Is Beinart Wrong?

By the time you read this, the Great Debate may already have taken place. No matter. The issues will be around long after the hall at the Kraft Center at Columbia empties on Wednesday evening, May 2nd.

One of the contenders davens at an Orthodox shul. He is not the one for whom most of our readers will be rooting. Peter Beinart is not just an irritant. He is an irritant equipped with media power. His op-eds land where he wants them. He controls an entire section of The Daily Beast (called Open Zion) from which he can conduct his campaign to save Israel through tough love. Meaning, among other things, calling for a selective boycott of Israeli products, which puts him in bed with the worst of the Palestinian Israel-haters. (They don’t like him any more than I do, because he implies that there is such a thing as a progressive, liberated Zionism. This thought is anathema to the current crop of Palestinian leadership, which dumped the idea of a two-state solution a few years ago, and forgot to inform the benighted leadership of some mainline Protestant denominations, who are also contemplating selective boycotts of Israel as a sign of their great love for Israel and Jews.)

The other contender is Daniel Gordis, arguably one of the most talented and effective advocates for Israel, period. I am not alone in rating his handling of Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, as far and away the best of the lot.

It is a curious thing. Reading his political commentary, I find myself always nodding vigorously, and asking myself why I didn’t think of phrasing things so mellifluously. When he writes about issues of Jewish law and history, we might as well be living in parallel universes, without a worm-hole or a shared vocabulary to connect us. (Gordis hails from a storied Conservative family, although I hear that his own halachic observance is fairly traditional.)

This recent article of his leaves me disoriented. I can’t figure out whether it is political – which would explain why I loved it, or religious – which would explain why I am skeptical about his conclusion. Here are excerpts of his pummeling of Beinart:

Beinart’s problem, most fundamentally, is that the American liberalism with which he is so infatuated does not comfortably have a place for Jewish ethnic nationalism.

Throughout the book, the words “liberal” or “democratic” are always positives. And what means “negative” or “shameful”? In Beinart’s book, the word is “tribal.” … “Among younger non-Orthodox Jews,” he later says smugly, “tribalism is in steep decline.” What is wrong with the settlers is that they have “tribal privilege” much “like the British in India, Serbs in Kosovo, and whites in the segregated South.”

Really? Israel, in which Beduin women graduate from medical school, is like the segregated South? Surely Beinart knows better. So why the relentless attack?

Beinart’s problem isn’t really with Israel. It’s with Judaism. Bottom line, what troubles Beinart isn’t what’s happened to Zionism. What troubles him is the dimension of Jewish life that he can’t abide, but of which Zionism insists on reminding him. And that element is the undeniable fact that Judaism is tribal.

I don’t know which kiddush Beinart recited on the first night of Passover, but surely he knows that most Jews begin the main portion of the kiddush by praising God “who has chosen us from among all the nations, raising us above other languages.” Has he noticed that the blessing before being called up to the Torah thanks God for “choosing us from among all the nations,” or that we end Shabbat with havdala, noting that God distinguishes between “holy and profane, light and dark, between Israel and the nations”?

Now we can surely debate whether or not Jewish tribalism – a view of the world that says that we are not just like everyone else, that we are distinct and ought to remain that way – is one with which we are comfortable. We can debate whether or not this element of Judaism invariably leads to illegitimate Jewish senses of supremacy. But what we cannot debate is that that is what Judaism has always been. Had Beinart argued that a tribal Judaism has outlived its usefulness, that would not have been very new (Reform Judaism made that claim a long time ago, though it has largely retreated from that position), but it would have been interesting. And honest. And fair.

Some of us, myself included – as in my forthcoming book The Promise of Israel – would then respond that the very tribalism that so troubles Beinart is actually essential. Why? Because it is tribalism, the very opposite of the universalism that so enthralls Beinart, that is key to our being someone, of having something to contribute to humanity.

We sense that Gordis is correct, but does that mean that Beinart is wrong? A younger generation of non-Orthodox Jews does not relate to Israel with anything near the passion and love that their predecessors did. Why should they? The last generation grew up with images of little Israel surviving serial onslaughts by its enemies, and its stunning victory in 1967. The current generation grew up with pictures of Israeli soldiers armed to the teeth facing down oppressed Palestinians at checkpoints. Or so they are taught on campus. (Just a few years ago, kiruv organizations took the lion’s share of their fresh recruits to Israel, because young secular Jews still identified strongly with it. Today, you would think that the Jewish national homeland was Costa Rica.) What do we get from understanding that it is really Judaism itself that Beinart rejects? How will that shore up Jewish loyalty among young Jews? When Gordis goes to kiddush and havdalah to prove his point, does that not suggest that those who have little use for either of them are just doomed to not getting the point?

