The Three Postulates of Progressive American Judaism
Postulate: something taken as self-evident or assumed without proof.
“Among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly six-in-ten have a non-Jewish spouse,” according to the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews. We live in an unprecedented environment of assimilation — Hellenization — of which political Progressive American Judaism is an important concomitant. Perhaps a quarter of American Jews seem to embrace it to one extent or another.
Some preliminary definitions and disclaimers. 1) When I say Progressives, I mean self-styled political Progressives. 2) Not all Progressives conform in all particulars to my descriptions here. I use the organization JStreet as an exemplar, and my descriptions relate most particularly to this group and to the individuals associated with it. 3) With this focus in mind, the folks I discuss are not exactly foes of israel — certainly not in their own mind — but neither are they exactly friends. So while on one side they differ from radical enemies of Israel like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler (a small minority), they are also distinct from anyone, whether sometimes critical of Israel or not, who accepts and supports the idea of Israel as a Jewish state (the majority of American Jews). So, to repeat, I speak of all those who see JStreet as, more or less, an expression of their own views.
A. The Postulate of Israeli Guilt.
Mr. Peter Beinart, perhaps the most prominent writer associated with JStreet, opens his 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism with an anecdote that he has gleaned from a video. It seems that an Arab was arrested for stealing water from a Jewish settlement; the scene was captured on the video. From this scene, but without any further investigation whatever, Beinart concludes that a grave injustice was done to the Palestinian. Moreover, Beinart vows, as a result of the lesson that he has learned from the video, he will instruct his children “that unless American Jews help end the occupation that desecrates Israel’s founding ideals, this is what Zionism will become, a movement that fails the test of Jewish power.”
Absent an investigation of the circumstances that lead to the arrest of the Arab man, how does Mr. Beinart know that a grave injustice was done ? Of course he does not, as Bret Stephens has pointed out in a trenchant review of the book. But even as a religious zealot never questions the postulates of his faith, it does not occur to Mr. Beinart to question the postulate of Israeli guilt.
Note here that the occupation, seen as undesirable by the Israeli government and the majority of the Jewish population of Israel, is presented here by Mr. Beinart as an Israeli crime. Never mind that Israel has repeatedly, for instance through a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, tried to extricate itself from the burden of the occupation. Except by those who accept the postulate of Israeli guilt, it is difficult to exculpate the Palestinian elites from responsibility for the stalemate on this question.
After the March re-election of Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel, Mr. Beinart suggested that the U.S. government should “punish — yes, punish — the Israeli government” for holding to its own policies. One can discuss with people with whom one disagrees, but whom does one “punish,” as Mr. Beinart suggests ? Obviously those who are guilty.
The postulate of Israeli guilt has infected all statements on Israel by these Progressives. I have seen it, for example, in statements by Progressive rabbis in response to the current intifada in Israel. Following the lead of JStreet, these Progressives hold that the knifings, shootings, and other murders of Jews, by Palestinian Arabs, are as much the fault of the Israelis as of the Arabs. Go figure.
Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI) has gone further: it suggests that the current violence is actually (mostly) Israel’s fault. PPI is a small group of self-styled Progressive Jews who support the Meretz party in Israel. PPI’s membership overlaps largely with that of JStreet.
What are we to make of this postulate of Israeli guilt ? Where does it come from ? Similar to the question of anti-Semitism, to which it is related, it must remain a mystery to those who insist on seeing man as a rational actor. And no, our Progressives are not rational. This irrationality again comes into play when we consider the second of our postulates:
B. The Postulate of an Immoral Right Wing
Here is a précis of some of the Basic Principles by which the Progressive Judaism of our time likes to define itself: 1) We support the core democratic values among which there is the principle of government by the people, as opposed to, for instance, government by an elite. 2) The world can be divided into the Left (good) and the Right Wing (bad). 3) The Right Wing is, well, not Progressive. It is, in fact, regressive. It represent the interests of the billionaires (shades of Bernie Sanders !) and other bad actors. 4) The Israeli government is Right Wing and therefore reprehensible.
