In Defense of Peter Beinart
I write about Israel-Palestine issues only occasionally, because the onslaught of emails and comments calling me a self-hating Jew can be emotionally overwhelming. It’s also difficult to weather the respectful but strident disagreement from some friends and members of my family, who consider me insufficiently pro-Israel because I support the international community moving with deliberate speed to pressure the Netanyahu administration to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian state. (This position, I might add, is a relatively centrist one common among Jewish Israeli writers and activists; many well-intentioned folks further to the left support a “single-state solution” that would soon make Jews a minority within Israel.)
This debate can get nasty. So I am somewhat in awe of my colleague* Peter Beinart, who seems to be made of stronger stuff than I am. I can only imagine what Beinart has experienced over the past few weeks, as the New York Times published his op-ed in favor of what he terms “Zionist BDS”—a boycott movement targeting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank; the Daily Beast launched Open Zion, Beinart’s new group blog featuring voices who oppose the occupation; and Times Books published his bracing new polemic, The Crisis of Zionism.
Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue and sends his children to Jewish day school. Even the most cursory reading of his work reveals his critique of Israeli policy is motivated not by antipathy toward the Jewish state, but by an unwavering commitment to liberal Zionism: the belief that Israel should protect minority rights and conduct itself according to Jewish social justice values. Indeed, Beinart has been criticized from the left for opposing the occupation too much because it threatens Israel’s liberal, democratic character, and not being outraged enough about the displacement and subsequent statelessness of Palestinians. I disagree with this critique; Beinart writes unflinchingly about the massacres of Palestinian Arabs that accompanied Israel’s founding. His identification with Fadel Jaber, a Palestinian father unjustly arrested for “stealing water,” frames the entire book, and The Crisis of Zionism concludes with a call for liberal Jews to ally themselves with the Palestinian non-violence movement. But it’s worth noting Beinart is hearing pushback from all sides.
The Crisis of Zionism is a fundamentally moderate book, in which Beinart grapples seriously with Israel’s security situation. He notes that the majority of former heads of the Israeli army and Mossad, as well as a respected Israeli military historian, all believe an independent Palestine to Israel’s east would not pose an existential security threat to the Jewish state, and that continuing the occupation presents a grave risk to Israel’s safety, democracy and international reputation.
Nevertheless, Beinart has been called a “self-hating Jew” by public relations guru Ronn Torossian, an American Jewish philanthropist. In an interview with Tablet magazine, Beinart’s former New Republic boss, Martin Peretz, accused Beinart of being “narcissistic” and “a very vain man” for writing in a heartfelt way about the leftward drift of his views on Israel; in the same Tablet article, The New Republic’s longtime literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, accused Beinart of writing The Crisis of Zionism in a rush and for cynical reasons, only because his 2010 New York Review of Books essay on “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” (to grapple with the occupation) was “a hit.”
Most frustratingly, a host of hostile reviewers of Beinart’s book seemed unable to consider his argument on its merits. Their biases clearly left them ill-disposed to absorb the array of historical facts, demographic statistics, and contemporary, insider reporting Beinart musters up to support his observation that in 2012, the ever-expanding occupation is the cause of the continuing conflict, not the result of it—and that since the death of Yitzhak Rabin, a succession of Israeli administrations have failed to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith.
These contentions are far less controversial in Israel than they are in the United States, which is why Beinart’s book is pitched toward us, American Jews. Though the majority of American Jews are progressive Democrats who support the creation of a Palestinian state, the most influential American Jewish philanthropists, activists and lobbyists hold more conservative politics aligned with Israel’s right-wing Likud party, and they actively work to prevent American presidents from acting as honest brokers to end the occupation.
While most American Jews identify with liberal, labor Zionism—kibbutzim, gender equality and the social safety net—the Netanyahu government and many of its American supporters subscribe to revisionist Zionism, an ideology that celebrates military expansion and the oppression of Palestinian Arabs as the paths toward rebuilding Jewish pride and even masculine virility in the wake of the Holocaust.
Beinart accurately diagnoses the central challenge for the twenty-first century international Jewish community: how to come to terms with “the shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power.” In other words, if Jews do not learn to wield our newfound military, political and economic strength ethically—showing the same concern for Palestinian and Arab-Israeli minority rights that we hope gentiles will show for Jews—then we, as a people, have failed to learn the painful lessons of Jewish history.
What I found most revelatory about The Crisis of Zionism was the way in which Beinart appeals not just to Jewish political liberalism, but also to our faith. The holy books of Judaism are filled with portents about what happens when Jews abuse power, Beinart notes. After Persia’s Jews toppled Haman, the anti-Semitic royal advisor, they slaughtered 75,000 people in retribution; our texts recount that both the Babylonian and Roman destructions of Jewish empires came in the aftermath of Jewish moral decadence. “Our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse,” Beinart writes.
I don’t agree with everything in The Crisis of Zionism. As a writer who focuses mostly on how to improve public education, I cannot support Beinart’s argument that American Jewish liberals should revive their children’s attachment to Judaism and to Israel by enrolling them in private Jewish day school. Most American Jews are committed to the communitarian elements of secular, public education, and rightfully so: We know from a growing body of research on “peer effects” that all children learn more when college-educated parents (like the majority of American Jews) send their own children to diverse public schools, instead of opting out of a system that needs their support to thrive. Nor is it necessary for Jews to attend day school in order to absorb arguments in favor of marrying within the faith or raising children as Jews; I attended public school and certainly hope to raise any future children of mine in a Jewish home.
But I am grateful for this book. Younger American Jewish writers like myself, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Spencer Ackerman and Kiera Feldman have been writing for six years about our increasing alarm regarding the Israeli occupation, only to be derided as the “juice box mafia” by our elders. Beinart is a lot harder to belittle. He is the former editor of The New Republic—a magazine not exactly known for progressive foreign policy positions—and an observant Jew who once supported the Iraq war. He has demonstrated an admirable ability to rethink his opinions in the face of evidence, and as a member of Generation X, he serves as an ideal interlocutor between younger Jews and our Baby Boomer parents, many of whom continue to see Israel through the rose-colored glasses of their own youth, when the Jewish state was far less established and more threatened by its neighbors than it is today.
If the Jewish establishment will not be moved by the anguish of Palestinians, nor by the protests of Jewish young people, perhaps it will heed this warning from the Book of Jeremiah, which Beinart so aptly quotes: “If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.”
* Beinart and I are both affiliated with the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
© 2012 The Nation