Pushing Morality, A Victim Of Myopia

Peter Beinart’s new book, ‘The Crisis Of Zionism,’ is disappointingly one-sided.

Tue, 03/20/2012
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

When I asked a well-known journalist with expertise in the Mideast 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 e-mailed 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 op-ed piece in The New York Times on Monday, 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 next week 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 troubador of our movement,” said this week 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 this week 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.

‘The Distancing Argument’

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.

Settlements At The Core

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 Mideast without a Jewish state.

But what is so frustrating is that Beinart, too, talks past the issue. He seems to view the Mideast 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.

Too Glib

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 Mideast 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.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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Dear Mr. Rosenblatt,

Without reading the book it is difficult for me to fully evaluate your critique. But I have read enough of Peter Beinart's work to understand the direction and force of his arguments. I think it is impossible to move peace forward from the Israeli side without the concession of a Settlement freeze that was established as criteria by President Obama first and then utilized by President Abbas as a line in the sand. It's easy in hindsight to see and say that Obama-Mitchell and the others were wrong. It's also easy to see and say that the Palestinians haven't done the work with their people to prepare them for peace. I think the same is true for Israelis who largely want peace but don't believe it is available. As for American Jews Beinart is right and wrong. It doesn't take a genius to say young American Jews are disconnected. Beinarts original timing and the power of his voice gave the arument the legs it deserves. But underneath it is more about a disconnection from Judaism that I'm afraid Birthright trips alone cannot overcome. I'm not sure more schools will do the trick either. It is probably buried in a new kind of social networking that can capture the attention of the next generation of American Jews along with a lot of bricks and mortar.

Some weeks ago, Rabbi David Wolpe wrote a similar response/review of Peter Beinart that was unfortunately, quite a bit more hostile and vitriolic that Gary's comments above. That said, I would like to share my response at the time which did address many of the points and arguments Gary is making:
Rabbi David Wolpe Joins the "Beat Up a Liberal Elitist" Club, http://wp.me/p1Jt6N-tX

The reviewer is correct. The core issue in the conflict is NOT settlements. The core issue is Arab refusal to accept a permanent Israel, behind any boundaries. It would not make a difference if Israel; was just Tel Aviv, nor if the Dalai Lama. was its prime Minister.

You have to be blind to 63 years of Arab statements and actions to ignore that. And Beinart is blind to that. What is his motivation? A negative interpretation is a failing career, which might be boosted by writing an anti-Israel book. Or, you might propose naive idealism. But the nett result is the same - ignoring Arab intentions, and deligitimizing Israel.

Instead of harping on settlements, it is high time for some focus on the issue of JEWISH REFUGEES FROM ARAB COUNTRIES.

Who cares what this guy thinks. Who is he, anyway?

My best guess is, that this writer is mastering the art of "Inflating Da Bank Account by Wring Provacatively About Israel & Da Yids."

Dear Mr. Rosenblatt;
While we do not know each other you and I have attended the same demostrations, attended the same Jewish student conventions and wrote and edited similar Jewish student publications when we were young. I also have deep misgivings about prima donnas like Peter Beinart. He comes from nowhere, accomplished nothing, did nothing to ensure Jewish survival either here or in Israel. With regards for Israel, he did not found a new settlement in the Galil or the Negev, never paid Israeli taxes, never did Civil Guard duty, and most important never served in the Israel Defence Forces. Yet he blames Israel for the demise of Jewish youth in America. In particular he blames the settlements for the falling away of Jewish youth for the cause of Israel. He does not blame the 100 year disaster we call the Hebrew School system or the modern synagogue system with its "pay to pray" system. No it is all the settlements fault. Pseudo intellectuals like Peter Beinart must be given a wide birth by the Jewish community. As for JStreet; if Beinart is the best that they can do, then their best isn't good enough.

I also have not read Beinart. But I think in part he is trying to shine a light on what Gershom Gorenberg raises in his well documented book: Unmasking Israel which raises the same questions: Can Israel claim to be a democracy now or in the future if in the "West Bank" they are protecting settlers with democratic guidelines but not the Palestinians; and if the Israeli government clandestinely funnels millions of dollars, including unsuspecting American donations, to non anti-democratic and anti-IDF ultra orthodox settlement projects, including ways to undermine the authority of the IDF and the democratic state?

Gorenberg and Beinart seem to be trying to call attention to what should be an open dialogue in the Jewish community about the dangers to Israeli democracy but which gets buried by slurs of anti-Zionist. I love Israel lets confront these difficult questions to preserve its Jewishness AND its democracy!

I have not read Beinart's book (yet) so I ask: does he deal with this problem - since no Jewish community existed in Judea & Samaria prior to 1967 (the only occupation there being that of Jordan) but there was Arab terror, Arab rejection, et al., so, to phrase my question: if "settlements" had nothing to do with the problem of Arab hostility to Israel, how can they be part of the solution? To press the issue: if Arabs engaged in ethnic cleansing operations even before Israel was created (Hebron, Shchem, Gaza, Gush Etzion, Old City Jerusalem, Neveh Yaakov, Bet Haarach, etc.) and we know that even the Gaza Disengagement and the expulsion of Jews from over a dozen communities has not solved anything, does Beinart truly believe in his own thesis or is he trying to be more liberal than his liberal friends by joining a campaign they are interested in?

