Jews have gone from powerless to powerful in the last few decades -- and now it's time to acknowledge what it means
I remember walking back with my grandmother one night from synagogue, past the loquat trees of Sea Point, South Africa, the most beautiful Jewish ghetto in the world. I was a kid, and boasting about the United States, the country to which her daughter — my mother — had immigrated. She grew annoyed. “Don’t get too attached,” she announced. “The Jews are like rats. We leave the sinking ship. One day, please God, we’ll all join Isaac in Israel.”
Isaac was her brother. They had parted ways four decades earlier, as the ancient Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt, broke under the strain of economic depression, Arab nationalism, and world war. My grandmother’s family were Sephardic Jews. They took their name, Albel-das, from a Spanish town cleansed of Jews five hundred years ago. From Spain, her ancestors crossed the Mediterranean. Her father hailed from Izmir in what is now Turkey, her mother from the Isle of Rhodes in what is now Greece.
When the Jewish community of Alexandria collapsed, everyone in the family except Isaac went south, to a corner of the Belgian Congo where Jews from Rhodes were congregating. A few years later, the Jews who still remained in Rhodes found themselves under Nazi rule. The Nazis rounded them up, stole their possessions, extracted their gold teeth, stripped them naked to search for hidden jewelry, starved them, and put them in cargo ships and sealed cars for the two-week trip to Auschwitz. Virtually the entire community — which dated from the second century B.C.E. — was murdered. Now there were no more Jews there either.
When the war ended, my grandmother moved again, this time to South Africa, where she met my grandfather. Fifteen years later, the Congo erupted in civil war, and the Jews there fled. Now, in her old age, racial violence was bloodying South Africa, too, and all around her, Jews were again packing their things. Only later did I realize: My grandmother had spent her life burying Jewish communities. So had her parents. She suspected I would do the same.
Yet she was at peace, because of Israel. She never joined Isaac, who ran a store in Haifa. But Israel’s existence calmed her, comforted her, rooted her. It made her feel that Jewish history was more than an endless cycle of estrangement and dislocation; it actually led somewhere. It made her feel that not all Jewish homes need be temporary, that all the running had not been in vain.
My life has been very different from my grandmother’s. But I have seen enough to understand how she feels. When I was thirteen, I watched footage of thousands of emaciated Ethiopian Jews, isolated from the rest of their people since the days when the First Temple stood, trekking through the Sahara to reach the planes that the Jewish state had sent to take them home. When I was fourteen, I saw a squat, bald Russian named Anatoly Sharansky — fresh from eight years in a Soviet jail — raise his hands in triumph as he descended the steps at Ben-Gurion Airport. In those soul-stirring scenes, I saw my grandmother’s Zionism — the Zionism of refuge — play out before my eyes. It became my Zionism, too. Like her, I sleep better knowing that the world contains a Jewish state.
But not any Jewish state. Roughly eighteen months ago, an Israeli friend sent me a video. It was of a Palestinian man named Fadel Jaber, who was being arrested for stealing water. His family had repeatedly asked Israeli authorities for access to the pipes that service a nearby Jewish settlement. But the Jabers have little influence over the Israeli authorities: like all Palestinians in the West Bank, they are subjects, not citizens. Partly as a result, West Bank Palestinians use roughly one-fifth as much water per person as do Jewish settlers, which means that while settlements often boast swimming pools and intensive irrigation systems, Palestinians fall far below the World Health Organization’s recommended daily water consumption rate. In the video, Israeli police drag Fadel toward some kind of paddy wagon. And then the camera pans down, to a five-year-old boy with a striped shirt and short brown hair, Khaled, who is frantically trying to navigate the thicket of adults in order to reach his father. As his father is pulled away, he keeps screaming, “Baba, Baba.”
As soon as I began watching the video, I wished I had never turned it on. For most of my life, my reaction to accounts of Palestinian suffering has been rationalization, a search for reasons why the accounts are exaggerated or the suffering self-inflicted. In that respect, I suspect, I’m like many American Jews. But in recent years, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I had been lowering my defenses, and Khaled’s cries left me staring in mute horror at my computer screen.
