Jewish flight from Zionism continues with Riesman piece criticizing grandfather’s role in Israel lobby

More good news from the Jewish world. Abraham Riesman, a 35-year-old writer for New York Magazine, has published a long, critical/loving article on his grandfather Robert Riesman (1919-2004), who was a leader of the Israel lobby in Rhode Island, with close ties to politicians in the ocean state.

The article in New York Magazine is titled, “My Grandfather the Zionist.” Young Riesman no longer believes the myths that the Israel lobby purveys in the U.S. media, and he says neither do many other younger Jews. The pro-Israel consensus is now “in decline.” The massacre and imprisonment of Palestinians today keeps young American Jews up at night– and makes Jews unsafe, Riesman argues.

His article is a great answer to David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, who has asked, What did we do wrong in our homes and schools that young Jews are turning against Israel?

Abraham Riesman, from his twitter feed.

Riesman says Israel is now tearing the Jewish community apart.

In my grandfather’s day, Israel was the great unifier of the American Jewish community. Now it is the great divider, both inside our own community and in cleavages with other ones. Bring up Israel with any American Jew and you can feel the atmosphere tighten. There is no topic that incenses us more, whether the emotions are pride or shame, defensiveness or hatred, fear that not enough of our coreligionists support the Jewish state or rage that they support it too much.

The left is done with Israel, particularly since the last Gaza assault. Which heralds “disaster and disunity” for Jews.

Jews and Gentiles who had previously betrayed no interest in the topic have taken up the cause of the Palestinians who are governed and besieged and, in many cases, killed by an occupying state. Although Twitter, as they say, is not real life, it’s often a leading indicator of where real life is headed, and the conversation about Israel increasingly heralds disaster and disunity for the Jews of the United States. My grandfather probably be infuriated by me.

[I]n recent years, I’ve developed a level of fixation on the place, both personal and journalistic, that rivals even that of my grandfather. The conclusions we have come to, however, are worlds apart…

The main business of Riesman’s article is to explain why Robert Riesman threw himself into the terrible duties of a pillar of the Israel lobby. It’s a great examination of Jewish attitudes after the Holocaust and the responsibilities felt by wealthy American Jews to support Israel after 1967 when it seemed to be at risk. The writer appears to be making amends for lies that his grandfather peddled in American media to counter reports of Israeli atrocities against Palestinians and Lebanese.

Here are some bits from Riesman’s portrait of his grandfather. Robert Riesman was powerful. Devoted proudly to the “pro-Israel lobby,” he pushed other Jews to be that way:

My grandfather, a whisperer to two U.S. senators and a former president of the Rhode Island Jewish Federation, was far from powerless, and he made it his business to get the world to know and care about what was happening to the Jews. And the most effective way to do that was to rally American Jews around the common goal that united the vast majority of them, regardless of denomination, location, or political party: the defense of the Jewish state.

Robert Riesman’s ardor was sincere, based on an assessment of Jewish safety:

In his eyes, Israel was always under mortal threat, and if its foes were to defeat it, there would be mass Jewish death there on a scale with which his generation was all too familiar. If his people lost their citadel in the Middle East, who knew what other dominos might fall?

Young Riesman notes that long ago, most Jews were anti-Zionists or non-Zionists. The dual loyalty issue.

Most identified as non- or even anti-Zionist, though not because of concern for the fate of the Arab Palestinians (as they would come to be termed). The issue was life for Jews in the U.S. since a Jewish state might create a situation in which Jews could be accused of divided national loyalties

His grandfather could dismiss the Nakba, or expulsion of Palestinians to make way for Israel in 1947-49, because Jews had been wiped out in Europe.

“There was absolutely nowhere for them to go,” he later recalled. “They couldn’t stay in Europe, which was a graveyard, and I could see from my prewar experiences they were not going to be accepted in America or anywhere else. So at that point, it was a process of elimination.” Grandpa was not a sentimental man, and the fact that Israel sat in part of the territory of ancient Judea held no interest for him. “It was,” he said, “just the only place available for them.”

Not that he really liked Israel:

In those early years of Israeli sovereignty, Grandpa held no particular affection for the country. As he put it to the [United Jewish Appeal] interviewer, “It was really like a relative that you had to support, whose company you didn’t particularly enjoy, who gave you no excitement, no stimulation.”…

This is a brilliant insight from grandpa:

“It was because Israel was threatened that it became precious,” Bob told the UJA interviewer. “When it wasn’t threatened, it was an inconvenient relative; when it was threatened, it became something you liked.”

Very similar to Abe Foxman saying that American Jews would divorce Israel if it is at peace. “As long as Israel is under threat, as long as Israel is not secure, there’s not a divorce.”

This is great too. Abraham Riesman goes over the propaganda his grandfather poured out about Israeli war crimes. That was the deal.

When my grandfather parroted the Israeli government’s talking points there and elsewhere, did he ever suspect he was being played? I suppose it’s possible that he, like many American Jews, truly believed that the Israelis wouldn’t lie to him, that a man like Begin could be relied upon, that one couldn’t trust mainstream media outlets and institutions for accurate information. But I fear the answer may be worse. He might have known full well that he was being served bullshit and, in turn, was serving it to others — and didn’t care. He and the rest of the Jewish Establishment in America had signed their pact.

Riesman’s article is not about himself, but he says the persecution of Palestinians keeps him up at night.

I retain a sliver of hope that he could understand that I, like him, want to save the Jews. I have chosen to see them as my family, for better or worse. And I believe that backing the status quo in Israel is not just a moral wrong but a recipe for disaster. I am not alone in this — Israel’s own politicians and security officials have long said the occupation makes Israel less safe. I believe Jews should have free access to the Holy Land and do not in any way want to see them driven into the sea or killed. But nor do I want to see Palestinians continue to be massacred and imprisoned. I don’t think my grandfather wanted to hurt Palestinians, but their concerns didn’t keep him up at night. For me, they do. They are part of my family too. And until they are safe, the Jews will not be. Israel and the Palestinians will not fix their problems without audacious solutions. Solutions as audacious as, say, the creation of a Jewish state 70-odd years ago.

I think he’s talking about one democratic state there.

I’d note that New York Magazine has long promoted the Robert Riesman narrative, not the Abraham Riesman narrative. Not so long ago Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine said at J Street that it must not include anti-Zionist Jews. (And btw, New York magazine declined my own proposal to do a piece on the American guardians of Israel about 15 years ago.)

So this is another break in the media consensus. I assume there are anti-Zionists everywhere in media now, and they are going to make themselves heard.

And I like the headline. Years ago Norman Finkelstein quipped that we’re not far off from a time when people will ask, “Are you now or have you ever been a Zionist?” I imagine liberal Zionists are now fleeing the label.

h/t Donald Johnson, Adam Horowitz.

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