In other words, does Gordis’ presentation make any sense outside of a connection to a Judaism and an Israel that remain connected to G-d, Torah, and observance?

Yet, I sense that he is correct and that I am wrong. I sincerely hope, despite deep-seated theological differences, that he is correct and that I am wrong. Because the more people outside of the community of the halachically committed who stay loyal to the Jewish State and the Jewish people, the better. Their children might remain in the fold; some of them will come back to their true roots.

I see evidence of Gordis being correct every time I visit Israel, and often in my interaction with dedicated non-observant members of Israel’s foreign service. Soldiers who would give their lives for their country, and would not entertain any thoughts of leaving, despite the hardships. And despite the likelihood that their own children will also have to put their lives on the line. How is it that such loyalty persists, when it vanishes so quickly in the West if it is not connected to Torah and mitzvos? Many, many Israelis have gone the predictable route. Without commitment to Torah, they leave, they intermarry, they are lost to the Jewish people. What makes other secular Israelis different, and retains their dedication?

I struggle to find a model that works. The closest I have come is bound up in the words of the Meshech Chochmah (Nitzavim 30:2). “This is what the Torah means when it says והשבות אל לבבך/ you shall take it, return it, to your heart: Love of the the Jewish people is etched into his heart. When he returns there, when he listens to what remains engraved on his heart from the moment of Sinai, then he will return to Hashem his G-d. Since he returns to his people, it is assured that he will return as well to his G-d and be cured of his foolishness.”

Why do some Jews far from observance still manage to read the words etched on to their hearts, while others are blind to them? I do not know. In the long run, I cannot see how anyone other than the Orthodox will manage to survive Jewishly. In the short- and intermediate-terms, however, I pray that Gordis will get the better of me.

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19 comments to Is Beinart Wrong?

  • E. Fink

    Keep in mind that Gordis is a full dozen years older than Beinart. The Gen X / Y (to which I belong) is far less comfortable with tribalism than the generation above us. Excluding Israel, there is not a democracy in the world that identifies tribally. You can see why there is cognitive dissonance in the case of Israel for my generation. We know it is justified, but it hard to reconcile with the Western values that have become so ingrained in our collective psyche.

    Religious Jews have an easier time with this simply because they are more tribal than seculars.

    [YA There are lots of democracies that identify tribally. I once had the list, and it numbered over twenty. They include Germany and Poland, both of which have right of automatic citizenship for progeny of ethnic X’s, etc. Israel’s right of citizenship for Jews is not any more extreme. Now these are obvious features. Less obvious is the tribal nature of many of the countries you are talking about. The sharp upswing in voting for the right throughout Europe is a reminder that the only people who took the post-War European preoccupation with open borders, shared currency, elimination of nationalims – seriously were American liberal arts professors. IMHO, one of the important gifts that Judaism still has to convey to the rest of civilization is that particularism is not a sin but a virtue, and can and should easily lead to more – not less – responsibility for the Other. I think we can be proud of the record of the State of Israel in that regard. And one day, you will see what happens when French (or Italian or Belgian) tribalism is aroused a bit more, and the blood bath that will ensue against Arab “guests.”]

  • Nachum

    In an interview, Beinart talked about his “Orthodoxy” by saying somethinh like he goes to synagogue every week and “reads the scroll with my son.”

    I have a distinct feeling he’s making it up. I have a distinct feeling he can’t even read Hebrew, which, religion aside, ought to be a requirement for people out to discuss Israeli matters. Gordis should hold up a copy of today’s Yisrael HaYom, ask Beinart what it is, ask him to describe the paper and its popularity, and then ask him to read a headline.

    [YA – He’s not making it up. I know the shul he goes to, or at least used to go to. His kids attend an Orthodox day school (Last point unverified.)]

  • Reb Yid

    This is Rabbi Danny Gordis, of course–who used to the dean of the Conservative rabbinical school in your city. Numerous renowned Conservative rabbis with the Gordis name; my wife went to a day school named after his grandfather.

    Too bad you did not find time to get to know him when he was in LA. He was also a member of an Orthodox shul there (Rav Kanefsky’s). Methinks you are selling him (and yourself) short by claiming you have no common religious ground–perhaps this is a defense mechanism on your part.

