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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New generation needs to revitalize liberalism, Zionism

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THE crisis of modern Zionism, as defined by Peter Beinart, is that Judaism in the United States and democracy in Israel could both die within a generation.

Only an urgent effort to engage young American Jews can ensure the survival of American Judaism and a democratic Israel, Beinart maintains.

The former editor of The New Republic, now an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, has previously written The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris and The Good Fight.

Beinart openly attacks the leadership of major Jewish organizations as out of touch with the people they claim to represent.

By defending the Israeli government against all comers, those leaders are betraying the liberal democratic ideals of Israel's founders, Beinart says.

The Zionist movement, as it emerged in the early 1900s, advocated for a nation-state for Jews, to protect them from the racism and persecution they encountered in countries ruled by other groups.

From the beginning, as Beinart documents, the movement was split between those who wanted the new state to embody Jewish ethical teachings, including equality for all citizens, and those who made the ethical teachings secondary to the need to protect Jews.

That philosophical difference continues to be played out in the response of American Jews to Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Beinart is definitely on the left side of this debate, the side that emphasizes human rights and living in peace with one's neighbours. He consistently empathizes with the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank who have no citizenship rights.

For liberal Jews such as Beinart, what is happening now is the worst of all possible worlds.

Older American Jews, many of whom had to overcome anti-Semitism to build their careers and family lives, generally supported the civil rights movement and other liberal causes.

But they donate heavily to right-wing Jewish organizations that excuse or minimize the trampling of Palestinians' civil rights in the name of protection of the Jewish state.

Their children, having grown up in an America largely free of anti-Semitism, often intermarry with Christians. They feel no special obligation to Israel, let alone an obligation to ensure it is democratic.

American Jews have traditionally sent their children to public schools, reasoning that a strong public system would be better for everyone.

Beinart proposes that American Jews abandon that commitment to public education and instead greatly expand their own parochial schools by enrolling their children in them and getting government financial support.

After spending most of his book chiding Jews who put their group interests above all others, Beinart disavows all responsibility for any harm his solution might cause those students remaining in the public system.

"Jews also have the right, indeed the responsibility, to think about ourselves."

His hope is that a new generation of American Jews, educated in the best of their own traditions, will renew the liberalism and Zionism of their forefathers.

They will, in Beinart's vision, have passed God's test by not only gaining power through a Jewish state, but by using that power wisely and ethically, according to His will.

 

Donald Benham teaches politics and mass media at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J7

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