Monday, June 14, 2010

Uncomfortable Zionism

Peter Brienart caused a bit of a stir with his article The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment. Stated clearly, his argument is, on its face, horrifyingly bizarre:

His main thesis is that American Jewish leaders, who advocate support for Israeli government policies as the product of a democratic process are wrong morally and pragmatically. They are wrong morally, because, he says, Democracy in Israel is slipping away -- he approvingly quotes Israelis proclaiming "Israel has not been democratic for some time now" and comparing their government to "Franco’s Spain." They are wrong pragmatically, because supporting this illiberal system is, he believes, alienating a generation of American Jews. Instead, he suggests American Jewish Leaders ought be promoting authentically liberal democracy in Israel, what Avraham Burg calls an "uncomfortable Zionism."

To respond to this with rational argument or fact would largely miss the point, although it is of some interest that while, to some, the rise of Likud has meant Israel is now a more representative, truly competitive multi-party democracy, to others, Israel was more truly democratic under narrower rule. Brienart makes his position clear in lamenting the political influence of the "Russian immigrant community" and the party representing "Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent."

Which is not to say he should be dismissed: Underneath lies a clear threat -- the asymmetrical relationship between Israel and the diaspora. Israel needs Liberal Diaspora Jews far more (or at least more directly), than Liberal Diaspora Jews need Israel; Israel's existence is jeopardized by the loss of a generation of diaspora Jews. Brienart's implication is accurate: Might, in this instance, makes right and so the onus is on Israel, and its supporters, to pander to these enfant terribles.

Brienart also gets one (somewhat tangential) point right when he argues that Zionism needs more positive ("based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets") and less negative (e.g.: victimhood-driven) content. On this, he takes the opposite side of Michael Chabon. Brienart's unstated critique of Orthodox parochialism is particularly on-target: They, above all, should understand that The Hope of Two Thousand Years can not be a state like any other.

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