When being pro-Israel means pushing Jews away.

As an American-Israeli Jew engaged in raising her children to have a knowledgeable and loving relationship with their faith and heritage, as well as a healthy (and, indeed, faith-based) respect for the imperatives of democracy and human rights, there’s something genuinely heartbreaking in some of the responses bubbling up to Peter Beinart’s book Crisis of Zionism*.

I don’t mean the responses about which JJ Goldberg recently wrote

One positive thing you can say about Peter Beinart’s critics is that none of them has smacked him in the face with a rifle butt. Not yet, anyway.

I mean the responses in which liberal American Jews admit, in the wake of the Beinart’s writing, that they have chosen not to think very much about Israel, rather than face the venom (aka: almost-a-rifle-butt) that awaits any who dare stray from institutional Jewry’s conventional wisdom.

The first such response I saw was in late March. Dana Goldstein, at The Nation, opened her piece like this:

I write about Israel-Palestine issues only occasionally, because the onslaught of emails and comments calling me a self-hating Jew can be emotionally overwhelming. It’s also difficult to weather the respectful but strident disagreement from some friends and members of my family, who consider me insufficiently pro-Israel because I support the international community moving with deliberate speed to pressure the Netanyahu administration to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian state.

A few weeks later, another American Jewish writer, economist Paul Krugman, wrote at The New York Times:

The truth is that like many liberal American Jews — and most American Jews are still liberal — I basically avoid thinking about where Israel is going. It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide — and that’s bad for Jews everywhere, not to mention the world. But I have other battles to fight, and to say anything to that effect is to bring yourself under intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.

But it’s only right to say something on behalf of Beinart, who has predictably run into that buzzsaw.

Then this past Tuesday, political author and Rolling Stone columnist Rick Perlstein wrote

Peter Beinart’s recollections, in his powerful new book The Crisis of Zionism, seem[ed] very familiar – which felt uncanny, because I thought I had been alone.

Perlstein describes the ways in which the Jewish community of his youth used the Holocaust to build identity, ignored the realities of his generation as it came of age, and reduced God to little more than a cheerleader for Israel’s military.

This was the moral education that I found so dissatisfying in my youth… a disingenous muddle of a irrationalism, intellectual double standards, and whiny special pleading. I learned that because Israel was a “democracy,” with Arab citizens and political parties, discrimination against those Arabs was not a problem – but also that it was appropriate for the Israeli Defense Forces to harass Arabs at random because, I remember hearing, “they don’t wear signs around their neck saying ‘good Arab’ and ‘bad Arab.'” I was solemnly informed that groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were biased against Israel and that the State Department was full of anti-Semites…. I got the message, loud and clear, that those of us living lives of bland comfort far from enemy-circled Israel had no right, no standing to criticize the Jewish state; and to just shut up and send the check to Jewish organizations….

All of which led for Perlstein, as an adult, to this:

As for Israel, I don’t think of it much. Even in a career as a political writer given to disputation, the sheer viciousness… faced by those who criticize not merely Israel, but certain specific de rigeur formulations about Israel, turned me off the entire subject.

One response to all this was an open letter from J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami asking Krugman to “reconsider [his] opinion.”

I invite you to not let a vocal minority silence your voice. You are a Nobel prize-winning economist and leading American thinker whose contribution to the marketplace of ideas on so many issues is such an asset to this country’s democracy. I invite you not to let their smears cause you to sit this one out.

I agree with Ben-Ami — and not just because I’m a J Street supporter, but because asking folks to be open and honest about what Israel is doing and where it’s all leading has become my life’s organizing motif. I’ve spent more than a decade now calling for greater, deeper engagement (and not incidentally, dodging my fair share of the viciousness).

Yet for all that, I can understand why American Jews often don’t engage. It’s awful, and it’s painful, and life comes with troubles enough, unbidden. Why walk into a buzzsaw that not only cuts deep but serves to alienate you from your own?