  • L. Oberstein

    The fundamental issue is whether one believes that there ever was an Exodus from Egypt. A fact that was unknown even to most Conervative Jews became public when the Los Angeles Rabbi Wolpe told his congregation several years ago that the Exodus is a myth and we found out that is what they teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The whole Biblical narrativ is considered unproven rewritten sagas not based on actual history. Many go so far as to doubt that there ever was an Abraham,Isaac and Jacob.This is what most Bible scholars believe and what is taught in most academic institutions, so why should anyone except the orthodox remain committed long term to Judaism. The real elephant in the room is that fundamentally, they don’t believe in the foundations of our faith. The only thing left is tribalism, living in the present tense even if the story is something made up in the exile to justify political views of the Persian Empire. If they didn’t say it, I couldn’t make it up. Gordis is a good man defending a cause that is flawed by lack of belief in the core.

  • Steve Brizel

    R Alderstein, and Daniel Gordis deserve a Yasher Koach for exposing the true essence of Beinart’s screed against Israel. In a recent article in Commentary, Dr Gordis exposed the fact that the heterodox movements rabbbinical students are far more inclined to the univeralist than the particularist elements of Judaism, and twist the univeralist elements like a proverbial pretzel to suit their predetermined liberal/left POV. Beinart’s use of “tribalism” is consistent with such an approach which displays very little knowledge of classical Jewish sources.

  • Steve Brizel

    R Adlerstein wrote in part:

    “I don’t know which kiddush Beinart recited on the first night of Passover, but surely he knows that most Jews begin the main portion of the kiddush by praising God “who has chosen us from among all the nations, raising us above other languages.” Has he noticed that the blessing before being called up to the Torah thanks God for “choosing us from among all the nations,” or that we end Shabbat with havdala, noting that God distinguishes between “holy and profane, light and dark, between Israel and the nations”?

    Unfotunately, in certain portions of the MO world, one finds an almost icky, embarrassed or distateful feeling when the related hashkafically bedrock principles of Bchiras Yisrael, Mamleches Kohanim, and Bris Sinai as the culmination of Yetzias Mitzrayim are discussed in any context other than a merely utilitarian POV.

  • Toronto Yid

    I am in the optimistic camp. I think that the Israeli who has strayed far from Yiddishkeit still continues to have a “pintele Yid” inside that could pull him back. Why is it that the Pesach seder is almost universally celebrated (in some form or another) among most Israelis in Israel? And as you noted, there are so many secular Israelis who persevere in Israel and serve in the IDF – why? Is it just the nationalism that a citizen feels in any otehr country?

    True, many leave Israel and from there it’s inexorable slide away from Judaism for many. But not so much for those who stay. I used to believe that there were two groups of Jews in Israel – religious and anti-religious. Now I believe its much more nuanced. It’s not that much of the backlash from the secular is anti-religion per se, it’s in response to the politization of the religion that comes hand in glove with having a state, political parties and state institutions such as the Rabanut who can be as inflexible as any other government office in Israel.

    Call it cultural attachment to Judaism, but I think that remains inside them. And it will help fan the spark towards return.

  • A. Schreiber

    “A younger generation of non-Orthodox Jews does not relate to Israel with anything near the passion and love that their predecessors did.”

    Whoa. Hold on. You are buying into Beinart’s claim, the same claim that has been conclusively debunked by scholars. He CLAIMS Jews do not relate to Israel the same way the previous generation did. In reality, there is no evidence to support that. To the contrary, the evidence shows that Taglit/Birthright, which has been in existence now for 20 years, a full generation, has been successful in fostering a connection between diaspora Jews and Israel. (Naturally it has many failings too, but that is a different issue.) There was a study recently which showed pretty much the same level of attachment to Israel among the young today as among their parents.

    [YA – Afraid I haven’t seen the scholarly literature you’re talking about. I have heard the same story from every kiruv professional, every campus worker, every Israeli consular official I have known: the younger generation of secular American Jews does not have the feeling for Israel that was there a generation ago. I will have a hard time digesting data from Birthright, having come across too many people who went on their ticket, only to be shepherded around Israel by far-left, pro-Palestinian groups. There is a good reason for the Orthodox world to run its own programs in Israel and try to enroll Birthright participants in them.]

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    In the long run the demographics will win out. The religious/traditional Jews have the kids and stay around. The religious Jews in the Diaspora will have to make aliya soon to be able to afford to send their kids to school. The hareidim are slowly going back to some kind of balance between Torah and derech eretz as the post-Holocaust gravy train runs out. And the Israeli hi-tech economy will be virtually the only expanding economy in the world. Those who opt out opt out of their place in the Jewish future and probably any Jewish progeny. Sad but true. Jews, get ready to come home.

