NEW YORK — When I asked a well-known journalist with expertise in the Middle East to review Peter Beinart’s new book, “The Crisis Of Zionism,” he first replied that he’d love to but was crushed with deadlines.
When I emailed back, asking for suggestions for a knowledgeable reviewer who was relatively objective on the subject — not so easy to find — the journalist replied: “Your alternative is to treat it as the utter piece of $%& it is.”
That’s the kind of response — though in more polite terms — Beinart is getting from a wide range of Jewish thought leaders these days. And that was before most had seen his recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, calling for the boycott of products made by Jews living in the West Bank settlements.
The op-ed, much of which is found in the concluding chapter of Beinart’s new book, calls for re-labeling the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel.”
That harsh message, combined with Beinart’s positioning himself as the moral conscience of American Jewry and his decision to launch his book at the national convention of J Street, a group that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace (but seems to emphasize the latter), has put the 41-year-old journalist on the wrong side of the equation for many supporters of Israel.
Not just mainstream officials like David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who accuses Beinart of wearing “journalistic blinders” on this issue. He says the writer “sees only what he wants to, locking himself into an airtight and moralistic kind of thinking that doesn’t allow for the legitimacy of outside critique. To seal the deal, he slickly tries to put his opponents, of many stripes, in constrained — and caricatured — boxes in which they don’t necessarily belong at all.”
Even Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads J Street and refers to Beinart as “the troubadour of our movement,” said that a boycott of West Bank products was a bad idea that will only reinforce the settlers’ belief in their cause.
Then there is Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, spiritual leader of the Reform Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, who said that Beinart “crossed a line” in advocating a boycott of Jewish goods made in the West Bank.
“It’s a highly immoral position to take, joining Israel’s worst enemies,” Rabbi Hirsch told me.
To be fair, other prominent Jews such as Theodore Bikel and many Israeli writers and intellectuals have joined a cultural boycott of a performing arts center in the West Bank town of Ariel. And even the organized Jewish community’s official group fighting the delegitimization of Israel has made a distinction between a boycott of West Bank goods and a wider boycott of Israeli products.
No doubt, Beinart is still a hero to some Jews on the left for speaking out so boldly, with his Jewish identity credentials in place as attending an Orthodox synagogue and sending his children to day school. But his circle of influence may be shrinking.
I’d been looking forward to reading the new Beinart book. I’ve followed his career since 1995, when he began his 11-year tenure at The New Republic at the tender age of 24, and had much respect for him as a thoughtful, passionate polemicist and gifted writer. He was the editor of the magazine for the last seven of those years, and now teaches journalism at the City University of New York.
I found his controversial essay of almost two years ago in The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” to be flawed but provocative. In it, Beinart challenged our community to respond to his thesis, which has come to be known as “the distancing argument”: that young American Jews are increasingly disengaged from Israel because they are being forced to choose between Zionism and liberal democracy, and are opting for their Western values. He argued that our young people have been disillusioned in seeing the Jewish state’s democratic ideals chipped away by continued occupation and the right-wing impulses of its political leaders.
Would that were the case.
Beinart made it seem, for example, as if large numbers of young Jews are upset by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian-style democracy; I maintain that few follow Israeli politics, and fewer still know who Lieberman is.
To me the problem of young people’s disengagement from Israel is a reflection of their disengagement from Judaism, not a political statement.
Over the last two years, in several conversations with Beinart and in hearing him speak on various panels and programs, I sensed that he had come to accept that argument. Indeed, in the last chapter of his new book, he writes that young American Jews “are not especially connected to Israel because they are not especially connected to being Jewish.
“This the core problem facing groups like J Street that agitate for a two-state solution,” he continues. “Plenty of American Jews agree with their perspective, but the Jews who agree with them generally care less than the Jews who don’t.”
I found much of the last chapter of the book to be incisive and on point in describing where our young people are in terms of Israel and Jewish identity, and the need for more Jewish education, including a call for government aid to day schools.
I was hoping to see fresh reporting in the book, including conversations with young American Jews on campus and in communities around the country. Instead, we are presented with the findings of various surveys and polls on Jewish attitudes promoting Beinart’s positions. The book is a lengthy extension of his thesis that, as he writes at the outset, “if Israel fails” in the “struggle” between Zionism and liberal democracy, “it will either cease being a Jewish state or cease being a democratic one. Today it is failing,” he maintains, “and American Jews are helping it fail.”
His concern is well taken. Anyone who cares about Israel worries about the tension between its Jewish mission and its commitment to democracy. Some tend to overlook this argument, though, insisting that the onus for progress is on the Palestinians who have rejected Israeli peace offers without proposing any of their own, and who, many fear, are committed to a Middle East without a Jewish state.
But what is so frustrating is that Beinart, too, talks past the issue. He seems to view the Middle East crisis through the prism of the settlements as front and center — the very core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has little to say about the very real concerns of Israelis or about the history and context of a problem that goes back decades, if not centuries.
Beinart worries about raising children in America who will take pride in the Israeli flag, but where is his empathy for Israeli children surrounded by very real enemies and too often the victim of Arab hatred?
At a time when Israel is particularly vulnerable, facing an uncertain future with Egypt and Syria, having just endured hundreds of rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza and knowing of Hezbollah’s huge arsenal in Lebanon, not to mention the existential threat of a nuclear Iran, is it reasonable to argue that the settlements are the key to Israel’s future? That if they were dismantled tomorrow, Jerusalem’s problems with its neighbors would be over?
Beinart weakens his moral case by ignoring Israel’s security concerns. And he sees the Washington-Jerusalem relationship through a one-sided political lens.
A centerpiece of the book is the troubled relationship between President Barack Obama, whom he calls “the Jewish President” because of his strong early ties with progressive Jews in Chicago, and Benjamin Netanyahu, described as “Israel’s monist prime minister,” believing in nationalism over morality.
In this scenario, Obama’s good intentions and efforts for peace are thwarted by intense AIPAC lobbying and Bibi’s obstinacy.
Such simplistic views of such complex relationships and issues are just myopic. We are presented with the forces of progress and equality versus American and Israeli Jews stuck in the past, obsessed with the Holocaust and their sense of victimization. It makes for a tedious and frustrating read, particularly because Beinart is so talented.
As David Harris of the AJC observed, “it is oh-so-glib for Beinart to say ‘end the occupation or the occupation will end Israel.’ However simple and clear-cut things may seem from his Upper West Side perch, these are immensely complicated issues. A consistent majority of Israelis wants nothing more than to extract themselves from an unsought occupation for the sake of peace, but it just can’t be done unilaterally. The Palestinians have not been prepared to do their part, irrespective of what they might say to some all-too-receptive Western ears.”
Surely, the irritation with Beinart is exacerbated by jealousy at the large-scale, glowing media attention he has been receiving in the mainstream press — the voice of reason seeking to save Israel from itself.
But it would be a mistake to try to marginalize Beinart in the way that he tries to marginalize “the settlers.” We need all the passionate Zionists we can get, even if his support of Israel is increasingly, impractically qualified.
The prevailing lesson here is that Middle East discussion requires more nuance, not more name-calling. And as long as Israel defenders ignore the moral issues and critics like Beinart ignore so many others, we’ll be left with the dialogue of the deaf.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)