Israel has a problem. OK, Israel has a lot of problems, but one of the biggest is American Jews who
- take as their primary sources the loud but demographically unimportant media and academic Left in Israel; and,
- combine ignorance with remarkable arrogance to apply American paradigms and analogies to Israeli society and politics, and
- conclude that Israel is becoming (or has already become) morally corrupt, right-wing, theocratic, anti-democratic and anti-peace.
The US is Israel’s only source for vital military hardware (aid dollars are not as important as availability of spare parts and qualitatively superior technology), and its only defender in the UN Security Council. I think it’s safe to say that Israel’s enemies would eat it alive if the US turned against it. American Jews are only a tiny portion (a couple of percent) of the US population, but enormously important in determining policy toward Israel.
This is because they take an interest in it, because non-Jewish politicians look toward Jews for direction in this area, and because Jewish opinion provides an excuse to justify what officials want to do anyway. So if the administration wants to stop Jewish construction in eastern Jerusalem, it is very helpful if it can point to a large group of American Jews that agrees with it. And this is why Beinartism is dangerous.
Beinartism often expresses itself in statements that begin by declaring undying love for Israel, but then continue by excoriating it in ways usually associated with the extreme anti-Zionist Left. Beinartism, like J Street, is phony: it is dislike (or worse) pretending to be love, and it includes a threat that if Israel doesn’t change in accordance with Beinartist principles, it will be abandoned by American Jewry.
Yaakov Lozowick, discussing speakers at the J Street conference — including Beinart himself, but also David Saperstein of the Union for Reform Judaism — put it this way:
…there’s a consistent tone of disdain of Israeli society coming from these people which I find arrogant and very distasteful. Americans left and right have lost their civility in political discourse; Israelis, admittedly, never had it. Yet there are codes in language, deeper than mere words, and the subtext of these J Street spokesmen when discussing Jews from Russia, religious Jews and centrist Jews, is ugly. I find no other word for it. Just as their compassion for Israel’s Arabs (the citizens) is odd. There’s a level of identification with them which is totally lacking when they talk about the majority of the Israeli Jews. I say this as someone who wishes only the best for Israel’s Arabs.
Beinartism is characterized by false analogies: the situation of Israeli Arab citizens, or even Arabs in the territories, is often compared to that of African-Americans in the pre-civil rights movement South. It fails to note the huge differences, and the ways in which the physical situation of Israel makes it vulnerable in a way that we’ve never been.
Beinartism advocates a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs, but it ignores the real security issues that would have to be dealt with before such a solution would be anything other than suicide. It makes vast assumptions about Arab intentions, or rather, doesn’t even think about them.
Beinartism accepts uncritically the prejudices of the academic and media elite of Israel, who tend to despise Russian immigrants, Jews from Arab countries, observant Jews and of course (last but not least) ‘settlers’.
It also gives great importance to issues that barely move the needle in Israel, like the Women of the Wall or the struggle for recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel (the degree of influence of ultra-Orthodoxy and the Rabbinate on society are a concern to many Israelis, but the great majority simply don’t see the point of Reform or Conservative Judaism).
The new president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Rabbi Richard Jacobs, is a Beinartist — indeed he quotes the manifesto with approval in a sermon to his Scarsdale NY congregation. And today, the URJ emailed to subscribers of its “Ten Minutes of Torah” service, a copy of a recent Forward article by J. J. Goldberg about why “the Zionist Organization of America and various far-right bloggers” are wrong in being upset about Jacobs’ appointment.
Jacobs is no more hostile to Israel than Shimon Peres, or David Ben-Gurion for that matter. Like Ben-Gurion he supports partition of the Land of Israel into two states.
Peres and Ben-Gurion may have favored a two-state solution (Peres, alive, still favors it), even thought it was essential. But unlike J Street and the Beinartists, neither of the above would agree to a deal without appropriate security guarantees. Nor would they urge the US to vote to condemn Israel in the Security Council, as J Street did.
The problem according to Goldberg is not that Jacobs is active in organizations that are, despite what they say, anti-Israel. Nor that he participated in an anti-Israel demonstration in Jerusalem. No, rather it’s that Israel is out of step, not Jacobs:
The problem is that while Jacobs’s views on Israel are quite mainstream among American Jews, the notion that such views endanger Israel and have no place in Jewish communal discourse is becoming mainstream in Israel. In other words, we have a very serious family feud brewing.
I’m not sure where the “no place in Jewish communal discourse” came in. Similar views are expressed daily in the pages of Ha’aretz. But do they endanger Israel? You bet they do. And having an exponent of them lead the largest denomination of American Jews is a bad idea.
Where is the American Jewish mainstream today? You might start your search with the simple fact that the largest Jewish religious movement chose Jacobs to lead it. But then consider this: J Street was founded just three years ago and is already one of the biggest organizations on the American Jewish scene, even before it’s out of diapers. Consider, too, the rapid growth of Jewish activism to the left of J Street, among the boycott, divestment and sanctions crowd and Palestinian-solidarity types. What used to be the left is now closer to the center.
First of all, nobody asked me, a member of a Reform congregation, whether I wanted Rabbi Jacobs. And nobody asked the president of the congregation, either. I do not have details about the process by which the URJ nominated and elected Rabbi Jacobs, but I’m sure that — like most organizational decisions — democracy had little to do with it.
Second, J Street’s Jeremy Ben Ami claims 170,000 supporters. How does he know this? According to the Knesset testimony of former Israeli diplomat and student of J Street Lenny Ben-David, he counts entries to the J Street Website as ‘supporters’!
Third, the fact that the extreme anti-Zionist Left is busy demonizing and delegitimizing Israel does not imply that a somewhat less aggressive — but still anti-Israel — position is ‘mainstream’. Although the tactic of claiming to be ‘pro-Israel’ and ‘liberal’ may have fooled some people, lobbying against sanctions on Iran and for condemnation of Israel in the Security Council — as J Street has done — is not ‘mainstream’.
Goldberg also falls back on the ultimate recourse of the ‘progressive’ without an argument — he calls his opponents crazy right-wingers:
Also telling is the fact that the objections to Jacobs’s nomination come from a narrow spectrum on the right. Being identified with the New Israel Fund and J Street just isn’t remarkable in American Jewish life anymore. Attacking them is increasingly a sign of eccentricity.
J Street and similar groups are not mainstream. But the question is more of appearance than reality, because their power grows in proportion to how important they can make themselves appear. J Street, for example, received half of its funding in 2008-9 from a mysterious source in Hong Kong, not to mention a large contribution from the anti-Israel George Soros. Grass roots? Not hardly. But if they can convince members of Congress that they are, they become dangerous.
J Street, NIF, Beinartism and now Rabbi Jacobs represent a concerted push to change American Jewry from a source of support for Israel into yet another weapon against it.
Don’t be fooled.
Update [1527 PDT]: Read Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ shocking article about the inroads of Beinartism (he doesn’t call it that) among rabbinical students.