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. ~Peter Beinart
Once again, the old proverb seems quite appropriate: “the yes-man is your enemy, but your friend will argue with you.” It is one thing to defend a government against unreasonable and unfair criticism, and quite another to try to discourage, discredit or ignore any and all criticism and to treat all criticism as if it were always inherently biased and driven by vile motives. Beinart explains very clearly how leading American Jewish organizations have played the role of yes-men to Israel’s government, effectively enabling it to pursue its ultimately ruinous policies in the territories, while the younger generation sees no value in remaining uncritically supportive of Israeli policies. Indeed, much of the younger generation presumably sees this uncritical backing as directly harmful to the long-term well-being of Israel. This has been happening while the politics and culture of Israel and the American Jewish community have changed in ways that make such backing unsustainable in the next generation.
Naturally, Philip Klein has a ready-made and remarkably unpersuasive response:
The problem, however, isn’t with leading Jewish organizations that defend Israel, but with liberalism. As sickening as it sounds, Jewish liberals see their fellow Jews as noble when they are victims being led helplessly into the gas chambers, but recoil at the thought of Jews who refuse to be victims, and actually take actions to defend themselves.
Whether Klein finds it sickening or not, the more important point here is that this doesn’t seem to be true. I can’t speak for liberal Jews, but my guess is that what causes them to recoil is the thought of fellow Jews imposing inhumane, unjust policies on people under their power. If it were simply a matter of self-defense, rather than one of sustained occupation and the attendant humiliations and degradations visited on a subject people, there would be far less criticism because the government’s policies would be much easier to justify. Nationalists here in the U.S. insist on uncritical support for our policies abroad because they see this as an expression of loyalty to their country “right or wrong,” and “pro-Israel” hawks insist on offering the same kind of uncritical support for Israeli policies regardless of their merits or their consequences.
Of course, nationalists typically have a defective understanding of loyalty and a distorted understanding of patriotism, and hawks have a similarly defective understanding of what constitutes real, effective support for an ally. Encouraging a government in its worst habits and instincts, remaining silent in the face of its abuses and focusing all of their energies on attacking dissidents and critics are not the acts of friends or supporters. They are instead the acts of the blindly loyal who ultimately contibute to the ruin of the state they claim to defend.
P.S. As Beinart’s essay makes clear, it is the hard-line Israeli politicians who constantly invoke the history of Jewish victimhood to justify what they want to do. On the whole, it is “pro-Israel” hawks in the U.S. who grossly exaggerate the vulnerability and weakness of Israel’s position in the region to justify aggressive policies vis-a-vis Israel’s neighbors and other Near Eastern states. The trouble isn’t that Jewish liberals are uncomfortable with the power of Israel, but that “pro-Israel” hawks refuse to acknowledge the disparity between the power of the Israeli government and its enemies and the disparity in power between Israelis and Palestinians. On the whole, Jewish liberals seem to be willing to accept responsibility that wielding such power requires. In the meantime, “pro-Israel” hawks prefer an Israel that wields power under the constant protection of invoking victim status whenever someone criticizes the Israeli government’s abuses of power.