Recently, the organization If Not Now, whose stated goal is to end U.S. Jewry’s “support for the occupation,” has made the Birthright program—which gives young American Jews free trips to Israel—a target of its invective. They have now been joined by the somewhat more moderate voice of the journalist Peter Beinart, who argued in a column this week that Birthright is morally suspect unless it starts bringing participants to meet Palestinians living in the West Bank. Daniel Gordis, a friend and regular sparring partner of Beinart, dissects his argument, and what lies behind it:
Which Palestinians does Peter think Birthright participants ought to meet? Palestinians in the West Bank are no more monolithic than Israelis or American Jews. Does he want them to hear from Palestinians who will tell them that they’d much rather live under Israeli occupation than under the corrupt Palestinian Authority (there are, indeed, such people), or Palestinians who will tell them that ending the occupation is but the first step on their drive to ending the state of Israel? Or does he want them to hear from Palestinians who insist on ending the occupation but have no desire to destroy Israel? What percentage of Palestinians are those people? How does Peter know? On what basis of what would Beinart have Birthright choose? Those who represent the majority? Or those who mirror Beinart’s progressive yet “Zionist” values? . . .
How are we to explain the intellectual sloppiness? Perhaps it’s because American Jewish progressives, with If Not Now at their helm, have decided to destroy Birthright, and Beinart would rather join the crowd than try to lead them back to a responsible position. Or perhaps (as he notes) it’s because he finds Sheldon Adelson so distasteful that he wants any program that Adelson funds taken down? [I]s that reason enough to destroy a program that has brought hundreds of thousands of young American Jews to have a meaningful engagement with Israel? Instead of destroying Birthright, why don’t Beinart, If Not Now, and others raise the tens of millions of dollars it would cost to run an alternative program? . . . The reason has to do with the particular form of Zionism characteristic of much of the American Jewish left.
At the heart of this brand of Zionism, writes Gordis, is the conceit that it is the duty of American Jews to save Israel from itself:
If 82 percent of Israelis now define themselves as center-to-right-wing, [as a recent study suggests], how can American liberal Jews save Israel without subverting the will of Israel’s majority? At the same time, though, how can American Jews both boast about Israel’s robust democracy and also decide to override it in the name of their American, suburban, progressive ethos? . . . Is Israel’s democracy not sacred? Or is it simply less sacred than the moral comfort of American Jewish progressives? . . .
[As for the] young American Jewish progressives [of If Not Now]: do they believe that they are more moral than the Israeli left? . . . Or, more likely, is it that they care about their progressive credentials much more than they care about Israel?