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Monday, May 17, 2010

Zionism, liberalism and American youth

Peter Beinart, in the New York Review of Books, writes a lengthy article titled "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment."

His definition of failure is twofold: first, that the American Jewish leadership is not properly instilling Zionist values in Jewish youth, and second, that they are abandoning liberal values in order to support the (in his viewpoint) extreme right-wing Israeli government. He also despairs that most of the remaining committed Zionist youths are Orthodox, and (horrors!) conservative.

His article and the many weighty responses to it miss some major points.

He is correct in noticing that the majority of Jewish youth in America are indifferent to Israel at best, hostile at worst. The reason, he assumes, is that Jewish youth absorb liberal attitudes that are antithetical to Israel's hawkish policies.

In other words, liberalism - by his definition - is pro-Palestinian Arab, because the PalArabs are the weaker party and liberalism favors the underdog. (He doesn't say this explicitly but it is a major motif throughout his article.) Youths are liberal and therefore they favor the weak Arab side. They have no memory of when Israel was the underdog and Jews were suffering from daily explicit bigotry, which explains - according to this thinking -why their parents and grandparents were naturally pro-Israel.

There is one astonishing omission in this discussion, and that omission is the key reason why American Jewish youth are not more pro-Israel. This omission implies that even the pro-Israel liberals of today have forgotten the very definition of Zionism.

Zionism is the national revival movement of the Jewish people. It holds that the Jews have the right to self-determination in their own national home, and the right to develop their national culture.

The right to self-determination is a key liberal idea, and Zionism is by definition a liberal movement. The fact that pro-Israel liberals nowadays no longer think in terms of what Zionism really is indicates that they have, over time, begun to assimilate the Arab view of Zionism as an epithet, whose very definition has been changed to "the oppression of the indigenous people of Palestine."

This is the fundamental problem. The liberals should be emphasizing over and over again that Zionism is a  movement of self-determination of the Jewish nation, but instead they themselves believe that it is an oppressive movement.

Zionism never was and is not about oppression. The major forces behind modern Zionism - whether it is classical, revisionist or religious - never planned nor intended to hurt any other group of people, and that is still true today. Even Ariel Sharon in his most hawkish days expressed sympathy and empathy for the suffering of Palestinian Arabs. Zionism by definition is indifferent to the Arabs but in practice it has never meant to see them suffer.

But while no Zionist wants to see Arabs suffer, they also do not want to see Jews suffer either. The difference between the "hawks" and "doves" in Israel is simply a disagreement about where the line is drawn to maximize everyone's rights while not impinging on those of the other side. That's it. The vast majority of Israelis and Zionists agree on this basic point.

If liberals understood that simple and basic fact about Zionism, then there would be no problem with conveying that to Jewish youth. Both sides have rights and both sides have claims; the question is how to fairly   solve the competing claims. It is natural to advocate for your own side but that doesn't mean one has to be callous towards the other.

Israel and Zionists have long ago lost the battle for public opinion because the mostly-liberal media does not connect, at all, with the liberal ideal of Zionism. The seemingly strong side is the evil side, in the parody of liberalism that now dominates the thinking among today's left. Young Americans, including Jews, imbibe at this grotesque fountain of "liberalism" that has replaced the real thing in recent years.

That is one side of the problem of today's American Jewish youth.

The other one is far more fundamental, and while it is not surprising that the esteemed commentators don't mention it, it is still disconcerting.

Today's young American Jews have not the slightest clue about their own religion and their own people.

There is an obvious reason why the majority of committed Zionists nowadays are Orthodox - because the majority of committed Jews are Orthodox! It is the Reform and, to a lesser extent, Conservative Jews who have failed their youth in teaching them about their own heritage, and Zionism is dependent on understanding our history and our culture.

I want to make it clear that there are committed Reform and Conservative Jews. They are the distinct minority. There is no doubt that the levels of commitments to Zionism are directly proportional to their commitments to Judaism itself. How many times have we seen people who wear the mantle of their nominal Judaism as they debate against Israel, when they don't have the foggiest notion of what Judaism means?

The sad fact is that today's American Jews are growing up with the idea that Judaism is a hurdle stopping them from having fun. To them, Judaism means forced Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah lessons.  Their ability to mouth a few incomprehensible Hebrew sentences by heart is their idea of Judaism, to be discarded as soon as they get past their party.

Zionism cannot exist without a fundamental grounding in Judaism. It doesn't have to be Talmudic Judaism but it has to have a minimal understanding of Jewish history, Jewish law, Jewish customs - and the joy of being  a part of something much larger than oneself.

It is a sad commentary on the state of American Judaism today that a single Birthright trip teaches more about Zionism and Judaism than the previous 18 years combined.

If liberal Jews want to make their children more committed to Zionism, they need to start with a commitment to Judaism that is more than an egalitarian Passover seder and saying Kaddish at a funeral. Only when people understand their own history and culture can they be expected to want to support the idea of self-determination for their people.