Theodore Sasson and Leonard Saxe's article in Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life, May 28, 2010, title's says it all, "Wrong Numbers: Peter Beinart's argument about Israel and liberal American Jews is built on misread data." For details on Peter Beinart's errors, google and read Sasson and Saxe's article.

Excellent article and comments by readers. Not to get personal but I think there is an irrational component of Peter Beinhart's thesis of comparing Israel which has been under constant attack since 1948 in one form or another as trading democracy and morality to their national right to defense of the country. For all we know, the West bank strategy is a bargaining chip so the Palestinians will recognize the state of Israel. I assume Mr. Beinhart addresses these issues as well. keep up the good work.

Maybe, just maybe, Beinart "seems to view the Mideast crisis through the prism of the settlements as front and center — the very core of the Arab-Israeli conflict" because, well, the settlements are *to the current generation* front and center -- the very core of the Arab-Israeli conflict? Is that even worth looking at?

I believe that the issue of Jewish rights in Jerusalem and the rights of the decendents of the Palestinian refugees to "return" to Israel are bigger impedements to an Israeli Palestinian peace treaty than the existence or expansion of West Bank "settlements".

When President Obama originally called for a settlement freeze, he also called for Arab countries to take steps to normalize their relationship with Israel. For example, it was proposed that Saudi Arabia give El Al permission to fly over Saudi Arabia. No Arab country was willing to offer any of these normalization steps. I believe that Israel would have agreed to a more permanent settlement freeze if these had been offered.

I also think that those who want Israel to enact a settlement freeze view settlements as "illegal" and don't recognize that Israel has any right at all to be there. By contrast, those like myself see a Jewish presence in the heart of Judea and Samaria as completely legitimate and see these "settlements" as part of what needs to be bargained over as part of a peace deal and don't feel that Israel should make any more significant concessions without getting something in return.

I can't directly speak for Beinart -- I think that his phrase "Zionist BDS" is misleading and wildly impractical (since, if you Google for advice on how to boycott products made beyond the green line, you will get to BDSmovement.net, which advocates the full boycott, and all the while carry stories about the settlement boycotts that are underway).

Still, I find it astonishing that the first "Anonymous" above sees the left-wing/pro-reconciliation movement to be motivated by socialism. If getting involved in any social justice effort risks being labelled a socialist, than we have a ways to go in our community towards improving our understanding of each other's views.

You describe J Street as ""a group that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace (but seems to emphasize the latter)". I am not a J Street member, but find fault with your claim. I believe it is the Jewish right wing -- often abetted by lazy journalism -- that presents a slanted view of J Street's emphasis. For example, J Street has taken a clear strong stance against Beinart's call for the boycott of settlement produced goods and services. Many supposedly objective articles have claimed that J Street has opposed Israel's construction of the anti-terrorist wall/fence. This is also untrue. J Street explicitly endorses Israel's right to protect itself against terrorism by building protective barriers. It has only taken issue with the placement of some of the barricades -- something the Israeli Supreme Court has also done.

Presently, I do not support Peter Beinart's boycott proposal. However, there is no reason not to discuss the matter in a rational manner, rather than lashing out in emotional personal attacks. I applaud you for your reasoned and well presented position.

But the settlers want a Greater Israel with the West Bank incorporated into Israel proper. Even with all the complexities of ensuring Israel's security where do you take a stand and say we must curb settlement activity as part of implementing a two state solution. If you really believe in a two state solution why acquiesce to settlement activity under the garb of Israel's security? Why give de facto support to the settlers by failing to speak out against their moves to make the West Bank part of Israel? At some point it must be said enough is enough so we can move forward on a two state solution. And by the way, there is already much unrecognized progress with the Palestinians having a greater role in monitoring security in the West Bank and their role is factored into Israel's own security plans.

Well-written! If my experience is any indication, then (1) the vast majority of Americans are ignorant of the history of modern Israel, and (2) many American Jews eschew Zionism in an effort to garner "acceptance" in (secular) academic institutes. The latter, by and large, espouse a one-sided portrayal of the mideast conflict. During the First Lebanon War, I attended a "debate" at my college. The hypocrisy was flagrant to me, but I and my Jewish friends were alone in seeing a problem. The "poor Palestinians" were awarded 21 spokespeople with unlimited floor time. Their speeches contained no documentation. Only 1 student was allowed to present the Israeli position; however, he was required to condense decades of history into 5 minutes.

Mr. Rosenblatt,
I admit to knowing little about Peter Beinart, except that it is clear that he has achieved a high level of fascination among Jewish literary opinion leaders. My guess is that it is due more to his inherent personal charisma than to the strength and quality of his ideas. As far as I can tell, his writing is nothing but an updating and refurbishing of old, leftist, anti-Zionists concepts. The problem for Beinart is that the US is not, and never will be, a socialist nation. Socialism is not in the USA's DNA. Therefore, Beinart's readership pool and true influence is small to the point of miniscule. On the other hand, Israel will always have a deep appeal to US Jews and non-Jews alike because it is the epitome of a good vs. evil conflict. As the perceived danger to Israel grows, Jewish anxiety intensifies, and we are drawn to and captivated by the drama. Most people identify with, and root for the good guys; some people like Beinart, are titillated by the dark side. Though I am writing about him, I really think the influence of Beinart on American Jews and public discourse is small.

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