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Saturday, August 30, 2014

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Canadian Jewry needs a Peter Beinart

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The Harper government is at present one of the world’s most ardent supporters of Israel’s political leaders. Canadian Jews have every reason to be pleased when movers and shakers in their country show understanding for Zionism and its achievements.

But this has also deepened divisions within our community: it has encouraged many of its hawks to assume unwarranted authority, expressing at times outrageous views in the guise of Israeli and Canadian patriotism. To hold contrary opinions is to run the risk of being labelled a self-haring Jew, or worse.

Mercifully, some members of our community continue to speak and think critically along the same lines as many Israelis who are part of the mainstream and have proven records of yeoman service to the state, as well as commitment to Judaism, far beyond their critics here. 

But the consequences can be uncomfortable for committed Zionists who don’t vote Tory in Canada and don’t support the parties that form Israel’s present government. Being reluctant to debate in public or perhaps fearing unpleasantness from peers, many have chosen to express their views only among consenting adults in small informal groups or on visits to Israel. Their absence from active communal involvement is a great loss to Canadian Jewry.

The fact that many are young is particularly distressing. Rather than being involved in Jewish life, they seem to devote their energies to other causes. University campuses illustrate it: most Jews there stay away from Jewish affairs. And if they’ve absented themselves now, it’s most unlikely that they’ll come back later.

Then there are students and professors who go over the top, perhaps in protest against the prevailing mood in our community. They’ve come to sympathize with the stance of the enemies of the Jewish People in general and of Israel in particular. Hiding behind ostensibly lofty principles and universal ideals, they denounce Zionism, and at times even Judaism. They may, indeed, warrant being accused of Jewish self-hatred.

That’s why the Canadian Jewish establishment must adopt a very different approach. It should tolerate, nay encourage, Jews to be openly critical of aspects of current Israeli government policies, even if it means being vilified by self-righteous loudmouths. There’s a great need for a platform for those who refuse to yield to the hawks, yet don’t wish to be part of the passive majority or of the anti-Zionist camp.

The many Jews in Canada who see themselves as belonging to the centre – neither uncritical yes-persons nor rabid naysayers – don’t seem to feel welcome within the mainstream and, therefore, have remained on the fringe of the community.

The New Year prompts a fresh start. They must be brought into the mainstream. It’s not good enough to confine Jewish communal activities to fundraising and advocacy at the expense of a body such as the (defunct) Canadian Jewish Congress, which, though no doubt imperfect, provided ordinary folk with some representation and allowed for voices that now seem to have been muted.

I believe that many Canadian Jews are craving for such voices to be heard again. Similarly, there are indicators of a widespread desire by those currently on the fringe to be inside and not be shut out by “community discipline.” They rightly refuse to be lumped together with the enemies of the Land and the People of Israel, because they don’t belong there.

Canadian Jewry needs a Peter Beinart, the 40-something American Jewish journalist and political science professor. His 2012 book, The Crisis of Zionism, and subsequent writings analyze the current debates in Israeli society, ask very important questions and put forward novel ways about how to live up to Zionist ideals, both in the Jewish state and in the Diaspora.

Though his writings and statements have been criticized by defenders of the status quo, they’ve also encouraged many young Jews in the United States who have hitherto been lukewarm or negative about Israel to engage in the debate and help create a broader platform of Jewish commitment.

Beinart himself is a worthy role model: he and his wife keep a kosher home, are regular synagogue worshippers, and, I believe, send their children to Jewish day schools.

I’d like to think that there are several potential Peter Beinarts in the fringe groups. They must come out of their self-imposed closets to manifest the cardinal truth that none of us has a franchise on ahavat Yisrael (the love of Jews and Judaism).

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