  • Reb Yid

    Regarding the scholarly literature:

    I’m a part of it. I’ve seen the data. And the truth is….we don’t know–we just don’t know. We’ve all thought the conventional wisdom about what the younger generation is like compared to previous younger generations.

    But there’s no solid empirical data to support it. By the way, there’s no solid data to affirm the opposite either, that today’s group is just as engaged, or more engaged, than younger Jews of earlier times, as some researchers would have you believe.

  • shaya

    I believe the proper term is not tribalism but nationalism. The only unique thing about the Jewish state is due to one of Judaism’s unique features — that has always been understood as both a nation (that is, a people) and a religion. The use of the term tribalism is poetic license employed to paint Israel in a negative light.

    Nationalism in itself is not a bad thing, but there are different types of nationalism. Many forms of nationalism are based on arrogance, a tendency to blame problems on outsiders, a feeling of utter contempt toward those those outside the nation — in other words, a complete reversal of Torah values. In Israel, only a portion the far-right fringe has such a nationalism (while such forms of nationalism among Palestinians and neighboring Arabs and Persians are the main source of the conflict). The rest of Israel, including the government, has a more moderate, cooperative and respectful form of nationalism, more in line with the humility and concern for others that is foundational to Jewish ethics (even if many individual policy decisions can be reasonably questioned either for being too harsh or weak). The obsessive opposition to Israel’s every action by ostensibly well-meaning humanitarians around the world results mainly from their skewed understanding of the real facts of the conflict, because they get these facts from radical nationalist Palestinians purposely twisting the truth. These nationalists are so successful they’ve even managed to convince anarchists to fight alongside them!

    Secular Jewish nationalism is very compelling and meaningful to many people, both Israelis and Jews elsewhere. Since Secular Jewish nationalists founded Israel to begin with, it’s not surprising to me at all that the vast majority of them are patriotic enough to stay there. The main thing the religious sector should be concerned about is ensuring that the secular are not made to feel unwelcome in their own country. For example, the Rabbanut’s control over marriage, and extreme and deplorable lack of derekh eretz in some (religious) quarters, makes some Israelis feel more comfortable elsewhere.

  • Ralph Kostant

    Rabbi Gordis and Rabbi Adlerstein are both correct. Rabbi Adlerstein is correct that ahavat Yisrael–love of the Jewish people–to the point of mesirat nefesh–giving up one’s life–is still prevalent in Israel today, including among the secular and non-observant. However, Rabbi Gordis is correct that Torah Judaism is the fertile soil from which the flower of ahavat Yisrael springs. Remove the soil, and eventually, although perhaps not for generations, the flower wilts and dies. One cannot compare the love of the Jewish people shown by the Israeli secular left of past generations, such as David Ben Gurion or Golda Meir, with the anti-tribal, post-Zionist, universalist attitude of today’s Israeli secular left. Fortunately, the influence on the larger Israeli secular society of the post-Zionist secular left has declined, while the influence of the best exponents of the entire spectrum of Torah Judaism in Israel, from the Haredi to the Religious Zionists, continues to grow and nurture a positive type of tribalism-love of Judaism and the Jewish people.

  • cvmay

    SCHREIBER: Attend the annual ISRAEL DAY PARADE and you will see the
    streets filled with seniors and middle age supporters. Due to the void
    of Education in Jewish Schools towards Israel – the support has
    dissapaited. Plus the college campuses Mid Eastern and History
    Departments are loaded with Left wing/Pro- Palestinean professors who
    are diabolicly negative to Israel and its claim of existence. The
    Boycott and Divestment Organizations began on the Ivy League colleges
    where our young Jewish students are found.

    BTW: The main supporters of Israel Bonds, Technion, Hadassah hospital
    etc. are all our silver haired seniors. They have the dough and the
    idealogy to match

  • A. Schreiber

    The studies I referenced above were prepared by Leanorad Saxe, of Brandies University, and Stephen Cohen, from Hebrew-Union College. Both of them are very respected, even included in the Forward Top 50 Influential Jews. Both of them have studied statistics and the Jewish community for decades (comapred to Beinart, who is simply a pundit and whose assessment of attitudes to Israel comes from those sitting around him at the dinner table.) Saxe was quoted in the Times of Israel saying Beinart was “an ignorant consumer of research on American Jewish attitudes to Israel.” Stephen Kuperberg, who runs the Israel campus organization, also debunked Beinart, pretty conclusively I would say, using statistics. Statistics can be manipualted, but they are for sure better than Beinart’s own personal opinions.

