Last week, New York Magazine published a piece by Eric Levitz, “Natalie Portman and the Crisis of Liberal Zionism,” about the supposed disconnect between American Jews’ liberal values and their support for Israel. The piece itself serves as a prime example of the biased journalism that for decades has led to the reckless misunderstanding of Israel, which is the real crisis of liberal Zionism today.
The phenomenon that Levitz attempts to highlight was notably articulated by American Jewish commentator Peter Beinart in a 2010 New York Review of Books article. “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” Beinart wrote, “and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
While Beinart takes aim at the American Jewish establishment, and blames it for ultimately alienating young American Jews from Israel, Levitz indicts the American Jewish liberals who have not “checked their Zionism,” and who still, in his view, stubbornly and illogically defend Israel against their better liberal impulses.
In one telling paragraph, Levitz inadvertently reveals the superficiality of what passes for Israel critique by making four dishonest comparisons between the illiberal US policies liberal Jews condemn, and the supposedly illiberal Israeli policies they defend.
Levitz’s first dishonest comparison is that liberal American Jews contradict themselves when they “lament border walls in Texas but defend them in the West Bank.” It bears pointing out that only 5% of Israel’s West Bank barrier – near Jerusalem – is an actual wall, because it was meant to stop Palestinian snipers from shooting at Israeli motorists. It has been very successful in this regard. Does Levitz believe saving Israeli lives compromises liberal values?
Is he referring to the Palestinian land that some parts of the wall divide, cases which have been litigated in Israeli courts, and have seen parts of the wall moved and Palestinians compensated? Or is he referring to the wall serving as a de factor border for an Israel frustrated by the Palestinian refusal to negotiate borders? He doesn’t say. To reasonable people, there is no contradiction between lamenting a Trump proposed southern border wall, and defending the West Bank barrier.
The second dishonest comparison is that liberal American Jews “condemn Republicans who suggest non-white babies pose a threat to American civilization as proto-Nazis and endorse Israel’s right to defend itself against the ‘demographic threat’ that is Palestinian children.” This is a particularly vulgar comparison. Palestinian society is homogenous – almost 100% Arab-Muslim. It has driven most of its vulnerable Christian minority away and has made it clear a Jewish minority population would not be welcome, to say the least.
Israel, by contrast, is multiracial, diverse and protects minorities, yet still functions as the world’s only Jewish society. Palestinians speak openly of using their demographics to destroy Israel. Arafat coined this strategy “weapon of the womb,” and many other Palestinian leaders have boasted of it. Israeli demographic concerns are not rooted in racial supremacist paranoia, but in pure survival. To frame these concerns as something malicious is ignorant and offensive.
The third dishonest comparison is that liberal American Jews “decry Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees and apologize for Israel’s imprisonment of African ones.” Israel determining which of the 40,000 African migrants are ‘refugees’ is difficult and takes time. Unlike the US, Israel is a tiny state, so the issue is more complex than simplistically suggesting Israel’s decisions on refugees and absorption contradict liberal values. Further, much of the Israeli population is multiracial, thereby undermining the suggestion that racism is a driving factor on this issue.
Finally, liberal American Jews “abhor the president’s indifference to civilian casualties and ignore that Israel’s defense minister believes every man, woman and child in the Gaza Strip is an enemy combatant.” Yet this is not what Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s Defense Minister, said. He didn’t say “enemy combatants,” he said they’re “not innocent”. There is a huge difference. More importantly, Liberman was referring specifically to those Gazans participating in the ‘Great Return March’. Those Gazans knew, or should have known, this was a publicity stunt to distract Israeli forces, and global media, from the terrorist operation it was.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar publicly declared beforehand “we will tear out their (Israeli) hearts.” Hamas’ stated plans were to cut through the fence, infiltrate nearby Israeli communities and kidnap or kill Israeli civilians. This wasn’t a civilian led march or “protest,” but a Hamas coordinated violent event, where Gazans were bused to the protest sites and offered financial compensation, based on the severity of their injuries and deaths, which would be broadcast to the world. Knowing full well the mortal danger they were inciting, Hamas once again used Gaza’s civilians as if they were expendables. Hamas correctly calculated that the global media, including some American Jews, would fall for it.
Beyond these four horrid comparisons, Levitz defames Israel by suggesting it wantonly murdered a journalist (“wearing a vest marked ‘PRESS'”). This “journalist” has already been exposed as a member of Hamas. He had been operating a drone over Israeli forces, and was at the fence where Hamas operatives were cutting through, shielded by plumes of tire fire smoke.
In the bigger picture, Levitz exposes his ignorance of the conflict by referring to Israel “maintaining de facto Apartheid rule in the West Bank.” That this emotionally contrived, politicized charge is increasing in frequency, does not make it true. There is no reason a journalist should be using this term as if it’s a real thing. Levitz then laments the perpetuation of Israel’s occupation. It “might outlive the liberal order that was supposed to render it illegitimate.”
Yet absent from the selective narrative he weaves is the 20+ years of well documented, unabashed Palestinian rejectionism, which is the primary reason the occupation continues. And this gets to the crux of how misguided many American Jewish liberals are when it comes to Israel. Yes, it is their fault for not educating themselves. But it’s also very much the fault of the establishment, the media establishment.
When a journalist speaks authoritatively on Israel’s perpetual occupation without mentioning Palestinian rejection of Israel and the two state solution, the result is a dishonest understanding of Israel’s predicament. This dishonesty betrays progressive values. We can try to understand Palestinian humanity, and still question their narrative and their actions, as we do with Israel. But, we must do so with intellectual integrity.
To borrow Beinart’s phrasing, journalists like Levitz have checked their honesty at Zionism’s door. Too often today, the search for truth about Israel is distorted through a prism of moral posturing and identity politics. This prism, and not the impossible reality Israel faces on the ground, is the real crisis of liberal Zionism.
Daniel Brooks is a political commentator and Israel activist living in New York City