In his reaction to Peter Beinart's Jeremiad about the supposed failure of the American Jewish establishment
, Alon Pinkas, perhaps inadvertently, illuminated a central, but ignored, issue in the controversy over J Street and the "Liberal" Jews versus the "Establishment."
discusses the revolution that occurred in the American Jewish community when Israel
was born. American Jews got an "old country" and could be like all other hyphenated Americans. He writes:
Take a look at late 19th and early to mid-20th century Jewish-American culture: literature, poetry, political associations, education. How often did Jews dream or fantasize about returning to Russia or Poland? Have you ever seen a cheap oil painting of a beautiful shtetl in Lithuania in a Jewish home or deli? In comparison, how many paintings of Napoli or Venice do you still see in Little Italy?
Then, in 1948, American Jews got the great ethnic equalizer: a homeland.
The State of Israel. A motherland that they had never been to, chose not to emigrate to, knew hardly anyone there except for a recently discovered distant cousin who lives in some strange socialist arrangement called a "kibbutz." They loved it from afar, feared for its fragile existence -- a short five, 10, and 20 years after the Holocaust -- and regarded it as a source of pride and a potential insurance policy.
Pinkas also traces the stages in the evolution of the relationship of American Jews to Israel. Pinkas has hit on something important, but I don't think he got it quite right. As a son of Palestinian Jewish parents, it never occurred to me, while I was living in the United States, that I was different from other Jews whose ancestors came from Poland or Russia or Germany or Argentina. The difference first became apparent to me in Israel, when I heard about the sudden fascination of some American Jews with going to find their roots in Lodz and Kovno and Vilnius and Berditchev, going to gaze at the remnants of destroyed synagogues and cemeteries and to reconstruct the vanished Jewish culture of central and eastern Europe. When I visited the United States, I understood not only that I was an Israeli as well as an American, but that I and my family had always been an Israeli or Palestinian-Jewish Americans, and I understood that that accounted for some communication and cultural gaps between myself and my Jewish friends whose ancestors had come from Europe.
Pinkas is wrong in at least one assumption. I have seen nostalgic paintings and articles about the shtetl, and the yiddel mit a fiddle, sanitized of the noxious restrictions of the Tsarist regime and of the pogroms. It suddenly hit me, that for those Jews, these places where their families were hated and persecuted and ultimately murdered, are now mythologized as "home," while Israel is a more or less foreign entity to them. Many American Jews never looked at Israel as their home. Some resented the Zionist enterprise as a threat to their "Americanism" and a reminder that they are Jews. Some were indifferent. Others were happy to support Israel as a charity case, a home for dispossessed Jews, who could be sent to a Jewish state, rather than coming to the United States where they might be an embarrassment and a financial burden for their more fortunate brethren. For those Jews, the victory of the Six Day War created a problem: Israel could no longer be treated with contempt and pity, as an object of charity that would "know its place."
That is something that Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street and I can share in common - a homeland or "mother country" and a family history in Israel and the pre-state Zionist Yishuv. Israel is not just a place where our ancestors lived and was persecuted. It is something they built. It is ours by inheritance. Many American Jews have adopted the same proprietary feelings about Israel and the Zionist movement. However, for a significant number of American Jews, Israel has never been a homeland in any sense. That is the basis of the real split in the American Jewish community, which transcends the politics of right and left. It also helps to explain the problems that intermarriage poses not only for Jewish identity, but for allegiance to Israel (see here and here. Italian, Hispanic German, Irish, Polish, Czech, Chinese, Japanese and Scandinavian American immigrants intermarry. In a few generations, allegiances to the various "old countries" are forgotten. Secular Jews are intermarrying as well. Their grandchildren may or may not be interested in the respective homelands of all their ancestors. Obviously, this phenomenon has no relation to Israeli policies and cannot be reversed by any action of the American Jewish "establishment" related to Israel.
Jeremy Ben-Ami and his colleagues and many others who insist that they represent the American Jewish community may be in an entirely different place from most of the crowd they are leading. Their quest for peace is part of an internal Israeli and Zionist debate, an argument within the close family, perhaps a "revolt of the youth."
