How the dream died

Liberal American Jews are falling out of love with Israel.

Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion under a portrait of Theodor Herzl
Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion standing under a huge portrait of Theodor Herzl. Photograph: Getty Images

The Crisis of Zionism
Peter Beinart
Times Books, 304pp, £18.99

Knowing Too Much
Norman G Finkelstein
OR Books, 466pp, £12

In July 1965, the late Bernard Levin published an essay in the New Statesman entitled “Am I a Jew?” He knew the answer perfectly well. What he was trying to examine was what “being a Jew” meant to him: an assimilated, educated bourgeois living in England in the second half of the 20th century, with no religious faith and no particular interest in Jewish tradition or culture. Nor was he an ardent Zionist: “My attitude to Israel – admiration for the incredible achievements, hope that it will continue, combined with the strongest condemnation of her crime against her original Arab inhabitants and the campaign of lies she has waged ever since on the subject – does not seem to mark me off in any way from a Gentile of similar political outlook”. The use of the words “crime” and “lies” was, in fact, then quite rare.

Quite apart from the history of Zionismas a political movement, or the tragic andintractable conflict in the Holy Land, there is a fascinating subject here for what Keynes called “the historian of Opinion”. That is what two new books by Jewish American writers address. The “crisis of Zionism” of Peter Beinart’s title refers not to the Arab-Israeli conflict as such, but to its effect on American Jews, increasingly disenchanted with Israel. Norman Finkelstein’s book looks at the same question.

Of the two, Beinart’s is the more interesting because it’s the more surprising. Anything but a “non-Jewish Jew”, he sends his children to an Orthodox school, remains a Zionist who believes that “the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land” and, as a youthful editor of the strongly Zionist New Republic, supported the Iraq war and the “war on terror”. All of that makes him an unlikely dissident, although he joins an increasingly large group.

More and more Jewish Americans – although in truth they may be less and less “Jewish”, in everything from religion to cultural identity to undiluted descent – are repelled and embarrassed by Israel, its politicians, its army and its settlers. The rate of intermarriage increases all the time (complicating the question “Who is a Jew?”), younger Jews are likely to befriend Muslims at college, while well-publicised Israeli deeds in Gaza and the West Bank become ever harder to defend. Young people educated in a secular mode of self-questioning are insulted to be told, as Beinart puts it, that “they should start with the assumption that Israeli policy is justified and then work backwards to figure out why”.

A gulf has opened, and is widening all the time, between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official “Jewish establishment” (the Anti-Defamation League, Aipac and others), elderly, rich and right-wing, though also self-perpetuating and unrepresentative. Beinart has a not entirely convincing chapter on Obama “The Jewish President”, who supposedly imbibed many of his values from rabbis and other Jewish savants in Chicago, and is closer, we are told, to true Jewish values than that establishment or the zealots governing Israel.

However that may be, it’s a striking fact that four years ago 78 per cent of Jewish Americans voted for Barack Obama. Although the figure will be lower this November, Jews as a whole are measurably more liberal than the national mean. They have watched with perplexity as Obama was both insulted and outplayed by Binyamin Netanyahu. But in any case the essential story here concerns not the White House or liberal Jews but Capitol Hill. Congress now gives “unwavering support” to any action Israel takes or might conceivably take, even in direct defiance of the president and ina manner obviously contrary to the national strategic interest.

For American Jews, Finkelstein writes, the problem is that they “can no longer reconcile their liberalism with what they have come to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict”. He is a vexing writer, who treats fraught or delicate topics such as Zionism or what he calls the “Holocaust industry” in a sarcastic and rebarbative tone. This may have gained him a certain succès d’animosité but is bound to repel some readers. His lengthy diatribes against such American oracles as Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist at the Atlantic magazine, or the myths surrounding the Six-Day War, or the authors of various pseudo-historical “frauds”, may have some justification, but they become wearisome when related in harsh tones.

This is a pity, as Finkelstein has something to say that deserves to be heard beyond a congregation of the converted. He describes how “Israel came to incarnate for American Jewish intellectuals the high cause of Truth, Justice and the American Way”. As others have said before, the triumph of Israel was once not only a source of healing pride for American Jews but paradoxically made it easier for them to remain American. Gradually, from being a boon, Israel has become a burden for many Jews. It is not true that, as an endlessly popular Israeli song says, “The whole world is against us”, but it is true that at the United Nations, anodyne resolutions on the need for a “peaceful settlement” will pass on votes like 167-7, with Israel supported by only the US, Australia and four sun-kissed Pacific islands with which we need not concern ourselves. 

And yet, what’s so curious is that we are coming full circle. A hundred years ago Zionism was an esoteric doctrine, little understood by most Gentiles and of little appeal to most Jews. Beinart says that many American Jews are now not so much hostile as indifferent towards Zionism, but that was true in the time of Theodor Herzl, one of the movement’s founders. The Jewish nationalism and the “Jewish State” proclaimed in his 1896 book of that name had no roots at all in existing Jewish tradition, of which Zionism was a drastic rejection, and it was anathematised by most rabbis on theological grounds. Millions of downtrodden and hungry Jews in eastern Europe were eager to depart, especially from Russia after the recrudescence of anti-Semitic persecution from 1881 onward. But the destination longed for by almost all of them was the west and not the Levant, above all the  wonderful golden land of the United States rather than “Eretz Yisrael”.

