Peter Beinart has an extremely important, extremely provocative, and extremely necessary piece out in the New York Review of Books, entitled The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment. It argues, more or less, that most American Jewish organizations have been unsuccessful either in cultivating any sense of connection between young, (relatively) secular American Jews and Israel. Moreover, their approach to "pro-Israel" politics does not do justice to the liberal Zionist tradition, further turning off young Jews and exacerbating a generational and sectarian divide within the Jewish community on the proper stance towards Israel. The result is that the territory of "pro-Israel" is, more and more, becoming the province of the growing Orthodox right-wing youth and, more importantly right-wing Christian evangelicals (what Matt Yglesias terms to the "post-Jewish pro-Israel movement". This shift is happening at the exact same time as Israel's own youth cultural has taken a decided rightward shift. For those of us who think demographic realities and approaching binationalism represent an existential threat to Jewish existence, this is a grave prescription indeed.
Beinart is mostly right. There are quibbles -- there are always quibbles (I think he overstates the degree to which the behavior of American Jewish institutions is motivated by "illiberalism" versus a sort of paralysis in the face of the siren's call of Evangelical support). But the quibbles don't obviate the major point, which is that liberal Zionism -- and with it, the Jewish Zionist dream, are in a state of crisis, and the current guard of American Jewish leaders is not responding appropriately. They've forgotten, first and foremost, who they represent.
Beinart's most powerful points are about the poisonous influence of the Israeli religious far-right, and its growing influence in American orthodox quarters. Most American Jews, of course, still are Conservative or Reform. I'm Conservative not because I'm not motivated enough to be Orthodox, I'm Conservative because I fundamentally think we have a more comprehensive, more compelling, more engaging, more authentic, richer, deeper, and more meaningful conception of what Judaism means. Yet in its public persona my denomination has rarely managed to come up with a coherent self-identity beyond "Jews too lazy to be Orthodox". No wonder we're not considered real Jews amongst the Israeli religious authorities! I wouldn't respect me either, if that were my outlook. You want to know why young Jews don't affiliate with mainstream Jewish organizations anymore? Perhaps its because they don't want to have their Judaism defined by those who -- on the key issue of Jewish concern of the age -- write policy with two eyes on Evangelical Protestants.
It's past time that American Jewish groups begin representing their constituents, and that means taking a hard line on folks who would exclude us from the canon. It also means vigorously promoting our own view of what it means to be Jewish. I'm on the record as saying certain extreme proponents of settler violence and anti-Palestinian racism (I'm talking here of folks who are publicly in favor of exterminating Palestinians, or folks who say "You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic" as justification for permanently barring Arabs from voting in Israel) should be excommunicated from the faith, and I think the Rabbinical authorities of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism should begin that process forthwith. If non-Orthodox Judaism is to emerge from its current decrepit state, it will need to take bold steps like this -- to show it is a "fighting faith" (to use an older phrase of Beinart's). I think we should defend our positions on abortion, and gay rights, and anti-racism, and religious liberty, as Jewish virtues, not just liberal ones. I think we should come to our policy positions with eye on what we want and what we need, not what John Hagee or Sarah Palin do. Fundamentally, the Zionist dream was about achieving democratic autonomy for the Jewish people. It's a faint autonomy if -- still -- we take marching orders from our Christian "superiors".
Israel Matzav, responding from the right, already recognizes these battle lines. He sneers at what he considers to be the faux-Judaism of young liberal Jews (indeed, he claims -- without support -- that many of them aren't Jewish at all "under Jewish", by which I take it he means Orthodox Jewish, "law"), and forthrightly declares that he'd prefer the support of the Evangelical Christian community over that of the bulk of American Jews. And, as Spencer Ackerman correctly notes, liberal Jews can't expect anybody but liberal Jews to care whether Israel stays a liberal, Jewish state. Illiberal Jews won't care if it remains liberal, non-Jews won't care if it remains Jewish. It's on us -- we can't rely on other people to do our dirty work for us.
The time has come for liberal Jewry to flex its muscle once again -- to stop taking its cues from the Orthodox right (or, needless to say given my past work, the fringe left) and stand up for our own values. If we think the dream of liberal Zionism is important, then it's up to us to preserve it. There is nobody else.