Israel's Right Wing Stance Seen Alienating Youth

Research shows that Jewish students across the country are less likely to feel attached to Israel than their elders. They cite the country's shift to the right as one reason. What that means, writer Peter Beinart tells host Guy Raz, is that young Jews are now less likely to join key organizations that make up the American Jewish establishment — and the power of those groups is waning. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz joins this discussion on the future of the Jewish movement in the United States.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Israel's navy intercepted another ship today bound for Gaza carrying aid and pro-Palestinian activists. The boat was docked to the port of Ashdod in Israel, where the government says it will deliver the cargo to Gaza after inspecting its contents for weapons.

Now, while this latest attempt to break Israel's blockade of Gaza passed without incident, Israel continues to deal with the fallout from this week's deadly raid on another ship that left nine people dead.

A few days before that happened, an article published in the New York Review of Books sent shockwaves through parts of the American Jewish Committee. It's called "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," and it's an attack on what the author calls the uncritical attitude of the leadership of some mainstream Jewish groups towards Israel.

The author is Peter Beinart and he's a well-known supporter of Israel. He says that unlike the older generation of American Jews, younger ones, most of whom are liberal, are far less tied to Israel and far less willing to defend it.

We invited Beinart to discuss his thesis and we also asked Harvard Law School professor, Alan Dershowitz, a staunch defender of Israel, to respond. First, we hear from Beinart, who describes what he sees as the troublesome approach of the major Jewish organizations towards Israel.

Mr. PETER BEINART (Senior Political Writer, The Daily Beast): The Zionism that they have tried to nurture in the United States, which is a Zionism based on not publicly criticizing Israeli policies, is a Zionism that is not in accord with the values of most younger, not all but most younger American Jews who have liberal values.

RAZ: And so do you see evidence of waning support for Israel among younger Jews in America?

Mr. BEINART: Yes. I mean, the evidence is really unambiguous. If you look at the work, for instance, of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College, you see a clear secular decline in attachment to among the generations among American Jews.

RAZ: Alan Dershowitz, do you see evidence of that support waning among the next generation of American Jews?

Professor ALAN DERSHOWITZ (Law, Harvard Law School): I do. I see support waning for Israel all over the world. But I think that Peter really misses the complexity of what he calls the Jewish establishment.

I mean, I speak at probably more colleges and universities and make the case for Israel than probably any person in the world. I make the liberal case, the two-state solution case. I've been opposed to the occupation since 1973. I support the rights of the Arab minority in Israel to equality.

I make precisely the case that Peter would like Zionists to make, and yet the left regards me as a ziofascist, an extremist, a right winger, because I defend Israel's right to exist as a Jewish secular democracy and I critically, not uncritically, defend Israel's right to take military action necessary to protect its civilians. So, I think that Peter is on to a problem, but I think his diagnosis is off the mark.

RAZ: Peter Beinart, what are the consequences for the future of Israel's influence in Washington or U.S.-Israeli relations in the future if fewer American, younger American Jews, are even interested in Israel's well-being?

Mr. BEINART: This is my fear. There is a dramatic demographic shift going on in American Jewry. American Jews 18 to 24, a third of them are orthodox, as opposed to only 12 percent over the age of 60.

Young orthodox American Jews do feel very strongly attached to Israel. The American Jewish Committee in 2006 asked: Do you feel very close to Israel? American Jews 18 to 40, among non-orthodox, it was 16 percent.

RAZ: Sixteen percent.

Mr. BEINART: Sixteen percent.

RAZ: So very small percentage.

Mr. BEINART: Very small. Amongst orthodox Jews between 18 and 40, it was 79 percent. Those people will largely take over the leadership of groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress. It will move these organizations further to the right more and more to a position in which they support Israel, right or wrong, as a Jewish state not because of its liberal democratic value. And that will further alienate the large majority of fairly secular, liberal-minded American Jews.

RAZ: Alan Dershowitz, you just got back from a trip to the Middle East, where you met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Is there a serious concern there over the future of U.S.-Israel relations?

Prof. DERSHOWITZ: There is, of course. I think Benjamin Netanyahu feels that he has enormous support in Congress and enormous support among the American public. He frequently cites polls that show that support for Israel is actually going up, while going down among some liberal Jews.

Now, I think one of the reasons it's going down among liberal Jews is not that Israel is not as liberal; it's that the liberals and particularly the left radicals on college campuses have excluded Israel from the discussion and made it into a pariah state.

RAZ: Peter Beinart, have you been surprised by the reaction to your article -Leon Wieseltier, for example, in the New Republic - that publication that you used to edit - called it an example of faux courage. The head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, who we invited to be on this program with you, but he wasn't able to do so, has also lashed out at you. Are you surprised?

Mr. BEINART: What struck me about the piece is actually how much the intellectual debate has moved, how commonplace criticism, including harsh criticism, has become in the United States particularly in the blogosphere.

To some degree, I think that's very good. To some degree, I actually worry that we are moving towards a situation in which the bi-national state position. The position that there can be no two-state solution, but there should be one bi-national state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is picking up steam.

And it has made me even more concern that unless the major Jewish organizations define Zionism more broadly so that it includes the kind of critical Zionism, the passionately critical Zionism that Alan Dershowitz had advocated that, in fact, we will find ourselves stuck between an uncritical Zionism and the increasing non-Zionism of a one-state solution.

RAZ: That's Peter Beinart. He is the author of the article, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment." You can find it in the June 10th issue of the New York Review of Books. We also spoke with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.

Gentlemen, thank you so much.

Prof. DERSHOWITZ: Thank you.

Mr. BEINART: Thank you.

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