Even after the catastrophe in Europe and the creation of Israel in 1948, few American Jews made aliyah or migrated to the new state, and when they did visit it they tended to find “Israeli society, on the whole, quite exasperating”, as Irving Kristol reported home. He was seconded in 1951 by a student named Norman Podhoretz, writing to his teacher at Columbia, the famous critic Lionel Trilling, that after his first first visit to Israel, “I felt more at home in Athens! They are, despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, a very unattractive people, the Israelis. They’re gratuitously surly and boorish.” Kristol and Podhoretz would one day become synonymous with neoconservatism and intransigent commitment to Israel.

If anything, Zionism and Israel were then more popular in Europe, with the left more than the right and in papers such as the Manchester Guardian, Observer and New Statesman, although you now need to be bus pass-worthy to remember just what popularity Israel once enjoyed among liberals and social democrats. The reversal began on both sides of the Atlantic. After the election of John F Kennedy as president in 1960, American foreign policy became much more pro-Israeli, and the six-day war in 1967 saw for the first time an intense surge of support from Jewish America for Israel. Alas, the war also began the gradual disenchantment with Israel of the left and of European opinion generally; disenchantment that was bound to increase as successive Israeli governments connived at and then encouraged the settlements.

These are now liberally sprinkled across the West Bank, increasing in numbers all the time and impossible for any Israeli government to remove even if it wanted to. The settler and Palestinian populations are now so mixed up that a rational or fair partition is practically impossible, with the consequence that a “two-state solution” is now a chimera and the “peace process” a farce.

Although Beinart is sincere and even brave, he is really voicing two received opinions that  have become standard on the soft liberal-left but that deserve much closer scrutiny. One is that Israel and Zionism are now vicious, having once been virtuous. The other is that there are two Zionisms, one good and one bad. The good guys are the Labour Zionists, progressive social democrats led by heroes from David Ben-Gurion to the martyred Yitzhak Rabin; while the villains are the Revisionists, the tradition of rightist, militaristic Zionism founded by the astonishing figure of Vladimir Jabotinsky. In the early 1920s, “Jabo” broke with the mainstream Zionists, led by Chaim Weizmann, and placed himself in opposition to the Labour Zionists in Palestine led by Ben-Gurion.

Jabo’s New Zionist Organisation begat the uniformed youth movement Betar and then the Irgun militia, and descends to Likud, with a direct personal connection: shortly before Jabo died in 1940, he had hired as his private secretary the current prime minister’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, who died recently aged 102. Revisionism was militaristic and hostile to socialism, and in 1935 Rabbi Stephen Wise was not alone in calling Jabotinsky’s group “a species of fascism”. But Jabo’s real challenge was one of intellectual honesty, his insistence that the Arabs would never hand over their land voluntarily – why should they? – and that a Jewish state could be only created and guarded by force, inside an “Iron Wall”. Ever since, Jabotinsky and his heirs have been a convenient foil for those, of whom Beinart is only the latest, who believe that there was a decent Zionism and a decent Israel in the state’s early decades when it was ruled by Labour.

A case can at least be made that all this is the wrong way round, and that Israel has been criticised too severely in recent decades, having been criticised not severely enough in its early years. After the 1967 war, Israel clung on to and began to colonise the West Bank but there was no ethnic cleansing to compare with the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs in 1948 – in which “good” as well as “bad” Zionists participated. Both Beinart and Finkelstein mention Deir Yassin, the village near Jerusalem where the Irgun, under Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky’s heir and a future prime minister, massacred more than a hundred villagers in 1948. Deir Yassin became a byword – but Lydda should be also. At that same time, almost all the town’s Palestinians, nearly 50,000 in the vicinity altogether, were expelled by troops commanded by Rabin, acting on the orders of Ben-Gurion. In 1979, Rabin’s account in his memoirs of this “essential” expulsion and how Ben-Gurion had told him, “Drive them out!”, was censored by the Israeli cabinet (illustrating what Levin meant by both “crime” and “lies”).

All that casts an ironical light on the idea of “good and bad Zionism”, the purity of Labour, and Beinart’s touching conviction that early American Zionists “genuinely believed that democracy lay at the heart of the Zionist idea”. The late Conor Cruise O’Brien became a committed Zionist and supporter of Israel, but he remained an honest historian. Writing in 1985 (and in the New Republic), he said that “the main difference between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky, in relation to the Palestinian Arabs, seems to have been that Jabotinsky seems to have been a lot more candid on the subject than Ben-Gurion (or Weizmann) judged it expedient to be”. Events in 1948, and since, have confirmed that. “Liberal Zionism is not a fantasy within Israel’s 1967 lines,” Beinart says. But it would be if the balance of population had not been so drastically changed in the first place, or if those driven out had been allowed back since.

Underneath the anguish of well-meaning Jewish liberals such as Beinart may lie a haunting fear: what if Jabotinsky was right? Beinart quotes a diary entry of Herzl’s: “We don’t want a Boer state, but a Venice.” But maybe a Boer state, an armed garrison surrounded by a hostile indigenous populace, was always the fate of the Zionist project, just as Jabo said. Much is said today by high-minded Jewish Americans about the necessity of preserving an Israel both Jewish and democratic. But mightn’t that have been a beguiling, impossible dream all along?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include "The Controversy of Zion”, which won an American National Jewish Book Award