Those Jews for whom Israel is not at least a symbolic homeland, resent the notion that they are called upon to support Israel just because they have Jewish ancestors. Many of them go out of their way to show that they are "not the sort of Jew who supports Israel." There is now an International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network whose motto is "Confront Zionism - Divest from Israel."
The followers and fellow travelers of J Street and similar movements include people who are not "family" and who do not consider themselves to be part of the Zionist enterprise. Israel is not their "old country." They are interested in Israel-bashing for quite different reasons, as they are anti-Zionists. J Street and Jeremy Ben-Ami can be angry about government policy and call the Israeli government "fascists" and other names as is regularly done by many of us in Israel. It will not change their fundamental allegiance to the Zionist cause. But when they air their opinions for the benefit of other American Jews and a general audience, that audience hears a very different message from the one that the Zionist peace advocates intend to convey. Name-calling within the family can get pretty rough without doing damage. It doesn't sound the same to strangers.
When many of the Jewish followers and fellow travelers of the "peace movement" talk about BDS and Israeli "war crimes," they mean it literally. When they talk about ending the "occupation," they don't mean the 1967 occupation, but the 1948 "occupation." The Badil conference on Boycott and Divestment referred to "Intel (on Iraq al-Manshiyya)." Iraq al-Manshiyya is Qiriat Gat, part of Israel since 1948. Anyone who partners with such groups or joins their boycott campaigns must certainly know: JVP and similar groups may squirm and attempt to evade the facts, but they really do want to destroy what we have built here, and they don't care if we Israelis are exterminated in their "one democratic state."
It was therefore second nature for Ben-Ami and J Street to condemn the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and "Apartheid Week", because it is obvious that BDS is really designed to destroy Israel. Ben-Ami and J Street don't want that of course. You can argue with your parents and call them a lot of names, but sane people don't want to kill their parents.
It was logical, on the other hand, for many of the erstwhile admirers of J Street, to turn on J Street and Ben-Ami for condemning BDS. J Street had said all kinds of nasty things about Israel. They had approved of showing the anti-Semitic play "Seven Jewish Children." and they favor a Palestinian government that includes the genocidal Hamas.
If J Street (and Beinart) really believe that Israel is ruled by a regime with a racist ideology (Zionism) and that Israelis are monstrous war criminals as Beinart maintains, then it is logical to expect that J Street and similar organizations would join the drive to abolish the Jewish state. But while Ben-Ami and J Street may use the same rhetoric as Badil, AFSC, Bay Area Campaign to End Israel Apartheid, Philip Weiss, Jewish Voice for Peace or Richard Silverstein , they do not mean it in the same way. They are "just talking." They don't realize that their rhetoric has a different meaning for outsiders. Ben-Ami and his colleagues haven't gotten the point yet, but eventually they assuredly will. When push comes to shove, I suspect they aren't going to abandon Zionism and join the bandwagon of the Muslim Students Union and Hamas groupies along with "liberal" Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace. Then, inevitably, their own crowd will turn against them increasingly, and identify them as "Judas goats" who talk a good line but are unwilling to carry their rhetoric to its logical (though incorrect) conclusion.
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Replies: 2 Comments
What an interesting set of insights. Many years ago a very orthodox rabbi analogized to me that the orthodox community was like an apple that was constantly generating Jews from its core. The secular world was a paring knife constantly removing Jews from the periphery and eventually rendering them non-Jewish. After two or three generations they were lost to the Jewish world.
I was very young and skeptical when I heard that. I am no longer so skeptical and it occurs to me that not a few Nazis in Hitler's Reich and their Ukrainian and Polish assistants in the death camps had Jewish ancestors.
Howard Wolf, Wednesday, May 26th
This is what this Beinart has said in the DailyBeast
The prime minister of Israel has repeatedly compared the establishment of a Palestinian state to the Holocaust.
As an Israeli I’d be the first to hear of it, and there would be quite over this from the opposition, as well as the international community. And as for the rest of errors: Avigdor Liberman is not his ‘protégé’ they are rivals. Liberman wishes to lead the right as prime minister. And the Likud was not the only party to support the settlers, there were many others of different names and sizes, Tkhiya, Tzomet, the National Religious Party, are just some of those that comes to mind. Either this man is ignorant, or considers facts and accountability of lesser importance then the point he is trying to make.
Dvar Dea, Tuesday, May 25th
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