Peter Beinart called on the Jewish community last week to admit anti-Zionist and pro-BDS Jews. These young Jews are supporting BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel) because they hear “the voice of Sinai,” he said.
Ari Shavit, the Israeli author who has become a celebrity in American Jewish spaces, sharply contradicted Beinart. He said that these young Jews must be kept out of community spaces because BDS is an “evil, sophisticated” campaign that is filled with anti-Semitism.
The difference between the two men reflects differences over the definition of Judaism and what Jews owe to their community. Shavit described Judaism as support for Israel. Beinart described Judaism as an ancient and living religion that has often contained anti-Zionist strains.
The two writers spoke June 12 on an all-Zionist and mostly-right-wing panel about “What’s Next for Israel?” at the 92nd Street Y, an organization that has censored Palestinian and anti-Zionist voices. They were introduced by Thomas Kaplan, a billionaire who has supported Israel and has investments that could profit from a war with Iran.
At the end of the discussion, Beinart challenged the hall filled with 500 mostly older folks (and surely almost all Jews, and paying $40 a head) to include anti-Zionists at the table:
“And the last thing I’ll say and this is the most challenging I think maybe for most people, including for me: Our tent, our Jewish community, our proverbial Seder table, is going to have to include the Jewish kids who are not Zionists, including the Jewish kids who are involved in the BDS movement. Because Jewish kids are overrepresented in the BDS movement. You may find that frightening beyond belief, you may find it terrifying. And I understand why you do, but it’s true.”
Beinart then related an anecdote of a campus meeting of Students for Justice for Palestine where most of the group was Jewish, and continued:
“Every generation hears the voice of Sinai anew. This generation– one way it is hearing it makes us radically uncomfortable. We cannot afford to tell them that they are not welcome in Jewish spaces, because then we alienate them not only from Israel but from being Jews as well. We need to welcome them in, we need to argue with them, we need to challenge them, we need to be challenged by them. We may be entering– I take no pleasure in this, I find it a terrifying reality– We are entering, An era in which there is no longer going to be a Zionist consensus in the U.S. Especially if Israel continues on its current path. We will have to remain a Jewish community in that environment and we will have to be welcoming even to those people on the far left or the far right whose views we find deeply, deeply upsetting.”
Shavit responded sharply. He disagreed with Beinart because of his experiences touring campuses in the 18 months since his book My Promised Land came out.
“I’ve been there. I’ve been listening to them,” he said of the BDS supporters. “I’m for free discussion… but BDS in so many places has serious anti-Semitic dimensions….I’ve seen young liberal Jews in such a state because they are aware of that.” (Many Jewish students have said that BDS makes them fearful.)
Shavit said what was needed was a new partnership between American Jews and Israeli Jews that would change Israel’s image in the world. He called it the David challenge: “We have to convince ourselves and others that we are the David. We cannot be perceived as the Goliath.”
How will Israel pull that off? If young American Jews and Israeli Jews worked to bring social justice in Israel and helped Palestine too, it would put Israel on “the right side of history” and show the world, “we are right and we stand for the right kind of things.”
He called it a “Martin Luther King Zionism”: because Martin Luther King fought for his people and for universal values too. “We are the universal tribe,” Shavit explained.
American Jews will want to participate in this partnership because they face an “existential” challenge: they depend on Israel to maintain their Jewish identity. So this is the partnership:
“You help us survive there, we help you survive here.”
(I must say here, I cannot imagine a more dispiriting view of religion and affiliation than Shavit’s.)
Throughout the conversation, Beinart stood up for a view of Jewish religion that was based on ancient traditions and texts– and is therefore very conservative (and not my cup of tea)– but that is freed of the burden of Zionism. He said movingly that it upset him to see gleaming new Holocaust memorials in cities where the Jewish school doesn’t have a gym or a science lab, and people can’t afford to send their kids there without getting a second mortgage. Our community cares more about the dead than the young, he said. He said that the only place he can find translated Torah portions from Genesis and Exodus to give to his children is from ultra-Orthodox publishers in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Shavit seemed to hold it over Beinart and Dan Senor, a second panelist, that they send their children to the Heschel school in New York. His children do not need a Jewish education to know that they are Jewish; no, that is “easy” for them.
“My 11 year old and 6 year old– they don’t go to the shul in their life. Don’t go to Heschel. They’re Jewish.” But American Jews “have to choose to be Jewish every day.”
Really he was talking about Jewish nationality, and the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. Throughout his comments about Israeli political life, Shavit never included Palestinians as equal members of that society.
It was Beinart who stood up for universal rights. He said that Israel has a “security subcontractor in the West Bank” – the Palestinian Authority – “which allows them to pretend that the West Bank doesn’t exist in the elections”—a point you hear at SJP meetings all the time. And he said that only conservatives really participate in the Israeli elections because Palestinians are the left and though they compose 20 percent of Israeli society they are written out of the governing coalitions (a point I have been making for many years).
He said that because older American Jews never speak to Palestinians, they have little idea why Israel’s image is shifting. He knows why. The BDS movement is growing because young Americans are attracted by Palestinian-Americans’ message. These advocates are “very impressive, very articulate, deeply American,” and they don’t believe in a Jewish state.
“I never met a Palestinian who believed that Israel’s existence is anything but a tragedy and a disaster. Who in their fantasy world would have Israel not exist.”
By deeply American, he said he meant that they don’t have “thick accents,” they don’t see America as a foreign world. They are particularly effective with LGBT and non-white audiences. And when they say all they want is “one person, one vote” and equality, young people agree with them. Meanwhile, the pro-Israel coalition on campus is “Hillel and the college Republicans.”
Beinart was repeatedly applauded for his remarks.
He struggles openly with his tribal affiliation. Shavit does not. The Israeli is surely an excellent writer who composes ideas in an elegant compelling manner. That is why his book did so well here, why he is feted by synagogues across the country. He is a storyteller who knows how to place himself in the edge of the frame; and he has been honest about the ethnic cleansing of Lydda during the Nakba, the chapter the New Yorker published.
But his politics left me cold, and will surely leave a lot of young Jews cold. They are essentially tribal politics. And the real point of his remarks was that the audience must maintain the Israel lobby so that Jews can carry on their society in Israel (because Israel utterly depends on a superpower’s support).
Shavit began the evening by saluting the miracle of American Jewish life alongside the miracle that is Israel. He didn’t know America before he came for the publication of his book, he said. That was a huge emotional event for him: the launching of his international career, with “my beloved friend” the editor of the New Yorker doing downfield blocking for him. He told a story of seeing his book being sold as a Hanukkah gift on the Upper West Side and being so moved that he sat down in a cafe to have a glass of wine and make “my first and last tweet.”
Walked to B&N on 86 and there it was:My Promised Land.My five years.My journey.My yearning for an Israel we will once again love.
— Ari Shavit (@arishavit) November 20, 2013
Often that night his understanding of US cultural and political life struck me as self-involved and provincial. Certainly his view of religion is.
BTW, all the panelists at the Y wrung their hands over the young Jews. The hall was filled with older ones. A social revolution is taking place inside Jewish life, in which those who feel true solidarity with Palestinians are the primary movers. There can be no doubt of the truth of Beinart’s statement, the era of Zionist consensus is over.