Commentary Magazine


Topic: liberal Zionism

“J-Streetophobia” and Shutting Down the Debate

A documentary simply titled The J Street Challenge has been stirring up much debate and controversy in recent weeks. I wrote about it here when it was first released, but since then the debate surrounding it has only grown louder. Most recently a dispute arose as supporters of the left-wing lobby group J Street protested the showing of the documentary at Greater Philadelphia Hillel as part of an event discussing what it means to be pro-Israel. With J Street bidding to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it seems this is not a debate J Streeters want to be the focus of right now. But for years J Street and those who share its views have been calling for just such a debate. This documentary, featuring such figures as Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens, is the most concerted effort yet by mainstream Zionism to answer J Street’s claims with clear counterarguments.

This is what “Liberal Zionists” on the Jewish left have been demanding, they must be so pleased that someone finally took them seriously enough to reply, right? Wrong. As ever, rather than take on any of these accusations directly, they have simply gone for that tried and tested method of shutting down debate by demonizing anyone who criticizes their views. The most recent, and indeed most astonishing example of this comes from Bradley Burston writing in Haaretz. In his piece J-Streetophobia, and the U.S. Jewish right’s hatred for American Jews Burston argues that this documentary is a window into the minds of what he calls “the Jewish right,” exposing how this seething faction is driven by its resentment of the rest of the Jewish community. In fact most of the voices in this film seem broadly in line with the pro-Israel consensus.

What is perhaps most striking about this line of argument is the one-directional set of standards that it operates on. When Jewish liberals in America criticize, condemn, and yes at times demonize Israelis, they tell us they do it out of love. Yet when those with a more “hawkish” perspective have the temerity to try and pick holes in liberal arguments, well then it must obviously be motivated by hate. It’s not a particularly sophisticated worldview: liberals are innately nice and conservatives are by their very definition nasty.

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A documentary simply titled The J Street Challenge has been stirring up much debate and controversy in recent weeks. I wrote about it here when it was first released, but since then the debate surrounding it has only grown louder. Most recently a dispute arose as supporters of the left-wing lobby group J Street protested the showing of the documentary at Greater Philadelphia Hillel as part of an event discussing what it means to be pro-Israel. With J Street bidding to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it seems this is not a debate J Streeters want to be the focus of right now. But for years J Street and those who share its views have been calling for just such a debate. This documentary, featuring such figures as Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens, is the most concerted effort yet by mainstream Zionism to answer J Street’s claims with clear counterarguments.

This is what “Liberal Zionists” on the Jewish left have been demanding, they must be so pleased that someone finally took them seriously enough to reply, right? Wrong. As ever, rather than take on any of these accusations directly, they have simply gone for that tried and tested method of shutting down debate by demonizing anyone who criticizes their views. The most recent, and indeed most astonishing example of this comes from Bradley Burston writing in Haaretz. In his piece J-Streetophobia, and the U.S. Jewish right’s hatred for American Jews Burston argues that this documentary is a window into the minds of what he calls “the Jewish right,” exposing how this seething faction is driven by its resentment of the rest of the Jewish community. In fact most of the voices in this film seem broadly in line with the pro-Israel consensus.

What is perhaps most striking about this line of argument is the one-directional set of standards that it operates on. When Jewish liberals in America criticize, condemn, and yes at times demonize Israelis, they tell us they do it out of love. Yet when those with a more “hawkish” perspective have the temerity to try and pick holes in liberal arguments, well then it must obviously be motivated by hate. It’s not a particularly sophisticated worldview: liberals are innately nice and conservatives are by their very definition nasty.

Of course Burston is arguing nothing new here; the view he promotes is simply that of Peter Beinart, the movement’s would-be theorist in chief. In his manifesto for liberal Zionism The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart even claims that, contrary to popular belief, it is actually Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who has the problem with President Obama. This, explains Beinart, is because Obama, as a liberal and thus a “Jewish President,” reminds Netanyahu of what he most dislikes about Jews. Presumably all of this is supposed to be profound, yet reading these lines many will have felt as if they were entering some kind of Alice-through-the-looking-glass inversion of reality.

The liberal Zionist argument regularly portrays the Likud-led Israeli right as little more than a fascist gang hell-bent on transforming Israel into a banana republic. The settlers are portrayed as still more frightful, ultra-religious crazies whose shadowy influence pulls unseen strings in the corridors of the Israeli government so as to keep the rest of Israel hostage in an imperialist conflict. Those speaking in The J Street Challenge on the other hand at no point try to frame Jewish liberals as even remotely ill willed. They simply seek to show how a well-meaning worldview has become quite precariously misguided and how the leadership of this movement has demonstrated a tendency toward dishonesty at times. Yet, Burston describes the film as “odd-man-out bitterness and the burning, bully pulpit venom of marquee personalities in the American Jewish right.” That description itself might sound pretty venomous to most observers.

