(July 15, 2020 / JNS) A prominent Jewish writer used the bully pulpit of The New York Times op-ed section last week to call for the elimination of the Jewish state. At the same time, an assistant rabbi at one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious synagogues took to Twitter to vent his anger at those who say the Jews are “indigenous” to the land of Israel.
Both Peter Beinart and Rabbi Andrue Kahn received some furious feedback. The debates about Beinart’s conversion to anti-Zionism and Kahn’s absurd doctrinaire woke linguistics was not without value, as it brought out into the open just how prevalent the dangerous ideas they are promoting. It also shone a light on the way such radicalism is not only undermining traditional liberal Jewish support for Israel, but also working its way into the mainstream.
Beinart and those who rallied behind Rabbi Andy’s dubious cause believe that anyone who stands up for Zionism and Israel isn’t only wrong, but represents the past, while the anti-Zionists are the Jewish future. As a result, they believe that it is incumbent on the Jewish community not only to listen to the kids who they think are cheering Beinart and Kahn, but to provide them with a “safe space” where they can be protected from the scorn being meted out to anti-Zionists from those who write in defense of Israel, Zionism and Jewish rights.
Kahn’s belief that Jews couldn’t be called “indigenous” was so outrageous that his boss, Temple Emanu-El Senior Rabbi Bruce Davidson, felt constrained to write a letter to the Forward newspaper disassociating the synagogue from his position. Davidson rightly noted that such a stance lends weight to those who wish to deny Jewish rights and history. That, in turn, provoked a response from hundreds of prominent liberal Jews who signed a letter of support of Kahn.
The question is: Are they right to assert that the woke left is the future of American Jewry?
Beinart’s essays calling for Israel to be converted from a Jewish state into a binational one in which Jews would share sovereignty with Palestinian Arabs—and thus cede control over their fate to others—was subjected to numerous scathing analysis, including my own. Beinart ignores the fact that Palestinian national identity is still inextricably tied to the century-old war on Zionism and the desire to eradicate the Jewish state. Millions of Israelis whose futures depend upon the goodwill of Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran to live in peace with them are not impressed with Beinart’s gamble. Nor are American friends of Israel.
His reply is to question whether his critics understand the plight of the Palestinians, as well as to ask if their kids agree with them.
The first point is disingenuous. Most supporters of Israel are fully familiar with the arguments of the Jewish state’s opponents and the situation in which they live. They’d be hard-pressed not to since those arguments are endlessly rehearsed in the international media, mainstream American publications and cable-news outlets.
As to his comment about young Jews, there he may have a point.
Among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States, interest in Israel resonates far less among the young as it does the older generations. Left-wingers like Beinart attribute this to the embarrassment young Jews feel about being identified with a nation that is reviled in fashionable leftist circles as an expression of colonialism or “white Jewish privilege.”
Moreover, anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow have gained ground in recent years on college campuses, though generally at the expenses of so-called liberal Zionist groups like J Street, which are often aligned with these opponents of Israel, as well as with openly anti-Semitic organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine.
This shift away from the Jewish homeland is not, as Beinart asserts, so much a function of the disillusionment with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as it is the product of the domination of academia by the left.
For many American Jews in their teens and 20s, their only exposure to discussions about Israel comes in an academic setting where Israel is treated as a pariah state. That’s why groups like JVP and IfNotNow are so desperate to sabotage Birthright Israel trips that—contrary to the assertions of the anti-Zionists—offer young Jews an introduction to the real Israel, rather than the caricature of it taught at college and misrepresented in the mainstream media.
An even greater factor explaining disaffection from Israel is the demographic implosion of non-Orthodox Jewry caused by skyrocketing rates of assimilation and intermarriage. People who have little interest or connection to Jewish identity of any kind, and who are raised to think ill of any sectarian entity, are not likely to care much about Israel.
In such an atmosphere, it’s no wonder that Beinart thinks his views represent the Jewish future.
As The Forward noted, “younger Jews who identify as “non-Zionist” or “anti-Zionist” came to Kahn’s defense because they are often marginalized in Jewish life for holding unorthodox opinions, like Jews not being “indigenous.” What they think they need is a “safe space” where they will be protected from the scorn of Israelis and those Americans who don’t share their desire to eliminate the Jewish state.
But there’s a problem with this argument. Those whose main connection to Jewish identity consists of efforts to deny the rights of Jews to a state and to endanger the millions who live in Israel in order to satisfy their desire to identify with intersectional allies are not a good bet to perpetuate Jewish life. The ties of Jews in this sector to all the elements that create a Jewish community, including religion and Zionism—as opposed to vague ideas about social justice—are fraying. The notion that this group is the foundation of a Jewish future of any kind, especially when compared to the vibrant revived national Jewish culture in Israel made possible by Zionism, is risible.
Instead of granting a safe space inside the community to those who are undermining support for Israel’s existence, what the organized Jewish world needs to do is make it clear that it won’t grant platforms or treat those who, like Beinart, seek Israel’s end, as honored spokespersons for American Jewry. Indeed, as scholar Daniel Gordis pointed out in a recent interview, those Jews who join with the likes of figures like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) or Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) in working for the destruction of Israel truly are “enemies” of the Jewish world, not its teachers. Jewish leaders shouldn’t be afraid to denounce people like Beinart, who have crossed the line between legitimate debate and criticism into making common cause with Israel’s enemies. And they shouldn’t be afraid of telling young Jews that joining such a cause is a betrayal.
It doesn’t matter whether you are young or old, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, or in favor or against political leaders like President Donald Trump or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What Jews who still care about defending the existence of the Jewish state need to do is to find the courage to say “no” to those who think we should be having a debate about whether or not to eliminate the one Jewish state in the world.
Beinart and his allies have fashionable opinion on their side, as well as the sympathy of the mainstream media and the lockstep support of college faculties. That’s why it’s easy for him to claim that young Jews are with him. But Jews of other ages can’t be afraid of telling this group that they are being misled, both by woke ideologues and those who claim that Jewish identity can be rooted in trashing Israel—the greatest achievement of Jewish life in the last 2,000 years.
A community that wishes to have a future must understand that Israel provides the bedrock upon which Jewish civilization will rest. Those who wish to destroy that foundation deserve no “safe space.”
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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