But I do hope that those currently lined up to Beinart-bash, as if he were some sort of kosher piñata, might take a moment to read the responses of folks like Goldstein, Krugman, and Perlstein (all people who, it should be noted, don’t generally shy away from taking controversial stands as a rule). A not-insignificant section of the American Jewish community is beginning to inch aside the mehitza the gate keepers set up years ago, and what we’re seeing behind it throws into question all their old assumptions of how best to protect the Jewish people.

And it’s heartbreaking.


*Full disclosure, if you didn’t already know: I blog for Peter at Open Zion, on The Daily Beast.



  1. dmf

     /  May 4, 2012

    for fridays and keeping the faith even in stormy weather:

    “As long as this exists,” I thought, “and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts, I cannot be unhappy.” The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.

    “As long as this exists…” by Anne Frank

  2. T. N. Cummins

     /  May 4, 2012


    Powerful writing with excellent sources. I am a big fan of Krugman and I admire your courage. Krugman however may be wise to duck the anger of categorical certitude. I have ran “head long” into that oncoming train more times than I would like to count. The problem on the new testament side of the same debate is Calvinism. Your observation in an area I only understand peripherally suggests the challenges we both see in our respective groups may be biological. I am finding the same coercive communication dynamic in Corporate America, Municipal Administrations, national powers and behind much of the Neo-Conservative political dynamic.

    Preliminary data suggests a political biology driving behavior that is pre-homo sapien in trait. It is not just that grandpa does not get it. It is that he never got it but had to feed himself and protect family just the same. Depending on how we raise each other the higher orders of thought may not activate. The USA has 50% of youth living in poverty. The political philosophy that allows failed habitats for offspring suggests the genotype of the missing link remains in the gene pool. Categorical thinking is linked to “errors in thinking” (Samenow) and the criminal mind. Categorical thinking is a sickness of not just the American Political Culture but all of human history. If the story of the Golden Calf was not clear 2500+ years ago, I guess we can read it again to our children. Only to see them grow up in a state of permanent cognitive dissonance as many people feel today.

    Categorical thinking by vested interests slows technology transfer into thought eddies. Public policy decision makers use administrative tools of coercion so that peer pressure as social control theory reinforces outdated conventions holding back the energy of youth and their higher orders of thought in hopes of honoring the sacred dead. Ironic since those near death often pray that their life has made things a little easier for loved ones who will live beyond their days. Honor the dead and do for the living!



    @thadncs economicGPS.com 2012

  3. I struggle every time I write a post about Israel, because I know that the odds are very high that I will receive hate mail from people who think I am insufficiently Zionist, and the hate mail takes a toll after a while. The last piece I received, just before Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, involved profanity and slurs I will not repeat and left me shaken all day.

    I’m not going to stop caring, and I’m not going to stop writing — but I can understand those who choose not to do either. There are days when I want to throw in the towel, too.

  4. To gather up the honey, one must sometimes be willing to be stung by a horde of outraged bees.

    Israel now is, perhaps, the distillation of all the ills of the world, the pure and essential quill of human conflict. The Israeli government and hard-line citizens have created for themselves an aura of invincibility, having successfully driven off all comers in the modern ages, who desired to take their holy country from them. Israel feels free to take its liberties, because who can stop them? Who will dare? They know opposition in America is hamstrung, by a right-wing Christian coalition that sees Jerusalem as important to them, and sees the Holy Land as the eventual seat of the End of Days, that starting point of the return of their savior. That brings powerful forces into play that keeps America, perhaps the only country in the world with enough clout, from turning aside and allowing the nation to founder.

    There is no reason that a two-State solution cannot work, save that Israel does not want it to. To share that ground, holy to so many for so long, with any other group, is like the application of Kryptonite to the Jewish State, leaving them helpless and powerless in the face of their enemies. Of course, in case they haven’t noticed, their “enemies” are no longer the enemies of old; new forces are at play that are bringing freedom and democracy to the region in profusion. The balance of power is shifting, as totalitarian regimes throughout the Middle East receive the coup de gras from outraged citizens backed by international engagement on many levels. Not unlike the Cold War, the players are metamorphosing, and pretty soon, the walls will come down.

