By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; A15
For American Jews, Israel's catastrophic misadventure on the high seas this weekend has only deepened the chasm that increasingly splits them into two camps. On the Web site of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which represents this nation's aging Jewish establishment, the story on the deadly encounter is headlined "Radical Hamas Supporters Beat, Stab Israeli Soldiers." The deaths of nine people protesting Israel's blockade of Gaza don't even rate a sub-headline.
By contrast, the Web site of J Street, the American Jewish group that actively supports a two-state solution for the Middle East and that criticizes Israeli and Palestinian efforts to thwart such a solution, reflects a far different sensibility. The calamity, J Street writes, "is in part a consequence of the ongoing counterproductive Israeli blockade of Gaza." And on the Web site of Americans for Peace Now, another liberal Zionist group allied with the Israeli peace movement, the Israeli naval action is termed "a new low point in the way [Israel] chose to contend with its domestic and external policy dissidents."
Israel's leaders, says Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now, increasingly characterize dissent as terrorism. "We hear terms like 'economic terrorism' used to describe a Palestinian Authority effort to boycott products made in Israeli settlements, 'popular terror' to describe nonviolent protest and 'cultural terror' to describe pressure on international artists to cancel appearances in Israel."
These opposing perspectives reflect a genuine rift within the American Jewish community -- or, perhaps, between American Jewry's two increasingly distinct communities. On one side are the venerable Jewish organizations unwilling to criticize the Israeli government for its increasing elevation of ethnocentricity over democracy; Orthodox Jews for whom such ethnocentricity is often central to their lives; and the small, hardy band of neoconservatives for whom this fight over Israel's character is just one more front in their ongoing war against fellow Jews whose liberalism drives them batty.
On the other side are a growing number of those Jewish liberals and a clear majority of younger American Jews. Former New Republic editor Peter Beinart published an important essay on this generational rift in the June 10 issue of the New York Review of Books. He begins with an account of focus groups that Republican pollster Frank Luntz held with American Jewish college students in 2003, in which it became quickly apparent that their thoughts, even as they discussed their Jewishness, seldom if ever turned to Israel. The only Zionism that the students could support, writes Beinart, was one "that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs." They held, in short, the abiding beliefs of liberal American Jews in human rights, multiculturalism and skepticism toward military solutions, "and in their innocence," writes Beinart, "they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel."
These college students, however, are not the only young American Jews. A 2006 poll sponsored by the American Jewish Committee showed that while 60 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews under 40 backed a Palestinian state, just 25 percent of their Orthodox counterparts did. "Particularly in the younger generations," Beinart concludes, "fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal."
The roots of American Jewish Zionism, of course, are almost entirely liberal. Consider the career of David Ginsburg, the Washington attorney who died May 23 at age 98 with one of the most stellar liberal résumés of the 20th century. A young New Deal lawyer who clerked for Justice William O. Douglas, Ginsburg helped found Americans for Democratic Action, authored the Kerner Commission report calling for far greater attention to the needs of black America -- and as counsel for the Jewish Agency (which represented the mainstream Jewish organizations in pre-1948 Palestine) played a key role in securing U.S. recognition for the new Israeli state.
The David Ginsburgs of today, however, have feelings toward Israel that are understandably more conflicted. For the past 43 years, Israel has occupied the Palestinian West Bank, building settlements there that reduce the Palestinian sphere to a series of Bantustans. As the settlers, the Orthodox and Russian immigrants have backed policies that have marginalized Palestinians within and outside of Israel, the democratic character of this once democratic socialist nation has diminished. A nation that bans Noam Chomsky at the border, lest he lecture on Palestinian rights, is no longer one that Louis Brandeis -- a leading figure in both American liberalism and American Zionism for the first half of the last century -- would necessarily embrace. And with each passing day, his heirs -- with good reason -- grow ever more estranged.