Perhaps it is because my son is Khaled’s age. He attends a Jewish school, has an Israeli flag on his wall, and can recount Bible stories testifying to our ancient ties to the land. When he was younger, we thought he would call me Abba, the Hebrew word for father. But he couldn’t say Abba, so he calls me Baba, the same name Khaled calls his father.
One day, when they’re old enough to understand, I’ll tell his sister and him how my grandmother made me a Zionist. And one day, if they see a video like this, I’ll tell them that unless American Jews help end the occupation that desecrates Israel’s founding ideals, this is what Zionism will become, a movement that fails the test of Jewish power.
The shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power has been so profound, and in historical terms so rapid, that it has outpaced the way many Jews think about themselves. One hundred years ago, Jews in Palestine lived at the mercy of their Ottoman overlords; Jews in Europe endured crushing, often state-sponsored, anti-Semitism; Jews in the Muslim world were frequently consigned to second-class status; and Jews in the United States lived at the margins of American life. Even fifty years ago, none of Israel’s Arab neighbors recognized its right to exist, and some of those neighbors seemed to enjoy military parity with, if not superiority over, the Jewish state. Most of the Jews still in Europe lived under a tyrannical, anti-Semitic Soviet regime, and even in the United States, some Ivy League universities still limited the number of Jewish students who could attend.
Today, we inhabit a different world. Israel has made peace with two of its Arab neighbors, and all the Arab countries have offered to make peace if Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, returns to the lines that prevailed before the 1967 Six-Day War, and reaches a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the Palestinian refugee issue. Israel’s defense budget easily exceeds those of its four immediate neighbors combined; it is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of arms, and it is the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons.
In Europe, although anti-Semitism persists, the transformation of Jewish fortunes has been equally dramatic. Most Jews have left the former Soviet Union, and the vast majority of European Jews now live in democracies that ensure religious liberty. In Britain in recent years, Jews have run Oxford and Cambridge universities, the Conservative Party, the Labor Party, and The Times of London. In France, the president proudly proclaims his Jewish ancestry, as did his first foreign minister. The foreign minister of Poland — Poland! — has a Jewish wife.
But even that pales in comparison to the United States, where in the last two decades Jews have served as secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, national security adviser, House majority leader, and White House chief of staff, and have held the presidencies of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Of the last six editors of The New York Times, four have been Jews. On the Supreme Court, Jews currently outnumber Protestants three to zero. A Jew recently married the daughter of a former president while wearing a tallis. According to polling by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, Jews are now the most esteemed religious group in the United States.
Privately, American Jews revel in Jewish power. But publicly, we often avoid discussing it for fear of feeding anti-Semitic myths. The instinct is understandable but the consequences are grave. Because we don’t talk much about Jewish power, we rarely grapple with the potential for its abuse. Instead, we tell ourselves that we are still history’s victims, whose primary responsibility is merely to survive. Consider the language of prominent Jewish leaders. In 2009, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, declared that “global anti-Semitism [is] … reaching a peak this year that we haven’t seen since the tragic days of World War II.” In 2010, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor devoted his entire speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference to an extended analogy with the Nazi era. That December, Malcolm Hoenlein, the powerful executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, gave a speech entitled “Is It 1939?” (In a 2007 speech subtitled “Is It 1938 Again?” Hoenlein claimed, “There are no analogies that are perfect but there are similarities.”)
But the rhetoric of American Jewish leaders hints at a deeper problem. Consider the way American Jews discuss our holidays. We tell the story of Chanukah as the story of the Jewish return to sovereignty. The Syrian Greeks tried to outlaw Judaism; the Maccabees rose in rebellion; they liberated and rededicated the Temple; God made the menorah’s oil last for eight days. Then we eat our latkes. But what did Jews do after we gained power? What happened after we survived? The historical record tells us much about the Hasmonean dynasty — the last experiment in Jewish sovereignty before our time — much of it chilling. Yet we don’t talk about that.
