Because I damn and indict people for a living, the lede of Peter Beinart’s recent New York Review of Books essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” grabs me by the throat. Beinart declares in his first paragraph that the findings of Republican pollster Frank Luntz present “the most damning indictment of the organized American Jewish community that I have ever seen.”
Luntz’s work, writes Beinart, shows that young American Jews have grown estranged from Israel and the Zionist dream because of the bullying and illiberal ways of both the Israeli government and the American Jewish establishment. From this small beginning, Beinart composes yet another—if not wildly original—iteration of the Zionist-hawks-vs.–Zionist-doves debate that has been churning in American journals of opinion for 40 years or longer.
What interests me about Beinart’s piece is not his contribution to that argument but his damning and inciting starting point. How did he and Luntz come to the conclusion that young American Jews are giving up on Zionism? He explains that Luntz was hired in 2003 by “several prominent Jewish philanthropists” (who go unnamed in this piece) to “explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel.” In other words, the philanthropists had decided that American Jewish college students insufficiently refuted Israel’s critics on campus, and now it was up to Luntz to find out why that was so.
The word maven Luntz is a sharp character, but he’s more interested in “message development” than in searching for truth. On his Web site, he takes credit for having transformed the public lexicon. Thanks to Luntz, many of us now say “death tax” instead of “estate tax,” “opportunity scholarships” instead of “school vouchers,” and “exploring for energy” instead of “drilling for oil.” Near the end of his New York Review piece, Beinart describes Luntz’s latest efforts in helping “to foster Zionism among America’s young” through word power. Luntz urges American Jewish groups to use the word “Arabs” not “Palestinians” because the latter “evokes images of refugee camps, victims and oppression” while “the former says wealth, oil and Islam.”
To satisfy his 2003 clients, Luntz convened six focus groups of young Jews to probe their attitudes about Israel. What methodology Luntz used to pry from his subjects their “indifference” toward Israel, Beinart doesn’t say. Nor does Beinart say how Luntz’s 2003 focus group results can really inform us about the current American Jewish college-student mind-set. By now, every member of those focus groups has graduated and gone off to graduate school or a career.
Convincing me that American Jewish college students have become slackers on the topic of Israel should require Beinart 1) to reach back to the past and identify a base-line period during which pro-Israel verbal ferocity was the norm on campus and then 2) to compare those strengths to the weaknesses of current student op-eds, student blogs, and debate-society transcripts. But Beinart doesn’t do that. Instead, he points to the Brandeis student senate’s 2008 rejection of a happy-60th-birthday resolution for Israel, which he finds remarkably telling because Brandeis is “the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in America.” But is that incident really the measure of the pulse of young Jews that Beinart makes it out to be? According to the Boston Globe story about the affair, only about half of the current Brandeis student body “identifies itself as Jewish.”
For a more rigorous critique of Beinart’s views on young American Jews, see a recent piece in Tablet in which academics Theodore Sasson and Leonard Saxe accuse him of misreading the data. They write:
Moreover, as we pointed out in our published response to the original Cohen-Kelman report, younger Jews have reported lower levels of attachment to Israel in most surveys going back as far as there are data to analyze. Younger Jews were less attached to Israel in the National Jewish Population Surveys of 2000 and 1990. They were less attached in the AJC surveys going back to the mid-1980s. If, in fact, young Jews are always less attached than older Jews, then the differences in age groups are likely related to lifecycle rather than generation. As Jews age, they become more attached to Israel. In other words, the younger Jews who reported a middling level of attachment to Israel in the mid-1980s grew up to become today’s over 60 group, which reports a high level of attachment.
Please don’t bother Beinart with these numbers. Like the philanthropists who hired Luntz, he has already reached his conclusions and doesn’t need any evidence. If this were a court of law and not a column of press criticism, I would rule his opening paragraphs inadmissible and throw his case out.
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