    Israel has reached a crossroads; in one direction lies a two-State solution, peace within, and peace without. In the other, lies intensification of the oppression of the Arab minority, a re-kindling of hostilities with their neighbors, and an epic conflict that might set the Middle East ablaze. There seems to be no road less traveled for the Jewish State.

  5. “Be careful whom you pick for enemies, as you may become just like them.”

    Some sage advice, appropriate to the topic.

    In pre-Islamic Arab culture, tribes and clans were run by strongmen, who ruled by brute force. Fourteen centuries after Mohammed taught The Way of Peace (literal meaning of “Islam”), not much cultural change has taken place.

    One can contrast the ideological Muslim Sufis and Dervishes, who are about as pacifist as the Mennonites, with the Wahhabi fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia, who’ve not done much to create a cuture of peace, except for the mandatory Hajj, when pilgrims come to Mecca to pray and to symbolically throw rocks at Satan.

    Actually, somebody has.

    Filmmaker Tina Petrova’s work, “Rumi Turning Ecstatic”, is the autobiographical tale of a baptized Roman Catholic convert to Buddhism, whose miraculous survival of a near-fatal drive off a 6000-foot mountainside, led to an exploration of Islamic Pacifism. In the discovery process, she breached two walls of ignorance and hatred…the Western wall erected by Crusaders 10 centuries ago, to justify their mass murder of everyone in Jerusalem (“Kill them all. God will recognize his own”, were their orders.), and the Eastern wall that has presently reduced Hindu and Muslim believers with the misfortune to enlist, to firing artillery shells at each other, over precisely who, India or Pakistan, should conduct democratic elections in the occupied Kashmir.

    After viewing the Petrova film, one is left with two major impressions. The first is, that Almighty God keeps trying to explain to us that He prefers us to make peace with one another. The second is, that most of us refuse to listen to Him, until something drastic gets Him our undivided attention.

    Sadly, it seems that too few residents of the former British colony called Palestine, will break out of the mind trap of their cultural traditions, long enough to take the truly radical step that God requires of us, for us to be blessed with peace.

    That radical step? Stop killing each other.

    Or at least, treat all murderers with equal disapproval. Do not ask whose children they slaughtered, before condemning their slaughter of children.

  6. chingona

     /  May 6, 2012

    A few weeks ago, I was talking about this with my dad. The conversation came about in a round-about way. We had been talking about whether anyone in our family might vote for Romney out of the idea that Obama is “soft” on Israel. (Short answer: No, though not necessarily because they 100 percent trust Obama on Israel.) I said I didn’t think the “my country-right-or-wrong” stance that gets labeled pro-Israel was representative of the majority of American Jews. My dad thought that was probably true, but he broke it down a little more. He said he thought Jews who were affiliated and cared about Israel tended to be more right-wing/more supportive of the Israeli government, that Jews who had a problem with the Israeli government and its actions tended to be less engaged in the issue at all. He then admitted that there are a lot of people whose views he didn’t really know because he was scared to breach the subject. (Not “scared” like actually fearful, but it just didn’t seem worthwhile to have the fight or to find out that someone you otherwise like has these really upsetting views.) I have, myself, been very disengaged. I hated being associated with a government I abhorred and was tired of being treated like the “spokesJew” in non-Jewish circles. I really want to say “Israel has nothing to do with me.” But reading all these responses, ones I could have written if I had the platform these writers have, makes me realize we’ve been ceding far too much ground to people who don’t represent us.

