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Israel's next great crisis may come not with the Palestinians or Iran but with young American Jews
A dramatic shift is taking place in Israel and America. In Israel, the deepening occupation of the West Bank is putting Israeli democracy at risk. In the United States, the refusal of major Jewish organizations to defend democracy in the Jewish state is alienating many young liberal Jews from Zionism itself. In the next generation, the liberal Zionist dream--the dream of a state that safeguards the Jewish people and cherishes democratic ideals--may die.
In The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart lays out in chilling detail the looming danger to Israeli democracy and the American Jewish establishment's refusal to confront it. And he offers a fascinating, groundbreaking portrait of the two leaders at the center of the crisis: Barack Obama, America's first "Jewish president," a man steeped in the liberalism he learned from his many Jewish friends and mentors in Chicago; and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who considers liberalism the Jewish people's special curse. These two men embody fundamentally different visions not just of American and Israeli national interests but of the mission of the Jewish people itself.
Beinart concludes with provocative proposals for how the relationship between American Jews and Israel must change, and with an eloquent and moving appeal for American Jews to defend the dream of a democratic Jewish state before it is too late.
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Peter Beinart is the author of The Icarus Syndrome and The Good Fight. A former editor of The New Republic, he is a senior political writer for The Daily Beast and the editor-in-chief of Open Zion, a blog about Israel and the Jewish future at thedailybeast.com. He is an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York and a senior fellow at The New America Foundation. He lives with his family in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Crisis in Israel
As a Zionist, I believe that after two millennia of homelessness, the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land, something enjoyed by many peoples who have suffered far less. As a partisan of liberal democracy, I believe that to honor that history of suffering, a Jewish state must offer equal citizenship to all its inhabitants. In the spirit of Hillel, it must not do to others what Jews found hateful when done to them. Are these principles in tension? Absolutely. There will always be tension between Israel’s responsibility to the Jewish people and its responsibility to all its people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. But as the scholars Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein have noted, “Tension between values, in and of itself, is no indication that one of the competing values is illegitimate.” If there is tension between Zionism and liberal democracy, there is also tension between economic development and environmental protection, or government spending and fiscal discipline, or civil liberties and national defense, or many other goals that governments rightly pursue. At the heart of the Zionist project is the struggle to reconcile these two valid but conflicting ideals. If Israel fails in that struggle, it will either cease being a Jewish state or cease being a democratic one. Today, it is failing, and American Jews are helping it fail.
Theodor Herzl would be distraught, but not surprised. The man who founded the Zionist movement did not merely want a Jewish state. He wanted a Jewish state that cherished liberal ideals. And he knew that to create such a state, Jews would have to wage a battle for its soul. In 1902, he wrote a novel called Altneuland (Old New Land) about a future Jewish country. Herzl’s Jewish country is an impressive place. It guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of religion; rabbis enjoy “no privileged voice in the state.” The book’s hero, a presidential candidate named David Littwak, speaks Arabic, and one of his closest allies is an Arab engineer from Haifa. In their political party, Littwak tells a visitor, “We do not ask to what race or religion a man belongs. If he is a man that is enough for us.”
But, Littwak admits, “there are other views among us.” Their foremost proponent is a Rabbi Geyer, who seeks to strip non-Jews of the vote. Herzl modeled Geyer on an anti-Semitic demagogue in his native Austria, thus raising the specter that once Jews enjoyed power they might persecute others in the same way gentiles had persecuted them. The novel ends with the campaign between Littwak’s party and Geyer’s. “You must hold fast to the things that have made us great: To liberality, tolerance and love of mankind,” one of Littwak’s supporters tells a crowd. “Only then is Zion truly Zion!” In his final words, the outgoing president declares, “Let the stranger be at home among us.” After a fierce contest, Littwak’s party wins, Geyer leaves the country, and in the novel’s epilogue, Herzl implores readers to make his Zionist dream come true.
As a vision of the Zionist future, Altneuland has its problems. While Herzl believed deeply in equality for individual Arabs, he could not imagine an Arab national movement demanding a state in Palestine of its own. (His rival, the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am, knew better, insisting that “This land is also their national home ... and they have the right to develop their national potential to the best of their ability.”) Still, for all its flaws, Altneuland shows that while Zionism was a nationalist movement, it was also, from the beginning, a liberal one. (Even those early Zionists who identified themselves as socialists mostly shared a liberal conception of freedom of conscience and equality under the law.) Zionism’s founding fathers—men like Herzl, Moses Hess, and Leon Pinsker—were children of the Enlightenment. Earlier in their lives, each had hoped that as the nations of Europe dedicated themselves to the rights of man they would eventually extend those rights to Jews. When anti-Semitism refused to climb into history’s grave, and instead reincarnated itself in racial, pseudoscientific form, the Zionist intellectuals lost faith in Europe and decided that only in their own state could Jews live safe, full lives. But they did not lose faith in Enlightenment ideals; they transplanted them. “We don’t want a Boer state,” wrote Herzl in his diary, expressing revulsion at racist Afrikaner nationalism. “But a Venice.”
