November 14, 2012

Peter Beinart and the closing of the American Jewish mind

I disagree with Peter Beinart's call to boycott Israeli products from the West Bank. He went too far. Even J Street thought (or said) so, too. But boycotting him in Atlanta -- actually, dropping him from a scheduled appearance at the Jewish Book Festival there -- is beyond wrong. It's abdication.

Anyone aspiring or already claiming to be a leader within the Jewish community must recognize that with such honors and privileges also comes a long legacy of responsibilities. Jews are big dreamers, but we are also taught not to ignore the realities around us and among us.


Peter's latest book, The Crisis of Zionism, is about much more than boycotting the West Bank. He speaks to, and of, a whole generation of young Jews who are disaffected or otherwise turned off by the organized Jewish community. They are not anti-Israel, and eight days of "birthright" tourism aren't going to help. For too many young Jews, the hasbara and "yisrael hayafa" industry just no longer cuts it. Even if they do drink the Kool-Aid without resistance, we will have raised an intellectually untested and Jewishly unsophisticated corps of believers.
Serious questions go unasked and unanswered in any meaningful way. As Peter said in response to the cancellation, "I think the mistake is to think that trying to avoid discussion produces unity. It produces a false sense of unity." 

As a young architecture student, I was captivated by the call of AIPAC and the Soviet Jewry movement, and -- outside of prayer services and kosher dining -- these campus battles came to dominate my Jewish identity. I will always be proud of my activism, but it certainly came at a price. Smart propaganda response clouded out any sense that Israeli leftists or Arabs (especially Palestinians) might have legitimate criticisms, claims and grievances, and that Israel and Jews might bear some responsibility. The terrain was entirely black and white, so for all my knowledge and expertise, I had very little understanding. I was not empowered. On an intellectual level, those first critical college years were lost years. And yet, by all accounts, I was one of the community's success stories.

Had Peter published his book back then, he probably wouldn't have been invited to speak at any mainstream Jewish venue. Wherever he did speak, I might have been standing outside with a sign protesting. Maybe, 30 years ago we really needed students to be vigilant and admit no doubts about our cause. Since Oslo, and since 9/11, and since so many other developments including the end of the Cold War and the rise of social media, we need to stop ourselves from replaying the wrong script. Or any script.

I can't bear to see another generation of committed Jewish students reduced to reciting talking points during the Q&A, and answering every critical article with a forceful letter to the editor. If we aren't preparing our youth to both defend Israel's reputation AND hold candid conversations with their counterparts, then the pro-Israel movement and Jewish community are laying weak foundations just to secure the appearance of political success. Atlanta suggests we can't even allow open conversations among ourselves. Shutting out Peter Beinart sends a lone but clear message that alternate opinions are neither welcome nor safe, and that our bedrock is vulnerable.

On what should be a side note, the formulaic pro-Israel agenda is an effective tool for attracting young Jews, and it makes campus and young-adult programming very simple. But it paints a false picture of the energetic debates in Israel and of the facts on the ground. Israel faces real internal challenges as well as military threats, and avoiding or downplaying them just to build numbers is no substitute for a long-term strategy for fulfilling Jewish survival as well as our destiny.

Peter has been able to reach many Jewish audiences, but unofficially he remains a bit of a pariah. The Atlanta incident should prompt an unambiguous affirmation from the Jewish establishment, that we are confident and secure enough to survive open and unscripted debate about our basic direction and priorities.

Those of us within the tent need to hear Peter's message and at least consider buying into some of his vision -- with or without boycotting the West Bank. Those outside the tent might be reached on an authentic frequency, as well. Hillels and Jewish community centers across the country also realize that speakers like Peter bring young people in their doors. And Judaism has never flourished by shutting out voices that challenge us. Quite the opposite.

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