    • aaron singer

       /  May 7, 2012

      This is a great point. Perhaps more disturbing than an issue with seemingly two polarizing sides–for Americans would be familiar with just that–is the disconnection many young American Jews have with the Israeli nation-state. While I do think Israel remains a powerful identity marker for American Jewry, I do wonder if that connection of culture, religion and family is waning a bit; if precisely that wish to disconnected with the uglier realities of policies and facts on the ground in Israel turns many young, liberal Jewry off of the state as a whole. It would be one thing if there were a lot of young American Jews being outspoken against much of what Israel does, but worse I think it has created apathy, not activism; I wonder if that doesn’t create a feedback loop where those who do care about it are becoming more polarized as there aren’t many loud voices differing from theirs.

      I view that apathy as a very sad thing, although I only view myself as example of that. I didn’t study Hebrew much growing up, even though I did attend religious/cultural classes up through high school (whereas most quit after their b’nai mitzvot). My sisters traveled to Israel quite a few times, but I only went once on Birthright with my hillel. I was never that interested in it because of all the associated ugliness and mind-numbing polarization and stubbornness of those who seemed more passionate about it, as if self-selecting labels of “Pro-Israeli” or “Pro-Palestinian” had any real meaning behind them. As a Jewish Studies minor (well, I was one class away from having it as a minor, but never bothered to take the intro class) in college, I didn’t turn away from Judaism, but I just delved into other areas of it that I found more interesting: Yiddish Culture, European History, the Holocaust, Maimonides, and (perhaps only peripherally Jewish, but it involved more of Jewish history than I thought going in to the class) the Crusades.

  7. Neocortex

     /  May 7, 2012

    Yeah, this issue is just so…I used to comment on it a lot more than I do now. It never seems to really go anywhere, and the opposing “camps” are both so alienating to me. Getting into it in Jewish circles also sometimes opens me up to identity policing, as I’m of mixed background and the “wrong” parent is Jewish.

    Despite that, one thing I’m looking forward to about being a PhD student at Brandeis in the fall is that the conversation at Brandeis really does seem to contain a wide variety of Jewish views – everything from a student chapter of AIPAC to Jewish anti-Zionists, and pretty much the whole spectrum in between (reading a list of Brandeis student groups is slightly comical). And they bring in speakers from all over the spectrum (I know Peter Beinart spoke there last year). Maybe when I’m not in the lab, I can actually participate in American Jewish discussions on this that actually represent the range of American Jewish opinion and don’t make me want to beat my head against a wall.

  8. Blake

     /  May 7, 2012

    Kreugman was willing to critique the Iraq war immediately after 9/11 and still shake President Bush’s hand later. He has called famous, powerful men idiots and worse. He has angered Wall Street, Fox News and the vast majority of his own profession. He did a Reddit “Ask Me Anything”. His job is basically to take the flack for speaking truth to the angry powerful. His comments section is a ces pool of abuse targeted at him. It says an awful lot that this subject is too costly for him to speak on.

    I suspect part of it is learned helplessness. On economic matters Kreugman has been able to influence the national debate. He, personally, is part of why America is currently not in a double-dip recession like Europe. He could not influence Europe, but his predictions coming true has further discredited the ideas his opponents hold, and voters in Europe at least are standing up to those ideas now.
    On Israel there is no moral victory when your predictions turn out to be true, no popular uprising; just the hollow knowledge that at this point the nation will either commit ethnic cleansing, impose apartheid or cease to be a Jewish state and we seem to have nothing we can do to influence which of those comes about. Given that helplessness, the only pay off for discussions is becoming the target of those who get by on denial and rage. They derail a conversation, but if there was something to be gained there are people would be willing to pay that price. Right now it is a high price for nothing.

  9. ignoblus

     /  May 11, 2012

    There’s a lot of truth here, and a few things I find less compelling. It really is odd how parroting the line of the NYTimes editorial board is so often labeled, “brave.” But more than what’s here, I think there’s a lot missing about other ways in which Jews are silenced. Like the fear of being said to have “dual loyalties.” I don’t doubt “the sheer viciousness” Perlstein writes of, but I know well that to voice support for Israel’s existence, often even in highly critical ways, opens one up to quite a lot of sheer viciousness (and discrimination).

    I can’t help but be reminded of two scenes from the documentary, Young Jewish and Left. One of them is the first half of this clip available online, in which a Jewish anarchist is betrayed by her comrades: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7z-vD1vJ0lc&list=UUDsata11PeZrpw__bPkfLxg&index=4&feature=plcp

    But also, there’s a scene where a young woman (and it’s interesting how “Left” is constructed, so that to be Young, Jewish, and Left in the film means to be a woman or gay man) discusses making a sign for a campus Jewish organization. Everyone involved was so proud to make the sign, but no one wanted to hold it. It was a level of outing themselves that went too far for them to be comfortable.

    I struggle with how much I’m willing to criticize Israel, but it isn’t at all because I’m worried about offending other Jews or being labeled insufficiently Zionist. I’m quite capable of criticizing Israel in ways that are reasonably sensitive to others feelings, and I know that my kind of Zionism is the most widely believed among American Jews. My fears are about how my words are coerced and would be misused. I’m reminded of Derrick Bell’s refusal to issue condemnations of antisemitism, though he did care about antisemitism, because he was indignant at the constant and disingenuous pressure on African Americans to do so. And I’m reminded of Steve Cohen’s indignity at the constant “McCarthyite” (his description) accusations he faced insisting that he denounce Israel (http://you-dont-look-anti-semitic.blogspot.com/). And your own admission, Emily, that it can be tough to be a Zionist on the Left.

    I think it’s important the Jews feel free to talk. That includes voicing those criticisms of Israel that really are so common among both American and Israeli Jews. But I’m not sure that focusing on the tendency to shy away from criticism of Israel — especially when labeling it as a fear of the Jewish establishment or of going against an imagined Jewish consensus — is helpful. I think that tends to feed into many of the other forces that silence Jews and heightens, rather than defuses, the tension.

    • Ignoblus, you are correct to find rhis confusing and to be unsure of what should be said or.done.

      You have run directly into the intellectual steamroller of “collectiive guilt”, which is the belief that people who were badly ruled, are respomsible for the actions of their ruler.

      No one speaks for all Zionists. No one rules all Zionists. Therefore it is nonsense to equate Israel’s right of existence, to the most recent ugly action of an individual Israeli politician.

      Emily has opined in another column this week, that Benjamin Netanyahu, up for re-election, is making a great deal of noise about Iranian politician Ahmadenajad’s efforts to produce a nuclear weapon, and benefits from this distraction, by diverting attention away from the troubles of ethnic Palestinians who are Muslim and live under Netanyahu’s government. I believe her assessment is correct. But also, Ahmadenajad benefits handsomely from all this saber-rattling as well, for he faces the same questions from the Iranian people. Thus, Iran spends billions drilling.tunnels to nowwhere, while people must do without healthcare and education and capital to invest, just to keep their elected officials happy.

      The people who need to be criticized are not all the Zionists nor all the Iranians nor all the Jews nor all the Shiites. There are two individuals responsible for the problems caused by Netanyahu and Ahmadenajad: Themselves.

      Hypocrisy is a personal problem. When it harms others, the hypocrites themselves, require criticism. Both these politicians are pushing for war, to distract from their personal failures in office. As long as anyone criticizes groups for the actions of their leader, these dishonest politicians will continue pushing for war, precisely because it deflects away criticism of themselves.

      If we frame our criticism of bad policy, on the politicians themselves,we draw a lot closer to resolving real problems.

      When the late Yasser Arafat gave English-language speeches extolling peace, and Arabic-language speeches days later, encouraging the destruction of Israel, it was Arafat who deserved criticism as a liar and a hypocrite. Instead, innocent people were killed in his place, which only added to the surplus of injjustice and hatred that fuels Mideast warfare.

      The fear of verbal confrontation is something all people should possess. If.we are basing our beliefs on something that is factually false, our assertion that a false thing is true, can do others harm. When we remain open to discovering new ideas from others, we find opportunity in dissonance…someone knows something I did not, and the fact that they’re speaking to me, is an opportunity to learn it.

