No Comment — May 17, 2010, 2:19 pm

Beinart Looks at AIPAC’s Leadership Failure

In the New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart gives a not-to-be-missed account of how the Jewish establishment (particularly AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) has lost touch with American Jews, particularly with the young. Beinart’s piece follows in the wake of a major New York Times piece that drew the same conclusions. Beinart starts with Frank Luntz’s effort to discover why Jewish college students were showing so little enthusiasm for the party line on Israel:

Luntz’s task was to figure out what had gone wrong. When he probed the students’ views of Israel, he hit up against some firm beliefs. First, “they reserve the right to question the Israeli position.” These young Jews, Luntz explained, “resist anything they see as ‘group think.’” They want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its flaws. Second, “young Jews desperately want peace.” When Luntz showed them a series of ads, one of the most popular was entitled “Proof that Israel Wants Peace,” and listed offers by various Israeli governments to withdraw from conquered land. Third, “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.” When Luntz displayed ads depicting Palestinians as violent and hateful, several focus group participants criticized them as stereotypical and unfair, citing their own Muslim friends.

Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.

Beinart reaches some dire conclusions:

Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age. And it starts where Luntz’s students wanted it to start: by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes.

As a prime example of the ham-handed tactics that are driving a wedge between American Jewish establishment elites and the great bulk of American Jews, Beinart cites a current campaign, coordinated with the Likud Government in Israel, against Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid, and Save the Children. Each of these organizations is excoriated for its criticism of the Israeli government. But most American Jews, just like most Israelis, believe that the Israeli government is not above criticism, and they accept that it has behaved questionably on some human-rights issues. I recently sat through a discussion at a bar association of one aspect of this campaign targeting former South African Supreme Court Justice Richard Goldstone. The participants were for the most part identifiably Jewish, leaders in the community, and for the most part they disagreed with Goldstone’s recent United Nations report dealing with Gaza. Yet they were united in their revulsion at the stupidity and crudeness of the attacks that were being waged against Goldstone with the evident support of major American Jewish organizations.

The phenomenon that Beinart describes is certainly not limited to college-age youth. It’s hard to imagine an article like his appearing in the New Republic, for example, where he served as an editor for more than a decade.

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