Of course, there is no such thing as J-Streetophobia, although there is plenty of critique of those J Street activities that run directly counter to the mainstream view. Yet one cannot help but reflect on the familiar pattern of how liberals have also been known to try and deflect comment on extremist Islam by labeling it Islamophobia. If in doubt, shut down the debate with cries of bigotry. Since liberal Zionists keep calling for an open discussion within the American Jewish community about Israeli policies, why don’t they stop demonizing and start debating? Could it be that they suspect that in fair fight they wouldn’t win?

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Elections Will Clarify Zionism’s “Crisis”

So-called “liberal Zionists” like author Peter Beinart have been mounting an all-out campaign to undermine any notion that the proper attitude of American Jews toward Israel is support of its current government. Beinart and others on the left don’t like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and believe their sensibilities rather than his judgment ought to be regarded as the proper path for the Jewish state. Though Beinart and other foreign liberals tend to regard the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians as mere details that only serve as an impediment to the implementation of their vision of peace, they are entitled to their opinions. But should it take precedence over that of the Israeli people?

Beinart and others who think Zionism is in “crisis” are about to get another lesson in Zionist democracy. With it becoming increasingly clear that Netanyahu will agree to move up the date for the next parliamentary elections to perhaps as early as September 4, those carping about the direction Israel has taken on the peace process, settlements, the Iranian threat, the religious-secular divide or any other issue will have an opportunity to watch Israeli democracy in action. The voters will have the opportunity to throw out Netanyahu and elect a government more in line with the views of Beinart and J Street. But, if as widely expected, they return Netanyahu to power with an even larger majority, shouldn’t there be some expectation these “liberal Zionists” will respect the will of the people?

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So-called “liberal Zionists” like author Peter Beinart have been mounting an all-out campaign to undermine any notion that the proper attitude of American Jews toward Israel is support of its current government. Beinart and others on the left don’t like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and believe their sensibilities rather than his judgment ought to be regarded as the proper path for the Jewish state. Though Beinart and other foreign liberals tend to regard the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians as mere details that only serve as an impediment to the implementation of their vision of peace, they are entitled to their opinions. But should it take precedence over that of the Israeli people?

Beinart and others who think Zionism is in “crisis” are about to get another lesson in Zionist democracy. With it becoming increasingly clear that Netanyahu will agree to move up the date for the next parliamentary elections to perhaps as early as September 4, those carping about the direction Israel has taken on the peace process, settlements, the Iranian threat, the religious-secular divide or any other issue will have an opportunity to watch Israeli democracy in action. The voters will have the opportunity to throw out Netanyahu and elect a government more in line with the views of Beinart and J Street. But, if as widely expected, they return Netanyahu to power with an even larger majority, shouldn’t there be some expectation these “liberal Zionists” will respect the will of the people?

The problem for these left-wing critics is that although they think Israel is in need of being saved from itself, most Israelis disagree. The majority there appears ready to vote for the parties that make up the current coalition because they believe there is no viable alternative on either security or domestic issues. Netanyahu is far from perfect, but his positions reflect the broad consensus of the Israeli public on the key issues of the day.

That puts people like Beinart in something of a bind. You can’t preach about preserving Israeli democracy while at the same time claim elections there mean nothing. Friends of Israel, even those who style themselves critics of its government’s policies, are not obligated to become Netanyahu cheerleaders. But once the voters have decided, there is some obligation to respect the democratic process.

Many on the Jewish left have spent the last three years since Netanyahu’s election in 2009 acting as if his win was an accident that can be set aside by President Obama with their support. The problem with Beinart and those who agree with him is not so much that they would like Netanyahu replaced, but that they believe Washington should override the verdict of the Israeli electorate on the peace process. While Israelis take the views of its only superpower ally seriously, the notion that they should be dictated to on matters of war and peace is intolerable. So, too, is the idea that American Jews like Beinart, whose grasp of the nuances of Israeli society and politics is minimal, have a unique understanding of how to reform the country so as to have it conform to their own liberal vision of Zionism. As much as world Jewry has a vital stake in the preservation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, policy decisions must be left in the hands of the people who live there.

It can be argued that the current consensus renders early elections an unnecessary distraction. But they do serve the purpose of reminding Beinart and other American Jews that Israel’s people will be presented with a clear set of choices and will then make their decisions. Liberals who would prefer a different outcome than a Netanyahu victory can go on preaching that Israel would be better served by his defeat. But once he is re-elected, they are also obligated to recognize that in a democracy, the losing side accepts the outcome. No one can claim to be a Zionist, even someone of the liberal or progressive persuasion, and claim he can reject not just the government but the Israeli people who elected it.

Israel is not perfect, and the peculiar compromises on the religious/secular divide may grate on the sensibilities of Americans. But contrary to the gloom and doom scenarios envisioned by Beinart and others who think it is heading for destruction, it is a vibrant, successful and thriving democracy. Most Israelis don’t think they need to be saved by the likes of Beinart. After the next election, he should take the hint.

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