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Israel and the Liberal Dilemma


“It’s been a long time since American Jewry has been [so] shaken,” declared the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in its July 9 Magazine cover story. Judging from the volume of chatter thundering across the upper firmament of the media heavens, this is no exaggeration.

What caused this disturbance in the cosmos is Peter Beinart, the 39 year-old former editor of The New Republic. Writing in the June 10 edition of The New York Review of Books, Beinart declared that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders.”

Most of these young Jews are liberals, Beinart continued, believing in “open debate, a skepticism about military force, and a commitment to human rights.” Unlike their elders, however, these young American Jews “did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel.” As a result, fewer young, liberal American Jews are identifying with Israel.

Who is to blame for this appalling state of affairs? Beinart has the answer: the American Jewish establishment. “The leading institutions of American Jewry,” he writes, “have refused to foster – indeed, have actively opposed – a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza.” Instead, this “Jewish establishment” has “asked American Jews to check their liberalism at the door.”

For Beinart, the future is bleak indeed: “If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them.”

Liberal American Jews would feel better connected to Israel, Beinart believes, if only their leaders criticized Israel more. More criticism might bring about a change in Israeli behavior, a change that would make the country more attractive to young liberals. As for Israeli leaders, they must be made to understand that they risk losing the next generation of secular American Jews unless their conduct toward the Palestinians improves.

A cynic might say that secular American Jews aren’t worth the trouble. A low birthrate and a high rate of intermarriage are slowly driving this group into extinction. I reject this line of reasoning. It is precisely because Israel represents the last connection to Judaism for so many that Israeli leaders should take every reasonable step to help keep these people within the fold. No, I reject Beinart’s argument for a far more fundamental reason: it flies in the face of recent experience.

If Beinart had written his piece six years ago, no doubt he would have attacked Israel for its occupation of Gaza. He probably would have quoted some left-wing Israelis holding forth on the proposition that the occupation is the root cause of all Palestinian violence. And then for good measure he would have tossed in something about Israel being an apartheid state.

Well, the occupation of Gaza is over. The soldiers are gone, the settlers are out – it’s been five years now since the disengagement. By pulling out, Israel supposedly addressed a central grievance of the Palestinians and their supporters.

And yet, criticism continues apace. The American left hasn’t even broken stride. Many have simply accused Israel of occupying Gaza as if disengagement never took place. New York Times reporter Neal MacFarquhar wrote that Israeli officials “convinced themselves that they should be thanked for ‘withdrawing,’ but they only pulled back as far as Gaza’s perimeter.” (Only to the “perimeter”? Where should they have withdrawn to if not to Gaza’s perimeter?)

And Times reporters Steven Erlanger and Helene Cooper, writing in September 2007, maintained that “under international law, Israel is considered an occupying power in Gaza, even though it has removed its troops and settlers from the territory.”

International law? Whose international law? Is there a single instance in history in which a nation that withdrew from territory was still required to carry out the obligations of an occupying power? When Russia pulled out of Afghanistan, no one called upon Moscow to continue supplying the Afghan population.

The Times and others look to Jerusalem to do just that. Try to imagine the speech Churchill would have given if someone had suggested that Britain supply Germany with electricity. Israel supplies Gaza with two-thirds of its electricity – even as Palestinian gunners try to hit the very power plant in Ashkelon that lights their homes. And yet for liberals, the problem is that Israel doesn’t supply Gaza enough. Katrina vanden Heuvel criticized Israel for refusing to allow in spices. Pity the poor Palestinians. They can’t cook their Italian recipes while they shell Israeli cities.

The point, in other words, is that it doesn’t really matter what Israel does. The “American Jewish establishment” can attack Israeli policy and Jerusalem can mend its supposedly evil ways, but to liberals Israel will always be the neighborhood bully.

This truism practically leaps off the pages of Beinart’s piece. He attacks Benjamin Netanyahu as a dangerous extremist. This is the same Netanyahu who voted for disengagement, signed two treaties with Arafat in the 1990s agreeing to hand over chunks of the West Bank, and most recently embraced the two-state solution in a speech at Bar Ilan University.

How, then, does Beinart attack Netanyahu, the dangerous extremist? By reaching all the way back to supposedly radical positions Netanyahu took almost twenty years ago in a long-forgotten book – positions that reflected the consensus at that time among all Israelis as to the starting point for negotiations. What Beinart chooses to ignore is that Netanyahu abandoned those positions when he served as prime minister and later as finance minister under Ariel Sharon. In doing so, the “radical” Netanyahu showed a flexibility we’ve yet to see from “moderate” Palestinians.

In Beinart’s cartoon Israel, where a racist lurks behind every bush, the other great bogeyman is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Even Beinart has to concede that Lieberman, like Netanyahu, supports the two-state solution. But he shrugs this off, charging that Lieberman wants to “redraw Israel’s border so that a large chunk of Israeli Arabs find themselves exiled to another country, without their consent.”

This statement is patently false. The only people facing exile are Jewish settlers, whose homes are to be demolished since Palestine has to be ethnically cleansed. Under Lieberman’s proposal, Israeli-Arabs will remain in their homes. The border will simply be redrawn to leave as many Jews as possible on one side and as many Arabs as possible on the other.

Why exactly is this so unreasonable? Beinart doesn’t say. I would note, however, that Lieberman’s proposal did not occur in a vacuum. The limits of space preclude listing every manifestation of intolerance by Israeli-Arabs for their fellow citizens who happen to be Jews. I’ll describe just two: (I) the former head of an Israeli-Arab political party, Azmi Bishara, is a fugitive from justice, having been caught on tape passing secrets to Hizbullah. After this occurred, his party won more votes in the next election, suggesting that treason is something that increases popularity among Israeli-Arabs rather than the opposite; (II) another Israeli-Arab MK, Muhammad Kana’an, was quoted in Israel’s largest newspaper supporting the attack on 9/11, declaring “a blessing upon you Bin Laden, we all salute you.” This statement caused no controversy among Israeli Arabs.

