Peter Beinart writes for The Atlantic and the Forward and is a professor of journalism at City University of New York. He was in Toronto late last year for a JSpaceCanada conference.
What do you think are some of the biggest issues facing the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora?
The Diaspora itself is pretty diverse, so I’m not sure that one can generalize about all Diaspora communities. I think with North American Jewry, specifically in the United States, one difference is that in Israel, Judaism as a practice is basically overwhelmingly Orthodox, and so non-Orthodox Jewry doesn’t necessarily have a lot of respect and status in Israel, so that’s one source of division.
I think another is that younger American Jews, outside of the Orthodox community, are highly universalistic, which means that if they’re focused on what’s happening in Israel, they’re likely to chafe at Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. They’re more suspicious of a nationalistic narrative and less inclined to be willing to sacrifice notions of liberal democracy because of tribalistic or particularist justifications.
Do you think there’s a way to balance those two worldviews?
I think that Zionism and liberal democracy are naturally in tension, in the sense that liberal democracy suggests equality under the law and political Zionism calls for a country that has a particular responsibility to the Jewish people, even though inside the Green Line a lot of the citizens of Israel, 20 per cent, are not Jews. I think inside the Green Line, it’s possible to find a reasonable tension between those two imperatives, because at least you have a foundation that Palestinian citizens of Israel are citizens of the country and live under the same laws and can vote. And I think Israel could move towards a more inclusive identity for them.
I think in the West Bank, where Israel holds millions of Palestinians who can’t vote, it breaks that tension. Because when you’re controlling millions of people who cannot become citizens of the country in which they live, and who live under a different set of laws and do not vote, then the tension I think snaps, because you have no liberal democracy at all. So I think the great threat to that balance is Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza
So in your opinion, what’s a North American Jew to do?
Well, North American Jewry has lots of its own internal problems, which are not connected to Israel – problems of Jewish illiteracy above all, I would say. In terms of Israel, I think that our obligation is to be connected, is to love Israel in an honest way and to struggle with Israel. Israel means struggle, it doesn’t mean blind obedience. It means struggle.
Our traditions talk about a kind of loving struggle. First of all, the loving struggle has to be based on honesty, it has to be based on an honest appraisal of what’s happening in Israel. And you can’t have an honest appraisal if you don’t engage with the 50 per cent of the people under Israeli control who are Palestinians. So it starts with engagement with Palestinians, because you can’t understand Israel without understanding Palestinians.
And then I think I would want American Jews to do vis a vis Israel the same things they do vis a vis the United States or Canada, which is, if you believe in the founding documents of those countries, the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, you want to struggle for those principles, even if it puts you in opposition to the government of the moment.
Have you heard the idea that the older generation of North American Jews failed the younger generation by not properly teaching them about Israel? If so, do you agree?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve heard that in different ways. I think a lot of the education in the American Jewish community about Israel is not education so much as it’s propaganda. Education means basically giving people a multiplicity of perspectives, allowing them to come to their own perspectives and not avoiding hard and painful facts and realities.
To me, Israel education that does not involve reading Palestinian authors is not Israel education at all. You cannot understand the Israeli story without hearing from Palestinians about how they have experienced it. That doesn’t mean they only hear from Palestinians, but they have to be part of the educational process. And oftentimes, in the American Jewish community, they’re not.
What do you think the millennial generation would look like in terms of attitudes towards Israel if they’d had a more comprehensive, honest education about Israel?
Assimilation and lack of Jewish literacy would probably have led to some of the disengagement we’re seeing anyway. A lot of the disengagement is not because of Israel’s policies or Israel education, it’s simply because younger Jews are less connected to anything Jewish, and Israel is a Jewish thing. But I do think, first of all, that younger Jews would have a greater degree of respect for their own leadership if they felt like their leadership had been honest, just like children won’t respect their parents when their parents are not honest with them. The same thing happens at the communal level.
And secondly, what I think you would have would be a larger cohort of people who were equipped to wrestle with Israel, struggle with Israel and engage in an honest, informed and meaningful way, whereas I think now what you find is some young Jews try to do that themselves later on in life, but they were not given the tools.
And I also think young American Jews would be less afraid, would find their interactions on college campuses less frightening, if they had some of these conversations and had been exposed to some of these materials and realities before they got to college; if they had heard them in their own community. They would be more able to argue these points if they had been exposed early on to the Palestinian experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity