Peter Beinart's Crisis of Oversimplifying American Jews

16th May 2012

The Crisis of Zionism
by Peter Beinart. Times Books, 304 pages, $26

Late in Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism,” the author cites a statistic that reveals much about his unsophisticated worldview. Writing about the alleged estrangement of young, American liberal Jews from the State of Israel, Beinart solemnly reports that “only 23 percent” of those who attend unaffiliated congregations “say they always feel proud of Israel.” This lack of unqualified pride, Beinart argues, is largely fueled by the rise of the Israeli right and its echo chamber among the leading American Jewish organizations. More than four decades into Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, Beinart claims, the lack of a peace agreement ‏(for which he mostly faults Israel‏) could all but erase American Jewish liberal support for Israel.

“My country, right or wrong,” is a sentiment most commonly associated with the xenophobic right, not the cosmopolitan left. To “always feel proud” of one’s country, in the sense of being generally content with every action it takes and every policy it sets, is the mark of a shallow mind and uncomplicated soul. Americans and Israelis may have more reasons to feel proud of their countries than most other peoples, but they have had, and continue to have, many opportunities to feel shame. If the Israel that Beinart desires is one of which he can always feel proud, he is arguing for an Israel that will never exist. And that Beinart expects a country in which he does not even reside to meet such exacting standards betrays three unseemly traits that characterize this book and its author: hypocrisy, naivete and myopia.

It is hypocritical of Beinart, who places nearly all of the blame for the lack of a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict on Israel while pretending to see shades of gray, to accuse others of having a “monist” worldview. It is naive to think that Israel, given present political realities, could ever hope to please him. And it is myopic for Peter Beinart to think that Israelis should be most concerned with making Peter Beinart feel proud.

The crux of Beinart’s critique is that right-wingers have taken over the “American Jewish establishment,” something that’s become painfully apparent with the election of Barack Obama, whom Beinart calls America’s first “Jewish president.” The chauvinism of most Jewish leaders is visible, he says, in the disagreements that have emerged between them and Obama, who has come “to embody the Jewish liberalism that America’s leading Jewish organizations have abandoned,” due largely to the coterie of Jewish leftists in Chicago who inculcated “a specific, and subversive, vision of American Jewish identity and of the Jewish state” in him. Meanwhile, Jewish leaders have “built their careers on stories of Jewish victimhood and survival. None accept that we live in a new era in Jewish history in which our challenges stem less from weakness than from power.”

But if establishment leaders are obsessed with victimhood, then Beinart represents the opposite extreme, writing as if we live in a world in which anti-Semitism barely exists. Thus he elides the continuing, core problem of Arab recognition of a Jewish state. “When American Jewish organizations discuss the ideology of Hamas,” he complains, “they dwell almost exclusively on the organization’s anti-Semitic 1988 charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction.” A minor detail, you see. Beinart insists, in his book and elsewhere, that “Hamas has changed,” a bet that is far easier for a Jew living on the Upper West Side, as opposed to one living in Sderot, to take. The benefit of the doubt that Beinart extends to a variety of Islamic extremists is one he is peculiarly less willing to offer his fellow Jews.

As an example of the supposed obsession with the Holocaust, Beinart mocks an American Jewish leader for hanging a photo in his office of Israeli F-15s flying over Auschwitz, which, he sneers, they “never bombed” and “never will.” Adopting the argument of rabid Israel-haters, like Norman Finkelstein, Beinart alleges that Israelis and American Jews use the Holocaust to justify brutality against Palestinians: “What they have bombed, in recent years, is the Gaza Strip.” Beinart is right when he says that the world has changed and that America is blissfully free of the violent anti-Semitism that plagues so many other places. Yet, this sanguinity is a function of his own provincialism, and not altogether surprising coming from the pen of an American Jew who went to Yale, was a Rhodes Scholar and edited The New Republic – in short, someone for whom being Jewish was never a professional hindrance nor a cause of discrimination. He will sound complacent, if not recklessly arrogant, to most Israelis, who, unlike Beinart, would have to live with the consequences of his policy prescriptions.

Of course, the persistence of anti-Semitism and Muslim rejectionism does not license Israeli abuses. And with respect to the current morass, Israel is far from blameless. Benjamin Netanyahu’s televised lecturing of Obama in the Oval Office last year, just a day after the latter called for a negotiated settlement on the basis of the 1967 borders, was but the most visible example of the prime minister’s diplomatic tone-deafness. But did it, as Beinart suggests, represent “one of the most extraordinary humiliations of a president by a foreign leader in modern American history”? Surely Bashar Assad’s refusal to answer Obama’s repeated entreaties to step down, choosing instead to stay in office and massacre his people, is a greater humiliation. Never mind the humiliations dealt Eisenhower by Nasser, Kennedy by Nasser and by Castro, Carter by the Iranian revolutionaries and by Brezhnev, or Reagan by Gadhafi. Beinart ought to have a better sense of history.

Relentlessly one-sided

Much of Beinart’s book concerns the recent history of American diplomacy in the Middle East, and it is so relentlessly one-sided that only those with minimal or no understanding of the conflict will find it to be anything other than propagandistic. In Beinart’s view, peace would come to the region were Israel simply to extricate itself immediately from the West Bank and end its blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. He devotes pages upon pages to condemning Israeli settlement activity, while neglecting to explain why this now should be a precondition for negotiations when it has never been before.

Given his simplistic rendering of the situation, it is not surprising that Beinart contradicts himself early and often. Waving away Israeli security concerns about the West Bank, he writes that “the best way to combat the threat is through … a credible deterrent so that Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran know they will pay a severe price for bloodying the Jewish state.” Yet he condemns the last major Israeli military maneuver to demonstrate such a deterrent, Operation Cast Lead, undertaken in response to Hamas rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. Similarly, Beinart castigates the premier’s son, Yair Netanyahu, for starting a Facebook group urging a boycott of Arab businesses, while he calls for a boycott of Jewish businesses in the West Bank.

Beinart is right to criticize the troubling rise of some illiberal elements in Israeli politics and discourse. But so obsessed is he with pointing out Jewish sins that he ignores or excuses Arab ones. He is more concerned with the seven-decade-old, occasionally intemperate writings of Netanyahu’s ‏(now-deceased‏) father than he is with the present-day anti-Semitic incitement of actual Palestinian and Muslim leaders. Likewise, Vladimir Jabotinsky’s claim that Islamic civilizations have often stood in opposition to “intellectual curiosity, free investigation, dynamism and a minimum of interference of religion in everyday life” is “openly racist.” Can Beinart point to one Muslim country in the Middle East that comes close to respecting these values?

Beinart’s book has made a splash in American Jewish circles for its no-holds-barred assault on what the author repeatedly refers to as the “American Jewish establishment.” According to Beinart, American Jews are being led by a group of religious supremacists who don’t care about the lives of non-Jews, and it is for this reason that they have come into conflict with Obama, who embodies “the universalism that the American Jewish leadership has turned against.” In this sense, Beinart adopts the rhetorical posture, if not beliefs, of those right-wingers who claim that Obama is a secret Muslim; the president is, rather, more Jewish than many Jews. ‏(That Beinart is regularly invited to deliver his message of Jewish parochialism in synagogues, Jewish community centers, and at major Jewish conferences across the United States and the English-speaking world, does not seem to instill the least bit of cognitive dissonance.‏)

Commenting on a remark by Obama that “my staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions,” Beinart writes that “neither the Israeli government nor its supporters in the American Jewish leadership were noted for ‘anguishing over moral questions.’” This is quite a remarkable thing for an American Jewish writer, who has never gone to war or been confronted with the difficult life-and-death conundrums that Israeli leaders continually face, to claim. “The Crisis of Zionism” is littered with such trivializations and pat comparisons between worldly, urbane American Jews and brute, hucksterish Israelis, a trope of liberal American Jewish writing that, like everything else in this book, isn’t new.

Thankfully, according to Beinart, most American Jews aren’t like the people who claim to speak for them. “The same belief in equality under the law that makes [U.S. Jews] sympathetic to gays and lesbians in the United States makes them sympathetic to Palestinians in the West Bank,” he writes of “young secular Jews.” One sort of understands what Beinart is getting at here, but it is an absurd analogy nonetheless. Gay political expression has never taken the form of genocidal terrorism; there is no appreciable number of gays spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric and reveling in the deaths of Jews at the hands of suicide bombers. American Jews who have slightly less patience for the Palestinians than they do for the plight of gays do not deserve to be called “monists” and “racists” and all the other words that Beinart righteously slings at his intellectual adversaries. As for the predicament of Palestinian gays – and what their treatment at the hands of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority portends for a future Palestinian state – Beinart says nothing.

‘Less and less representative’

Beinart joins the chorus of those left-wing Jews who, not content to merely espouse their dovish beliefs about the Arab-Israeli conflict, have to claim that most of their co-religionists agree with them and that, as Beinart writes, “America’s major Jewish organizations are less and less representative of most American Jews.” Never mind the dubious statistics he marshals to make his point ‏(even according to sociological research Beinart misread in his original 2010 article, younger Jews become more attached to Israel over time‏); if American Jews were so much more dovish than the major organizations, then why have they been unable to form a successful group to counter the supposedly reigning right-wing “establishment”? Why is the latest incarnation of this decades-long attempt to generate a grassroots, left-wing, pro-Israel group – J Street – able to operate only with the secret funding of non-Zionist George Soros and a nearly $1 million donation from a Hong Kong-based professional gambler ‏(who isn’t even Jewish‏)?

Jews, needless to say, are a disputatious people. The notion that some silent majority, to the left of the establishment Jewish organizations, has spent decades in quiet suffering is as silly as it sounds. It also leaves a gaping hole in Beinart’s thesis, a question he refuses to address: Why did Obama back down from his peacemaking efforts if the vast majority of American Jews continues to support him? Perhaps it is not just an all-powerful Jewish lobby that foiled the president’s plans, but also Palestinian intractability, as the president, who has stopped talking to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, has himself quietly fumed? Beinart ignores such intricacies, as he does anything that complicates his one-dimensional narrative. Acknowledging that the wretched “American Jewish establishment” is not the sole driver of America’s Middle East policy would work against Beinart’s careerist purposes, as he is attempting to market himself as the bard of a newly awakened Jewish left.

The biggest problem with “The Crisis of Zionism” is methodological, not ideological. It was written by an armchair pundit, a type that Washington breeds and of which Beinart is an exemplary specimen, rather than by a reporter. The book suffers from poor sourcing; for instance, Beinart claims that, in 2009, “Israeli officials” told American Jewish leaders not to attend a meeting with Abbas. His source for this claim is someone “close to the White House,” not an Israeli official or American Jewish leader. In other words: hearsay.

It is clear from reading the book that Beinart has spent next to no time in any Arab milieu other than Ramallah officialdom ‏(if even that‏), and has talked to few, if any, Arabs other than globetrotting NGO types. This lack of exposure to Arab political culture and the resulting Pollyannaish descriptions of it, however, do nothing to inhibit him from lecturing American Jews on their own sheltered existence. “We have evaded these painful truths by evading Palestinians,” he writes, before scolding Jewish groups for not organizing trips to Gaza alongside their junkets to Jerusalem. From this we can conclude one of two things about Beinart: Either he is ignorant as to why such a visit would be inadvisable ‏(rendering him utterly unqualified to offer opinions on anything related to the Middle East‏), or he knows full well the dangers and ignores them to score yet another cheap point against the omnipotent, right-wing “American Jewish establishment,” all the better to stress his underdog role in the David and Goliath fable he has so ably constructed over the past two years.

Beinart’s understanding of regional politics is next to nonexistent. “Today, we inhabit a different world,” he writes, listing the peace treaties Israel has signed with Egypt and Jordan, the Arab League peace initiative, the size of Israel’s defense budget and its nuclear weapons arsenal. The rise of Islamist politics in Egypt and its implications barely concern Beinart. The same is true of the increasing regional hegemony of Iran, a country that appears once in the book’s index. Beinart claims that “Turkey only began shunning the Jewish state after Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza,” apparently ignorant of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s desire to reorient Ankara as a leader of the Muslim world, and of how scapegoating the Jewish state might play into such a plan.

Beinart’s best suggestion, naturally, has nothing to do with the Middle East. To foster more affinity for Israel among American Jews, he comes out in favor of indirect public funding of Jewish day schools – known in American parlance as “school vouchers.” It is the one, barely original idea in a book full of old pieties and hectoring dogma. But even here, the point is tangential to the larger argument of how Zionism is supposedly in “crisis.” The problems confronting the Jewish state are complex and varied, but readers won’t understand them any better from this slipshod and self-righteous tract.

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