How to Support – and Improve – Israel


Colin Rubenstein

Australian Jewish News – 22 July 2010


Julie Szego’s column entitled “The Need for a Critical Diaspora” (July 2) placed entirely too much uncritical faith in the arguments of American author and journalist Peter Beinart. She fails to take adequate account of the outcome of the intense and interesting debate that has ensued in America since Beinart’s essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” was first published in mid-May. In particular, Szego seems unaware that critics have shows that much of the empirical basis of Beinart’s key claim is just plain factually wrong.

Beinart claimed that survey data, particularly that done by academics Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, support his views that liberal American Jewish youngsters are less likely to feel attached to Israel than other Jews because of “illiberal” Israeli policies and because American Jewish leadership is failing to be, in his view, adequately critical of those policies. However numerous respondents to Beinart have pointed out that Cohen and Kelman’s study does not actually support this thesis. It found that “political identity” including “left-of-centre political identity (seeing oneself as liberal and a Democrat)” has “little bearing upon feelings of warmth toward or alienation from Israel.” Moreover, in an interview, Cohen and Kelman asserted that their study shows that “Israel’s political stances are not particularly the reason for alienation.”

This is confirmed by other studies, such as that by Kadushin, Sasson and Saxe entitled “American Jewish Attachment to Israel.” That study finds that “general political orientation on a continuum from ‘extremely liberal’ to ‘extremely conservative’ is not related to attachment to Israel, and that “opinions regarding Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians are independent of feelings of attachment to the Jewish state.”

In other words, while there is indeed a problem with decreasing identification with Israel among young American Jews, the evidence is pretty clear that the reasons for this are not those Beinart points to in his article, or that Szego cites. Instead, according to the best available studies, they appear to be tied to broader problems in the American Jewish community with intermarriage and assimilation. Further, in any case, the evidence shows that as young Jews grow older, attachment to Israel tends to strengthen.

Moreover, Szego’s claim that the current Israeli government shows “anti-democratic forces are in ascendency in Israel” is absurd, and reflects at best a very jaundiced view of the last 15 years of Israeli history.

As numerous critics of Beinart have pointed out, there is in fact no move in Israel away from peace or concessions, as he alleges. In fact, anyone who follows Israeli politics closely knows that there has never been a stronger national consensus than today that a two-state peace with the Palestinians should be sought if at all possible – with all three major Israeli parties agreeing on this. Even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whom Szego and Beinart dwell on, is clearly on record in favouring a two state solution.

What there has been has been in Israel has been a re-thinking of the path to peace in the wake of the Palestinian rejections of peace deals in 2000 and 2008; the terrorist second Intifada; the violence that followed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005; the takeover by the rejectionist Hamas of half the future Palestinian state; and the sea of hostility and hypocrisy confronting Israel globally. Most American and Australian Jews – liberal or otherwise – who care about Israel understand that peace is not Israel’s alone to make and requires a willing and capable partner on the other side.

Similarly, contrary to Szego’s assertion, the settler movement is not today stronger than it has been in the past, and is arguably considerably weaker.

While it is true, as she mentions, that the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel is growing, they are still under 10%, and there are signs they are starting to integrate more into the Israeli mainstream. Besides, what do “liberal’ diaspora critics expect to accomplish by calling attention to this minority’s growth? Do they expect Israel to expel them, strip their citizenship, forcibly sterilize them or compel them to give up their traditional way of life? Of course not, but few constructive suggestions seem forthcoming.

Meanwhile, claims by left-wing Israeli individuals and groups that they are subject to “vilification and harassment” are par for the course – this is what such groups everywhere tend to claim, including in Australia. The examples they cite are overwhelmingly simply trenchant critiques of their arguments and claims or external scrutiny of their activities, which is completely in keeping with democratic traditions – whether one agrees with these criticisms or not.

There is nothing wrong with people who care about Israel trying to make Israel better, but Beinart’s and Szego’s efforts in this vein are perfect examples of the hazards of going about this the wrong way. The danger is substituting a demand that Israel meet certain abstract ideals – peace with the Palestinians, a “progressive society”- rather than looking in detail at all the complexities and dilemmas, and thus concrete, well-informed ways to achieve real improvements in Israel. The wrong sort of criticism not only gives aid and comfort to the international efforts to demonise Israel, but contrary to Beinart and Szego, is actually likely to alienate even more those Jews who already feel distant from Israel. These individuals are already being bombarded with Israel’s supposed evils on campus, and in the media, and largely do not know enough to counter these false claims. Why would hearing more about these supposed evils from self-described Zionists make them more likely to feel close to Israel?

Supporters of Israel certainly have a right, even an obligation, to encourage the development of the sort of Israel they want to see. But they also have a responsibility to ask themselves seriously if their method of doing so is really constructive to Israel’s welfare.