It’s the same with Purim. Ask most American Jews how the Purim story ends and they will tell you that Haman tried to kill the Jews, but Esther and her uncle Mordechai foiled his wicked plan. But that isn’t how the Purim story ends. It ends with the king giving Persia’s Jews license to do to Haman’s people what Haman wanted to do with them — and the Jews slaughtering seventy-five thousand souls. We don’t talk about that either, because we begin our stories with victimhood and end them with survival. We talk about what the Egyptians did to us when we were slaves, but we rarely talk about what Joseph did to the Egyptians when Pharaoh put him in charge of the nation’s grain. We discuss the Exodus, but we rarely discuss what happened afterward, when the Jews struggled to rule themselves in the desert. Again and again, we silence our tradition just when it becomes most relevant to our age. And so, as the joke goes, many American Jews think the lesson of Jewish history is “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat.”
Given the fragility of Jewish life in the twentieth century, it is not surprising that American Jews — especially older ones — emphasize stories of persecution. But perpetual victimhood is not a narrative that can answer the two great Jewish challenges of our age: how to sustain Judaism in America, a country that makes it easy for Jews to stop being Jews, and how to sustain democracy in Israel, a country that for two-thirds of its existence has held the West Bank, a territory where its democratic ideals do not apply. Today, we are failing both challenges.
In city after city, American Jews have built Holocaust memorials. The Jewish schools in those cities are often decrepit, mediocre, and unaffordable, but there is no shortage of places to learn how Jews died. When a community builds better memorials than schools — when it raises children more familiar with Auschwitz than with Simchat Torah — the lesson of those memorials cannot be: Honor the dead by leading informed, committed Jewish lives. Nor is the lesson: Honor the dead by acting justly toward those non-Jews who live under Jewish rule, since mainstream Jewish organizations rarely grapple with the injustice inherent in occupying land in which Jews enjoy citizenship and non-Jews do not. Instead, the implicit lesson is: Honor the dead by preventing another Holocaust, this time in Israel. That lesson is reinforced by the vast sums that American Jewish groups spend on “Israel advocacy,” on teaching young American Jews to defend the Jewish state against the viciously anti-Semitic climate that supposedly pervades their college campuses and the world.
But the Israel advocacy generally fails. For one thing, it is difficult to teach Jewish students to defend the Jewish state when they have not been taught to care much about Judaism itself. Second, it is intellectually insulting to tell young Jews who have been raised to think for themselves that they should start with the assumption that Israeli policy is justified, and then work backward to figure out why. Third, since young American Jews—more than their elders—take Jewish power for granted, the victimhood narrative simply doesn’t conform to what they see in their own lives or in the Middle East.
For the most part, young American Jews don’t experience their campuses as hostile or anti-Semitic. In 2008, when researchers at Brandeis asked students at eight universities whether it was easy to be Jewish on campus, 84 percent said yes and only 7 percent said no. To the contrary, Jewish students frequently befriend Muslims, Arabs, or Palestinians—communities that were far less present on campus in their parents’ day—and thus develop an empathy that their elders often lack. They also realize that as a mostly white, native-born, upper-middle-class population, they occupy a position of privilege.
When they look at the Middle East, they see Israel as powerful, too. American Jewish leaders often call Israel a democracy threatened with destruction by its neighbors, and that story line feels authentic to many older Jews who remember an Israel that did not hold the West Bank and Gaza, and faced Arab armies that seemed to enjoy military parity with the Jewish state. But younger American Jews have never known Israel as a full democracy. For forty-four years, twice a college student’s life span, they have seen Israel control territory in which millions of Palestinians lack citizenship. And since the 1980s, they have seen Israel fight wars not against Arab armies but against terrorists nestled amid a stateless and thus largely defenseless Palestinian population. Thus, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates democratic ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because it stands on the brink of destruction. The more the American Jewish establishment forces today’s realities onto the procrustean bed of 1939 or 1967, the more young liberal-minded American Jews turn away.
We need a new American Jewish story, built around this basic truth: We are not history’s permanent victims. In a dizzying shift of fortune, many of our greatest challenges today stem not from weakness but from power. If non-Orthodox American Jewish life withers in the coming generations, it will be less because gentiles persecute Jews than because they marry them. And if Israel ceases being a democratic Jewish state, it is less likely to be because Arab armies invade the West Bank than because Israel permanently occupies it.