    I didnt say the data came from Birthright, I said only that Birthright, nonwithstanding orthodox complaints about it [however justified] has been successful in fostering positive feelings towards Israel among the young, contra Beinart’s unfounded assertions. And I agree its a good idea for the orthodox to run their own programs. My point was simply and only to answer the question you opened your article with, which was “Is Beinart wrong?” The answer is, very simply: Yes.

  • Charles Hall

    “They include Germany and Poland, both of which have right of automatic citizenship for progeny of ethnic X’s, etc.”

    Actually, *most* of the countries in the Eastern Hemisphere base citizenship more on ancestry than on birth — the *jus sanguinis* concept. Israel is different mostly in its lenient immigration rules (which extend, BTW, to non-Jews — I know a non-Jewish naturalized citizen of Israel who had to wait a lot less time than do people who want to become US citizens). I personally know someone born in the UK who is not a British national because the ethnicity of the parents was wrong. In the Western Hemisphere, most countries based citizenship on being born in the country — the *jus soli* concept. In the United States, Canada, and Mexico, both *jus soli* and *jus sanguinis* grant someone automatic citizenship. That is why Barack Obama would have been a natural born citizen even had he been born outside the US. And since Mexico did not adopt *jus soli* until its 1917 constitution, George Romney was a natural born US citizen and never a Mexican citizen even though he was born in Mexico.

  • Charles Hall

    “The religious Jews in the Diaspora will have to make aliya soon to be able to afford to send their kids to school. ”

    While this is a huge problem in the US, governments in some other countries including the UK, France, and parts of Canada (along with Ireland and Spain with tiny Jewish communities) give very generous subsidies to Jewish religious schools.

  • L. Oberstein

    I had the opportunity to hear Daniel Gordis grive the Shabbos morning drasha this week at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale . He basicly said exactly what you quote but based it on the parsha. His point that we are not just “Kedoshim” as individuals but we are a “Goy Kadosh”, our holiness is actualized through belonging to the nation, which is much more than just a religion. I was impressed to not only see him davening with a long wool tallis on Shabbos but to see him at the Sunday morning minyan wearing tallis and tefillin. Since that wasn’t part of his duties as a guest speaker, it demonstrates that he is observant. I had an opportunity to talk to him afterwards and if I didn’t know that 30 years ago he went to JTS, I wouldn’t have seen anything not orthodox in his words or deeds.

  • A. Schreiber

    Reb Yid says, about studies evidencing favorable young Jewish attitudes to Israel: “And the truth is….we don’t know–we just don’t know.”

    OK, I can accept that. But if so, kal vichomer (a fortiori) we must say Beinart – whose opinions are not even based on any evidence – is wrong.

    At best you can say, in Beinart’s “defense”, is that there are is anything from 12-15 million Jews out there, and we cant even agree on who a Jew is, so we have no idea if attitudes today are better or worse or the same. Our impressions are colored by our own experiences. Let’s also not forget that people have skin in the game, in terms of their professional employment, in claiming that attitudes are improving or weakening. So sure, Beinart could conceivably be right, but he could just as easily be wrong, and so his article is just another of those little things every Jew offers a thousand times a day: his own opinion.

  • Raymond

    I suppose I am one of those Jews who may not be formally religious, yet cannot imagine identifying myself as anything other than proudly Jewish. Honestly, I do not see how it can be other way. I really have no choice, nor do I have any desire to deny who I am at my core. I am not sure who said it (Elie Wiesel? Viktor Frankl?), but the humanity in me would much rather be one of the oppressed than any oppressor, so even if I would identify my Jewishness purely in terms of how the antisemitic world has treated our people, I would still have it no other way than to be the Jew that I am. Or if I chose to identify my Jewishness in terms of our secular accomplishments, even the most skeptical person has to marvel at how much we have accomplished even with one of our hands tied behind our collective backs. But of course, it is in the realm of our spirituality, where we shine our brightest, and are at our most special. While I am certainly no expert in such matters, I have spent some considerable time studying other religions and ways of life, perhaps in the tradition of Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro). How much more, then, do I appreciate the crowning achievement that is G-d’s Torah, and what we have made of it. Frankly, to deny any of this, would be like a zebra trying his best to deny that he is a zebra. Perhaps he would rather pretend to be a a giraffe. But a zebra is a zebra, and should be content with that. I do not even begin to understand how any individual Jew can feel any differently than what I am describing here, or that he even has any realistic choice in the matter.