Peter Beinart’s Cocoon
by Jerold Auerbach
Peter Beinart’s newest screed in The New York Review of Books (“The American Jewish Cocoon,” September 26) offers variations on a familiar theme. It sharply criticizes the American Jewish community, especially “the American Jewish establishment,” for its insularity from legitimate Palestinian grievances against Israel and its distorted perception of Palestinians as “a faceless, frightening, undifferentiated mass.”
At the top of Beinart’s agenda is the necessity of talking to Palestinians. “Our isolation from Palestinians,” Beinart admonishes, “keeps us dumb.” He faults American Jews, especially community leaders, for their lack of empathy. Encountering Palestinians would combat “American Jewish ignorance” and “American Jewish hatred.” Yet even he concedes: “Virtually every Palestinian I’ve ever met considers Zionism to be colonialist, imperialist, and racist.” What, then, is the point of closer communication?
Beinart’s indictment is a reprise of his previous New York Review critique (June 10, 2010). Then, echoing Palestinians, he castigated Jewish leaders for supporting the Israeli “occupation” of “Palestinian” territories. Expanded into The Crisis of Zionism, and further refined in a New York Times op-ed, he effectively pledged allegiance to the worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which reframes traditional anti-Semitic tropes in the currently fashionable delegitimization of Israel. Advocating a “Zionist B.D.S.” movement, he proposed a boycott on products from “nondemocratic” Israel i.e. Jewish settlements. Even far-left lobby group J Street rejected his proposal.
As if to demonstrate its irrelevance, Beinart’s current New York Review essay coincided with the publication of a Pew Research Center survey revealing a far more ominous development within the American Jewish community than any disinclination to communicate with Palestinians.
The “changing nature” of American Jewish identity reveals a sharply declining religious identification (except among the Orthodox), long the defining attribute of Jewish identity. One in five American Jews has no religious identification. Nearly two-thirds identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture, not religion. Among them, an equivalent proportion is not raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish. The rate of Jewish intermarriage is approaching 60 percent, above 70 percent among non-Orthodox Jews.
The lack of attachment of American Jews to Israel is equally worrisome. Only one-third of Jews who identify by religion are “very attached”; barely ten percent of non-religious Jews feel bound to Israel. Nearly one-quarter of the former have little or no attachment; more than half the Jews of no religion are completely detached from the Jewish state.
As good liberals (like Beinart), barely one-third of American Jews believe that Israel is making “a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians.” Nearly half believe that settlement construction is harmful to Israel’s security interests. But only twelve percent believe that Palestinian leaders are sincere in seeking peace with Israel.
The “American Jewish Cocoon” that Beinart laments entirely misses the point. Any unwillingness of American Jews to communicate with Palestinians is dwarfed in significance by their exodus from Jewish identity. Embracing the great wide wonderful world of assimilation, the theology of liberalism grows ever stronger as their prevailing faith. More than double the percentage of American Jews who feel attachment to Israel, according to the Pew findings, are concerned with discrimination against gays, lesbians, Muslims and African Americans.
Beinart chastises American Jewish organizations for avoiding encounters with Palestinians. Birthright, for example, does not take its Diaspora participants to Palestinian towns and cities – nor, however, does it cross the “Green Line” to visit Jewish settlements. He complains that Hillel has issued guidelines urging local chapters not to host speakers who “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” which sounds like an eminently reasonable policy. Even Beinart concedes that the BDS movement “is based on a dangerous and inaccurate analogy” between Israel and apartheid South Africa.
Beinart complains that the organized American Jewish community is a “closed intellectual space.” But no one seems to inhabit a more tightly closed intellectual space than Peter Beinart.
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of the forthcoming Jewish State/Pariah State: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy, to be published by Quid Pro Books.