      Sadly, nations keep electing liars and hypocrites to high public office. And liars are unconcerned with the truth.

      Especially if they can persuade other people to sacrifce their lives in combat, so that the liar can silence all dissonent voices by force.

  10. AShaanan

     /  May 12, 2012

    Living in Israel now for more than 30 years and being of American background, I would like to comment on the (apparent) difficulty American Jews have in discussing Israel, whatever their political and social leanings.
    I believe American Jews should feel free in expressing themselves on Israel, hopefully in a manner that is respectful even to those who would disagree strongly with their opinions.
    I also believe it is important for many many reasons that Jews in America do not become apathetic regarding Israel and would hope that a spark of Jewish identity and a desire to truly open one’s mind to a complex reality would provide for fruitful and soul-searching dis-cussion.
    Having said this, I would like to make some comments/observations:
    1. When one gives an opinion on an issue, one should expect and not be surprised by strongly worded dissent (and I am talking of respectful response and not the type of vile,dirty, and personal attacks that are all too commonplace in the new world of communications set up for better or worse online). If one wishes to only be applauded for one’s opinions, then it is always possible to stay ensconced in an insular group of like-minded individuals- and this, my friends, to me, is the great tragedy of the debate on Israel-few are willing to shake up the unthinking attitudes of many people(left or right, religious or secular) or to be “shaken up”, and I say this fully in understanding of the right of people to have strong, even extremely strong positions.
    2. It seems to me that those disagreeing strongly with Israeli policy/society do themselves and the Jewish community (wherever we reside) a tragic disservice by trying to elicit support for their positions by complaining in advance how “dangerous” or “unpopular” their expression is because of potential negative response from the “organized Jewish community”! It seems there are enough people in the Jewish community (and certainly in US academic circles) who do not hesitate to criticize Israel regularly, strongly, and often unfairly. It is quite disingenuous to try and portray response to this criticism as “neo-
    McCarthyism” or “muzzling”!
    3. To those who agree strongly with Israeli policy/society- yes, there are many unwarranted criticisms of Israel, even baseless dissent; however I would suggest that the vast majority of this criticism is from people (whatever their politics are) whose Jewish identity is still strong enough to even care, and therefore they should be heard, however much the criticism stings or is unacceptable to your viewpoint.
    4. From what I can gather, the majority of the Jewish community in America is still in a liberal/leftist mode. The majority of the Jewish community in Israel is not. With that basic understanding one would think that discourse would be easy. But alas, not to be!
    5. For those American Jews critiquing Israel from their “liberal/leftist” position:
    If you really wish to understand Israel you would look further than references from “HaAretz” or spokespeople from the Meretz party or ideological leftists from the vast array of Israeli NGOs who are often totally alienated from the midpoint, I would say, of Israeli public opinion. Whether that is good or bad depends on your viewpoint!
    6. For those in Israel or America despairing of ever-growing and seemingly incomprehensible dissent and often stridently anti-Israel or even anti-Zionist expression by Jewish Americans- If you wish to have any effect on these positions (and I do not mean those whose anti-Zionism has descended into wholesale anti-Jewish screeds), then you will have to get acquainted with and understand the positions of those whose Judaism(whether in observance or not)is based more on what they consider its ethical underpinnings than on
    nationalist expression (however hard that may be for you to understand or deal with).
    7. Finally-this debate will continue- let’s hope that we can all learn from each other, and that we can disagree with each other (even stridently) in an atmosphere of respect!

    • Brilliantly insightful!!

      If there needed to be unanimity of thought, before ideas dared be expressed, nothing new would ever be learned.

      In Judaic belief, Israel was the name given a man who was once called Jacob. He got the name for wrestling all night with an ungenerous angel, who refused to give Jacob a blessing.

      If it was the will of the Almighty, to reward Jacob’s contentiousness by making him the father of all Israelites, then shame on us all, for fearing to argue and risk having our opinions changed, by what we learn from others in arguing.

  11. Reblogged this on Yasmeen Serhan .

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