One can argue as to the wisdom of redrawing the border to reflect realities on the ground. But supporting such a move hardly makes one a radical.

Netanyahu and Lieberman aren’t Beinart’s only targets. He also aims his blunderbuss at Netanyahu’s entire coalition calling it the product of “frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society.”

Frightening trends? Except for one minor player – the three-seat Jewish Home Party – it is the exact same coalition that served in Ehud Olmert’s Kadima government. The same Kadima government that was elected to disengage from the West Bank. The same Kadima government that in December 2008 offered to withdraw from East Jerusalem, over 93 percent of the West Bank (with land swaps to make up for the rest) and even absorb thousands of so-called Palestinian refugees (not really refugees but the grandchildren of refugees; if they’re refugees then I’m a Polish refugee).

From the reaction of liberals you would never know that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, the great moderate, treated that offer just as he has treated every other offer in recent years. That is to say, you would never know he rejected it, made no concessions and offered no counter-terms of his own. You would never know, in other words, that nearly two decades after the Oslo accords, we still don’t know the Palestinian terms for peace.

No matter. Beinart still claims American Zionist groups like AIPAC are morally in a “downward spiral.” I would argue that, if anything, the opposite is the case. By concocting new rules to demonize Israel – rules never applied to any other country in the history of the world – it is American liberals who have failed the test. Not all American liberals demonize Israel, of course. But if someone is on the airwaves demonizing Israel, the odds are he or she is a liberal. And their actions in favor of Palestinians, who make no secret of their desire to commit genocide, raise many troubling questions.

These individuals have little in common with even their erstwhile liberal counterparts in Israel. In typically sweeping language, Beinart views saving liberal Zionism in the United States as the “great American Jewish challenge of our age,” critical even to the future of the Middle East, since it can “help save liberal Zionism in Israel.”

What Beinart doesn’t seem to realize is that practically no one in Israel wants to save his Zionism. The Meretz Party – standard bearers of the Israeli peace movement – is down to just three seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Three seats is the bare minimum needed under Israeli law for entry to the Knesset. Only a few thousand votes stand between Meretz and the dustbin of history. Among Zionist parties, it lies at the outermost leftwing fringe of Israeli politics. Yet for critics of Israel, even Meretz is too radical.

Meretz supported both the Gaza War and the Second Lebanon War as well. Its leader in both instances was none other than Yossi Beilin, the man perhaps most closely associated with the Oslo peace process apart from Shimon Peres. Beilin never met a concession he didn’t like. But he was full-throated in his support of both wars, arguing that those who pushed for withdrawal have a special obligation to support military action when Israel is attacked from territory it gives up.

This logic, obvious to any schoolchild, was all but lost on J Street, AIPAC’s supposed liberal rival. It cut a middle course during the Gaza War, refusing to ascribe blame and calling on Washington to impose an immediate cease-fire. None but the most radical left-wing Israelis supported such a cease-fire. One can’t help but wonder who J Street refers to when it claims to be a voice for “mainstream American Jews and other supporters of Israel.”

If Cuba fired rockets into Florida we’d blow it off the map. There’d be nothing left but a smoking hole in the ground. Israel absorbed thousands of rockets from Gaza for years before it finally acted. How many civilians did it kill in the Gaza War? Only one western reporter made it into Gaza during the conflict, an Italian named Lorenzo Carmonzi. He supported Israel’s claim that some 750 Palestinian combatants were killed and only 250 civilians. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the most aggressive Palestinian numbers are accurate – to wit, 926 civilians killed out of a total of 1,417 fatalities.

In the Iraq War, estimates of dead civilians start at 85,000and go up from there. The most accepted figure is the World Health Organization’s, which stands at 200,000. Israel hasn’t killed 85,000 Arab civilians in all the Arab-Israeli wars combined going back almost a hundred years.

Viewed in this context, Israel is a light unto the nations. Put bluntly, no one kills fewer civilians and inflicts less damage, all the while contending with an existential threat. It is this Israel that is a source of pride to the Orthodox community. This isn’t evidence of “naked hostility” toward Palestinians, nor is it evidence of any failed commitment to human rights. To the contrary, it is a belief in the fundamental human right of self-defense, a self-defense rooted in moral courage and carried out in a manner that sets an ethical standard for others to match.

Beinart and his liberal friends see none of this.

It’s worth noting that, far from being “skeptical” about the use of military force, Beinart actually supported the war in Iraq (at least until it went sour). It is Israeli military force that leaves him skeptical. This is Peter Beinart’s Zionism.

And this is his vision of human rights. The founder of Human Rights Watch, Robert L. Bernstein, wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times attacking the very organization he created because, in his words, “Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.” The Presidents Conference said the exact same thing – and Beinart points to this criticism as further evidence of the moral failings of the “American Jewish establishment.”

There was a time when liberal giants like Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson stood staunchly in defense of Israel. They didn’t do it to advance material American interests, all of which lay beneath the sands of Arab oil fields. They did it because it was the right thing to do. That’s the American liberalism I believe in.

One day, I know, this proud movement will once again find its moral footing in the Middle East. And when that day arrives, liberals will look back on this era – an era of Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian rejection – and no doubt have one simple question for the liberals of our time:

“What on earth were you thinking?”

Uri Kaufman is the author of “Low Level Victory,” scheduled for release this fall.

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