intellectuals who have done the tilling of the hard ground. It turns to one of George Bush’s useful idiots, to echo Judt, in Beinart, a man who helped push the U.S. to war in Iraq and who worked for AIPAC during the 2008 election and has evidently bethought his attachment.

–Beinart and the NY Review nowhere credit Walt and Mearsheimer here. The NY Review has never reviewed their bombshell book. But their ideas are remarkably similar to the ideas that Beinart is straining through his latke strainer, four years on. Walt and Mearsheimer are for the two-state solution, or were. Again, followership. Mike Desch has talked about the disastrous role of Never-again-ism in our foreign policy. Yes the Review has an enormous effect inside Jewish life, but does official Jewish life have a damn clue about where the conversation is now? No, they are following the conversation…

Beinart’s piece is avowedly parochial. And it is also very smart in many places. Maybe it represents a break with Marty Peretz? Yes: I hope he reaches the Jews, as I hope that J Street gets Jewish congressmen to stop speaking in tongues. But can you have any larger moral authority if you don’t talk about the massacre in Gaza and the Kent-State treatment by the Israeli army of Palestinian demonstrators? Beinart won’t go near either of these truths.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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