Leonard Fein, a self-described “old-fashioned liberal Zionist,” has written and advocated for progressive Jewish causes since the 1960s. In 1974, after a stint in academia, he founded Moment magazine, the journal of Jewish ideas, and later served as a consultant or scholar at a range of Jewish organizations, including United Jewish Appeal, New Israel Fund, National Jewish Democratic Council, and, as director, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. He has also testified on the peace process before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
When he wasn’t promoting a two-state solution or championing Jewish studies and pluralism, he founded Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which popularized a voluntary “tax” on Jewish celebrations that helps fund hunger relief efforts.
On Sunday, Feb. 13, at 7:30 p.m., he will speak on “The U.S., the Peace Process, and Us” at The Jewish Center of Princeton.
He spoke with NJ Jewish News by phone on Jan. 7.
NJJN: What impact should the on-again, off-again peace talks have on American Jewry?
FEIN: We experience a fair amount of venomous debate within the Jewish community, and left to itself this is more likely to get worse rather than better if the diplomatic effort resumes in any significant way.
If, for example, the Obama administration decides to press ahead, as it is being urged to, with setting down its own ideas about what ought to happen, it will touch off a huge and not very pleasant debate. The reason for that is the community is hung up on what the term “pro-Israel” means. To me, to be “pro-Israel” means you are for a democratic state and you have to be for a two-state solution. To dismiss J Street as being pro-Palestinian and therefore in favor of the destruction of Israel is insane and self-destructive to the community. We have to learn how to talk.
Very often the Jewish community responds out of intuition and ignorance. They run on a very tight trigger. It is a mindset that infects much of the established leadership of the community, which is most comfortable defending Israel from its attackers.
For example, we have the campaign against the delegitimization of Israel, but the truth is, those who try to delegitimize Israel are very small in number and have very limited success. It is not a front-and-center issue but is an issue which is easy to mobilize people [around], and it diverts the conversation from the occupation to Israel’s enemies. I don’t think that is healthy or constructive.
NJJN: Is Israel better off with some pressure coming from the White House than it was when George W. Bush was president?
FEIN: The George W. Bush administration was not helpful to Israel. It gave Israel carte blanche, and to the degree Israel depends on America, it depends on an America that is widely esteemed in the world. George W. plainly did not contribute to that.
NJJN: Are you more or less optimistic now than you have been about the chance for peace?
FEIN: I am less optimistic. I see no persuasive reason to believe that Netanyahu is interested in a two-state solution. Despite recent particularly moderate statements from Hamas, nobody in Israel said, “That’s interesting; Hamas has made a moderate statement.” Nobody in authority in Israel has paid attention to the fact that more than half of all Israelis think that Israel should be talking with Hamas.
NJJN: In the United States, liberal Zionists such as Peter Beinart, David Remnick, and Jeffrey Goldberg are reportedly starting to lose faith in Israel. Are they getting restless with Israel?
FEIN: The Left habitually exaggerates small differences. There are people on the Left who believe that nationalism is a dangerous thing — Jewish nationalism no less than other nationalisms. Those who believe that nationalism is inherently flawed have never felt close to Israel except as a refuge.
All of us who follow these things have known for decades there is a tension between Israel being a Jewish state and being a democracy…. The moment you say one ethnic group or religious group is privileged, you are challenging a fairly central democratic understanding.
NJJN: Is there any hope left for the Left in Israel?
FEIN: Sure. But not much. There is no impressive leadership and no impressive followership. All you have going for the Left are a bunch of public opinion surveys, which suggest most Israelis remain Center-Left in their views and most of those who are Center-Left in their views think they are a small minority.
NJJN: Do you feel there is more estrangement from Israel among American Jews?
FEIN: Very much. It bodes ill for Israel. There is a segment of young Jews in particular who essentially are looking for ways to be Jewish that do not involve Israel….
What is important is the difficulty we have in maintaining a useful conversation within the Jewish community about these terribly urgent and terribly divisive matters.