Before It’s Too Late

Peter Beinart

Yesterday I read an excellent article by Peter Beinart in The New York Review of Books titled, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” – the failure being that of not better connecting younger generations of American Jews to Israel. Whereas Orthodox children, teens and college students are very much tuned in to the Jewish State religiously, emotionally, personally and politically, their more numerous liberal counterparts are not.

Beinart charges the established American Jewish leadership with blindly supporting and defending the Israeli government, even as it has moved to the right – and in some cases even exhibited anti-democratic and anti-human and civil rights tendencies. These leaders, middle aged and older, are assuming that young people’s perceptions of Israel are the same as theirs. They are acting as though the the defining historical events of their own Zionist identities (Independence, The Six Day War, The Yom Kippur War) are relevant to today’s youth, rather than recognizing that they are “ancient” history to the generations who have grown up knowing Israel only as an occupier.

Beinart claims that the leadership has lost its wager that young Jews would check their liberalism at the door, because they have, in fact, dropped their Zionism instead. In citing a study done by a Republican pollster hired by Jewish philanthropists to find out why Jewish college students were not rebutting anti-Israel criticism on campus more vigorously, Beinart reports that “the only kind of Zionism they [the students] found attractive was a Zionism 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….The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.”

Coincidentally, just today, I discovered two different films about Israel that highlight this disconnect. The first (which you can view at the bottom of this post) was put out by Israventure, an educational project of Beit Hatfutsot. It presents the official line on Israel – which is accurate, yet is missing a piece of the whole picture. It’s a lovely little film, and it brought tears to my eyes (I admit that I can’t listen to the voice of David Ben Gurion reading out Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 without crying) and a smile to my face. But don’t forget how old I am, that I have lived in Israel, and that I received a hardline Labor Zionist education. I’m not a youngster whose view of Israel has come through the lens of a CNN news camera.

Salma, Israeli filmmaker Noa Ben Hagai's Palestinian cousin

The second film (which you can view in the post below this one) is a trailer for the new documentary film called, “Blood Relation” (Kirvat Dam in Hebrew) by the young Israeli filmmaker Noa Ben Hagai. Whereas the Palestinians (or Israeli Arabs) don’t seem to even exist in the Israventure film targeted at young Diaspora Jews, in this film they are not only the Israelis’ neighbors, but even their brothers – and not just in the figurative “Isaac and Ishmael are both children of Abraham” sense.

Ben Hagai set out to film what came out of the Pandora’s box that she opened upon discovering a family secret. Unbeknownst to her and some of her other relatives, her great aunt Pnina married a Palestinian man in the 1940’s, left her family and went to live in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank. It is unclear whether Pnina (who disappeared at the age of 14) freely chose to marry the man she did, but the outcome is that she went on to live as a Muslim and have a family – one that never got to know the Jewish one from which their mother came. Once the secret is revealed, the two branches do meet, and there is deliberation on both sides as to whether they really want to pursue truly becoming one family. An extremely powerful and revealing moment in the trailer occurs when Ben Hagai’s aunt expresses doubt that anything will come of it, wondering what the Jewish side of the family could possibly gain from the relationship and saying of the Palestinians, “After all, their life is hopeless.” If rapprochement in this Palestinian-Israeli microcosm is so difficult, then how can the rest of us hold out much hope for a resolution of the larger conflict?

There’s a place for both of these films, both of these perceptions of Israel – but neither can stand alone when the reality on the ground in the Middle East is so complex. Beinart’s argument is that young American Jews know that both lenses on Israel exist, and that it is a dangerous mistake for the American Jewish establishment to pretend that they don’t. It’s dangerous, because if young liberal American Jews disengage completely from Israel while anti-democratic sentiments grow among certain elements of Israeli society, Israel’s civil and human rights record is attacked internationally, and the established American leadership continues to defend the policies of the Israeli government no matter what, then those Israeli citizens and organizations fighting from within to protect, maintain and expand civil rights in the Jewish homeland will be left stranded.

© Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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4 Responses to “Before It’s Too Late”

  1. Rose Barlow Says:

    I truly see both sides – I am a product of a pretty hard line Labor Zionist education too (minus the time living in Israel as opposed to several extended visits to it). As a South African Jew who saw Jews fight against apartheid AND collude with it I have no rose tinted glasses about the human frailties of my Jewish ‘family’ in keeping up with the lofty ideals of ‘being a light unto the nations’ whilst also exercising sovereign power in a complex society located in a complex geopolitical context.

    I agree with Beinart – I certainly don’t want my children to be part of the group that dehumanizes anyone (Palestinians and/or Arabs included) – and I do want my kids to feel connected to Israel.

    Can I trust that the non-orthodox Jewish Day Schools can deliver this nuance to 8th graders????

  2. Renee Ghert-Zand Says:

    Rose,
    I agree with you that finding that educational balance is tough. Being a staunch Zionist and believer in the right of a sovereign Israel to defend itself, while at the same time not delegitimizing Palestinian national aspirations or dehumanizing anyone is a grey area that is hard enough for adults to grasp, let alone 8th graders.

  3. Maya Norton Says:

    Great post, Renee. I’ve picked it up on my Facebook microblog here– The New Jew: Microblog, http://tinyurl.com/TheNewJew.

    Will definitely be back.

    ~ Maya

  4. Renee Ghert-Zand Says:

    Maya – thanks for re-posting, and please do come back! I don’t know if you have seen two other posts I wrote that are directly related:
    https://truthpraiseandhelp.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/begging-to-differ/
    and
    https://truthpraiseandhelp.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/keep-reading/

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