Taking issue with Yochai Benkler on J Street, Israel, and American Jews

May 5

I’ve never met Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler, but I’m guessing that if we sat down and had a conversation about Israel, we’d find a lot to agree on.  Like him, I support a two-state (or maybe three state) solution, and am concerned by the rise of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel–not because I have anything against the ultra-Orthodox, among whom are some of my favorite childhood teachers, but because their leadership tends to lack respect for liberal democracy.

Nevertheless, I’m disappointed in his recent article in The New Republic on J Street, Israel, and American Jews.  Here are several quotes I take issue with:

(1) “If organized American Jewry cannot find a place for J Street’s form of young, liberal, humanistic Judaism it is dooming itself to shrinking through attrition …”  JStreet is a political organization funded initially by George Soros and a mysterious Phillipina resident of Hong Kong, neither of whom have ties with the organized Jewish community. Meanwhile, the organization explicitly denied taking money from Soros, whose name was generally anathema among mainstream pro-Israel folk.  J Street’s founders and leadership have strong ties to the Democratic Party.  While J Street purports to be “pro-Israel and pro-peace” in practice its modus operandi has been to try to join the anti-Israel far left with Zionist peaceniks in an alliance against the Jewish establishment and Jewish intellectuals that fit neither description.  (To get a sense of the attitude JStreet represents: A right-leaning Jewish student activist at Brandeis recently wished the head of Brandeis’s J Street U. campus affiliate a friendly “Shabbat Shalom” (good Sabbath).  She responded by calling him a “shit bag” and telling him that “Jews hate you!”) If this is the sum of American Judaism, it deserves not only to shrink but to die; liberal Democratic politics isn’t Judaism, and vice versa, and when you ally with the enemies of k’lal yisroel (the Jewish community) against Jews you happen to disagree with politically, you’ve gone against some pretty basic Jewish principles.

(2) , “The 2013 Pew survey suggests that no more than 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox of any kind, and the trend is toward less orthodox identification.”  Compare what the page Benkler himself links to says: “Though Orthodox Jews constitute the smallest of the three major denominational movements, they are much younger, on average, and tend to have much larger families than the overall Jewish population. This suggests that their share of the Jewish population will grow.” (Perhaps TNR will issue a correction?)

Maybe five percent of young American Jews are both left-wing enough on Israel and politically involved enough to care that J Street thrives.  By comparison, 25% or so of American Jews under 18 are growing up in Orthodox households, and the Orthodox are far higher percentage if you define the Jewish tent to include only those who are actively involved in Jewish life instead of casting a very broad net as Pew did. That’s where much of the future lies, for better or worse, and the constant complaining by liberal Jewish intellectuals that the highly skewed sample of young left-wing Jewish intellectual types they happen to know are unhappy with Israel and the Jewish establishment because they are insufficiently in tune with left-liberal politics doesn’t actually make that group demographically terribly significant. In fact, even excluding both Orthodox Jews and Jewish day school graduates, young American Jews are more attached to Israel than is the previous generation.

(3) “The territory that occupies the space between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt is home to about 6.1 million Jews and about 6.1 million Arabs, of whom almost 1.7 million are citizens of Israel living within the 1967 borders and the territories around Jerusalem annexed by Israel after 1967, and the remaining 4.4 million are Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, or Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. If the Jewish state is to govern the whole of that area, without dividing the space with an independent Palestinian state, then it must either stop being Jewish or stop being democratic.”  I’ll put aside the issue of whether the population figures are accurate. Benkler neglects the fact that Israel is not governing Gaza; it has not a single soldier, civilian, or administrator living there, except for a handful of undercover agents, and has no desire to return there.  So Israeli Jews are a clear majority of the population of areas still under dispute, Israel and the West Bank.  But Israel doesn’t want to govern 1.5 million or so West Bank Arabs indefinitely (and indeed the vast majority of them are currently governed day-to-day by the Palestinian authority), as occupied population or as citizens.  If the peace process reaches a dead end, Israel will unilaterally withdraw from populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank, evacuate isolated settlements, and annex the rest.  Gaza is the precedent.  That might very well be disastrous, for all the reasons Gaza hasn’t gone well.  But it might be less bad than the available alternatives, and there’s no reason to pretend that (a) Israel is currently governing as many Arabs as Jews; and (b) that there is no other option besides either permanent occupation or a peace deal.

(4) “The Israel I grew up in was a secular democratic state whose self-image was captured by Paul Newman’s image in Exodus…” If you want to know why the Israeli left has consistently lost elections since 1977, Benkler has accidentally summed it up right there.  The Ashkenazic elite, of which Benkler is a member, thought it was their country, and that Israel should naturally be like them–Eurocentric in culture and fashion, social Democratic, and secular.  But when Benkler was growing up, over 50% of the Israeli population were Mizrahim, Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.  Most of them weren’t Orthodox, but they weren’t secular, either. Rather, they considered themselves “traditional,” respectful of Jewish tradition and of leading Sephardic rabbis without being Orthodox.  They were treated in a generally contemptuous, high-handed manner by elite Ashkenazim.   Imagine, for example, assuming that even religiously traditional dark-skinned Mizrahim agreed that the blond-haired, blue-eyed, secular European Newman character from Exodus represented the essence of Israeliness.  Menachem Begin managed to tap into the Mizrahim’s resentment by emphasizing his constituents’ common Jewishness rather than the secular elite’s version of Israeliness, and the Israeli left has never recovered.

As I’ve written before, I hope that J Street evolves to become a true pro-Israel, pro-peace group that spends at least as much time defending Israel from its very real enemies on the far left as it does promoting a left-leaning but Zionist agenda.  Im Tirzu, ein zo agadah?

UPDATE: J Street denies that the Brandeis incident I referenced above took place, though its denial is sufficiently vague that it’s not 100% clear precisely what J Street denies happened (that the two students interacted at all that evening?  That the dialogue I quoted took place?).  I checked with the student involved via Facebook, and he responded that “the incident happened 100%.”  He also has a witness.

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA.
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Eugene Volokh | May 5