Now how do we know that the Israeli government is Right Wing ? Neither Netanyahu nor the members of his coalition use the term to refer to themselves. In fact, in the contexts in which our Progressives use the term, Right Wing is no more than an epithet, a term of abuse. I have blogged on this topic before, here and here. It is of course true that in other contexts, more neutral observers, particularly the media, will refer to the Likud and allied parties as “right wing” without an implication of moral judgement. But be that as it may, The Progressives’ syllogism — Right Wing is bad; Likud is Right Wing; hence Likud is bad — is seriously compromised when tested by empirical data.
If, as Progressive doctrine holds, the Right represents the interests of privilege while the Left represents the interests of oppressed masses, it should follow, in accordance with the democratic principle that people must be trusted to know their own interests, that the less privileged in society will vote Left, more privileged Right. But generally speaking, just about all over the world with some exceptions, the very opposite holds true. Here is a representative study of Israeli voters in the 2003 elections, conducted by Michael Shalev and Gal Levy. (The full study is available here.)
The most relevant line for our purpose here is the last, which gives the social-economic status of the average voter of the different political parties. The authors report what they call standard scores, which are more commonly called z-scores, and which I will translate into the more common percentile scores. So we learn that the average Shas (“right-wing”) voter is in the 21st percentile of the population; the average Likudnik (also “right-wing”) in the 41st, the average Labor voter (moderate Left) in the 56th, and the average Meretz voter (Left, strongly approved by the American-Jewish Progressive PPI) is in the 72nd. (The numbers for the centrist Shinui are 61, 69 for Russian olim.) In other words, the electorate of the current governing parties come from the distinctly less advantaged while the splinter Meretz group, so beloved by American Progressive Judaism, attracts the over-privileged.
Of course our Progressives can reply, as Marxists sometimes do, that the poor, the downtrodden, the toiling masses do not know what is good for them. Only we, the enlightened elite, we have the knowledge and the wisdom and the virtue. Progressives can say that, but only at the expense of repudiating their profession of belief in democratic self-government. You can’t have it both ways.
C. The Postulate of Palestinian Innocence
One of the most striking experiences in reading Mr. Beinart and his comrades is their innocence — in the culpable meaning of that term — of any appreciation for the cultural context of the current Israeli-Arab conflict. The hell that is today’s Syria, the millions of refugees from Muslim countries, the unspeakable violence, internal and exported, of radical Islamism, none of this finds its way into the Progressive media. So the question that arises for non-Progressives — if Israel is the cause of violence by Arabs in Israel and the Occupied Territories, who is responsible for the even greater violence by Arabs and Islamists in the rest of the world ? — never seems to faze our Progressives.
The major cultural factors of Palestinian society that impinge on the Israeli conflict may be summarized under four headings:
1) There is an Islamic culture of violence. A very recent, very thorough, very informative review of Palestinian opinion data by Daniel Polisar shows the deep-rooted nature of the problem. The companion piece by Amir Taheri adds an important historical perspective.
2) There is a pervasive, quasi-unanimous hatred of Jews among the Palestinian masses, documented in the Polisar study.
3) There is a constant incitement to violence on the part of the Palestinian elites, documented by an ongoing basis by MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch.
4) The Palestinian school system, in particular, educates the young to hate the Jews, to reject Israel, and to embrace violence. This too is documented by MEMRI and PMW.
All these cultural factors in Palestinian society are notorious to all — to all, that is, save our Progressives. What makes them turn a blind eye ? I suggest that it is their postulate, their unshakable, irrational belief in a Palestinian people without agency, a people, in the condescending world of the Progressives, who are as innocent as the Israelis are guilty.
We come back to where we started. The Hellenizing quarter, approximately, of American Jews, ashamed as they may be of their pushy and over-assertive and over-sensitive co-religionists, seem to have embraced a fairly new stance of Progressivism. This stance appears to them enlightened and universalist and humane — much more humane than thou. But these new Progressives have paid a great price for their considerable satisfaction with themselves. And that price is the illogic and incoherence of dogmatic postulates that cannot stand the test of empirical reality.