But Herzl knew that a tolerant, cosmopolitan republic like Venice was not preordained, that Jews were entirely capable of birthing a Boer state. This conflict, between the desire to build a Jewish state premised on liberal democratic principles and the temptation to flout those principles in the name of Jewish security and power, runs throughout the Zionist enterprise. It is the battle every Zionist generation wages against itself. In May 1948, in “The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel,” the state’s founders promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Yet in the war that preceded and followed those majestic words, Zionist forces committed abuses so terrible that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared himself “shocked by the deeds that have reached my ears.” In the town of Jish, in the Galilee, Israeli soldiers pillaged Arab houses, and when the residents protested, took them to a remote location and shot them dead. During the war, roughly 700,000 Arabs left Palestine, and irrespective of whether most left their homes voluntarily or were forced out, Israel refused to let them return.
In the struggle to build a Jewish state in the face of implacable foes, the liberal ideals outlined by Israel’s founders were brutally flouted. But the fact that those liberal ideals existed at all created space for democratic struggle. When the war of independence ended, Israel gave citizenship to the Arabs still living within its territory, which was more than the refugees gained in most of the Arab countries to which they fled. The rights of Israeli Arabs were curtailed, to be sure: in Israel’s first decades, most lived under martial law. But Arab and Jewish Israelis joined together to protest this blatant discrimination, and in 1966 martial law was lifted. Massive inequities remained, but it was possible to believe that, slowly and fitfully, the gap between Zionism and liberalism was narrowing, that Israel was moving in the direction of Herzl’s dream.
Then, in 1967, the Six-Day War turned history’s trajectory upside down. With its Arab neighbors poised to attack, Israel struck first, fought brilliantly, conquered the West Bank of the Jordan River, among other territories, and began to settle the land (a process made easier by the Arab world’s apparent refusal to offer peace, even if Israel gave the new territories back). For a country built by pioneers, this was natural. Settling land—especially land as rich with biblical meaning as the West Bank—was in the Zionist DNA. The problem was that this time, liberal ideals did not tether the Zionist project. A year after it eliminated its most flagrant discrimination against its own Arab citizens, Israel made itself master of millions of Palestinian Arabs who enjoyed no citizenship at all. Suddenly, Rabbi Geyer had a kingdom of his own.
* * *
It is as if Altneuland’s election had ended with each party governing part of the land. In David Littwak’s Israel, the Israel born in 1948, liberal Zionism, to some extent, exists. Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy individual rights like freedom of speech, assembly, and worship. They sit in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and on its Supreme Court. Arab Israelis also enjoy the kind of group rights for which many ethnic and religious minorities yearn. They maintain their own religious courts and their own, state-funded, Arabic-language schools and media. Indeed, Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages. Arab citizens have also made dramatic educational and economic gains under Israeli rule. The political scientists Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman note that in 1948 the illiteracy rate among Israeli Arabs was 80 percent. By 1988, it was 15 percent.
In a nation that has lived since its creation with the ever-present threat of war—a strain that would have turned countries less nourished by liberal ideals into police states—these are impressive accomplishments. The very anti-Zionist critics who attack Israel most ferociously often rely on the work of Israeli historians, Israeli journalists, Israeli human rights activists, and Israeli lawyers. Yet they rarely acknowledge that the ability of Israelis, including Arab Israelis, to damn their government in the harshest of terms—and rarely see the inside of a prison cell—says something admirable about the Zionist project. It is far from clear that, under similar circumstances, any of the democracies that criticize Israel’s human rights record would have done better. Arab Israelis, after all, share an ethnicity with the states and organizations against which Israel has repeatedly gone to war. And some—though not most—Arab Israelis sympathize with those adversaries. Certainly, no American familiar with the way the United States government treated German Americans during World War I, Japanese Americans during World War II, or even Muslim Americans during the “war on terror”—during wars that, unlike Israel’s, mostly took place thousands of miles from America’s shores—has any cause for sanctimony.
Still, as important as it is to honor Israel’s accomplishments, it is even ...
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