The fact that Israel wields power does not mean it faces no external threats. But it does mean that Israel plays a larger role in shaping those threats than American Jewish leaders generally admit. Yes, the Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah traffic in anti-Semitism and murder Jews, but they gain strength when Israel—by subsidizing West Bank settlement and meeting nonviolent protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, and military courts—discredits those Palestinians willing to live in peace. Yes, the populism sweeping the Middle East has unleashed frightening hostility against the Jewish state. But this hostility feeds off Israeli policy. As recently as 2005, the same government that rules Turkey today was signing military deals with Israel. In 2008, it tried to broker an Israeli-Syrian peace. Turkey only began shunning the Jewish state after Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza, and after Israeli troops killed eight Turkish militants who tried to break Israel’s blockade of the strip in 2010.
Similarly, the Egyptian leaders who have emerged in Hosni Mubarak’s wake are not generally calling for Israel’s destruction, let alone promising to take up arms in that cause. But they are exploiting widespread anger that more than thirty years after the Camp David Accords, which called for Israel to grant Palestinians full autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel still directly controls most of the West Bank and has subsidized hundreds of thousands of its people to move there. There is, of course, real anti-Semitism in today’s Middle East. But by too often ascribing criticism of Israel to a primordial hatred of Jews, American Jewish leaders fail to grapple with Israel’s own role in its mounting isolation. And by ignoring the fact that Jews today enjoy far more power to define their relationships with their neighbors than did Jews in the past, they imply that the Jewish condition has not fundamentally changed.
Accepting that the Jewish condition has fundamentally changed requires looking to our tradition for guidance about how Jews should treat the people we rule, not just how we should endure treatment from the people who rule us. That guidance will not always be comfortable: Jewish tradition offers no simple lessons for how to wield power, and the lessons it does teach can sometimes be hard for modern liberals to stomach. But it is striking that when describing the previous two times that Jewish sovereignty failed — the Kingdom of Judah’s destruction by the Babylonian empire around 586 B.C.E. and the Hasmonean dynasty’s destruction by the Romans more than five hundred years later — our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse. Again and again, Jewish texts connect the Jewish right to sovereignty in the land of Israel to Jewish behavior in the land of Israel. In the words of Jeremiah, “If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.”
Today, too, Israel’s physical survival is bound up with its ethical survival. Whether or not Israel’s nuclear weapons and antimissile shields can protect it from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, they will be of no use on the day that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians march, nonviolently, to demand the very “equality of social and political rights” that Israel promises in its declaration of independence. And if American Jewish leaders continue to defend the Israeli government at the expense of Israeli democracy, they may find their own children and grandchildren cheering those protesters on.
I will try to give my son and daughter a sense of the immensity of what they have been given, of the agony that prior generations endured so that Jews could have a state. And I will tell them that their duty is to help ensure that this time, Jewish sovereignty does not fail. I will tell them, if they see that video of Khaled Jaber calling for his father, that I learned of his story because brave young Israelis chronicled it, Israelis who believe in the promise of Israel’s independence declaration, which envisions a nation that pursues “freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the Hebrew Prophets.” I will tell them that that pledge, made when the stench of Jewish death still hung over Europe, and amid a war for Israel’s very existence, is their patrimony. If Israel betrays that promise, it will be a stain upon their lives. I will tell them about their great-grandmother, who spent her life fleeing sinking ships. And tell them that today Israel—democratic Israel—is the ship that must not sink. The birthright they must not squander. The dream that must not die.
Excerpted from “The Crisis of Zionism” by Peter Beinart, published by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Peter Beinart. All rights reserved.
Peter Beinart is the author of "The Icarus Syndrome" and "The Good Fight." A former editor of the New Republic, he is a senior political writer for The Daily Beast and the editor in chief of Open Zion, a blog about Israel and the Jewish future at thedailybeast.com. He is an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York and a senior fellow at The New America Foundation. He lives with his family in New York City. More Peter Beinart.
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