By now, most readers of this blog will be familiar with the main arguments of Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, as well as the controversy it has engendered. Consequently, I will assume that a brief summary of the Beinart book will suffice, before I offer a number of my own comments both on the book and the various reactions to it.
Beinart’s Liberal Zionism
In his book, as well as in a long interview in the May 11 2012 issue of Tikkun, Beinart defines himself as “a liberal Zionist” who continues to accept the core Zionist argument that the Jewish people need a state of their own “in some portion of the ancient Land of Israel,” principally as “a refuge for Jews around the world,” but also because of religious and cultural reasons. At the same time, though, Beinart emphasizes that the legitimacy of a Jewish state in that land also depends on it being a genuine democracy and one which does “not exclude a Palestinian state on some of that same territory.”
In that light, then, Beinart is highly critical of the continuing Israeli occupation of the Palestinians, as well as of the failure of the American Jewish establishment and the U.S. government to exercise real pressure on Israel to end the occupation, allow the creation of an independent Palestinian state or, alternatively, provide “equal citizenship” to the Palestinian people in the framework of a genuinely democratic state.
This “liberal Zionist” argument, while a familiar one, is skillfully defended and developed by Beinart—though it underestimates the full nature of the Israeli repression of the Palestinians as well as the increasingly ugly nature of Israeli society, even within “the green line” (Israel before its expansion in the 1967 war). Despite its flaws, however, for several reasons the Crisis of Zionism is an important book.
For one thing, even though some of the book’s arguments are unoriginal, they might have a powerful impact in the U.S., especially among American Jews who have previously passionately supported Israel but who are increasingly disturbed by what Israel has become: this may prove to be the case both because of Beinart’s intellectual stature and his prominence as a previously unquestioning admirer of Israel as well as because of the power and often elegance of his observations and writing.
In any case, the Crisis of Zionism book is by no means entirely unoriginal: Beinart clearly has had close access to key members of the Obama administration, and has provided the most persuasive and detailed account of Obama’s step-by-step abandonment of his previous “liberal Zionist” principles and sympathies and his final humiliating surrender to the Netanyahu government, the know-nothings in Congress, and the Israel lobby.
Paradoxically, though, Beinart’s account could be construed as offering some grounds to be mildly hopeful about a second Obama administration: by demonstrating that the Obama surrender was motivated almost entirely by political considerations, which trumped Obama’s own views and principles, it somewhat allays legitimate concerns that Obama just didn’t understand the realities of Israeli policies and became genuinely convinced by the arguments of the Lobby and the likes of Dennis Ross, who (as Beinart notes) became “firmly in control of Israeli policy” in the U.S. government.
Does the apparent fact that prior to assuming the office of the presidency Obama’s views were close to those of the liberal Zionists leave hope for real changes after November, should he be reelected and presumably freed of narrow political considerations? Theoretically, perhaps so—still, I seriously doubt the man has it in him to actually put up much of a fight—on just about any issue, let alone one so explosive—when he runs into serious and determined resistance.
A Crisis of Judaism in the United States?
Another major argument of the Crisis of Zionism is considerably less persuasive than his defense of liberal Zionism—at least to me and, I wager, to most secular American Jews. Beinart is an Orthodox Jew, and he worries that American Jews—precisely because of how well we have been treated by this country--are becoming so assimilated, intermarried, and non-religious that Jewish traditions, observances, and even a core Jewish self-identity may be lost. As he puts it:
“In previous generations….to stop being Jewish was hard. Even if you wished to assimilate, gentile America did not always comply. Today, however, the decline of anti-Semitism has made it easy to stop being Jewish.”
Beinart’s solution: “The best antidote to assimilation is education,” by which he means an extensive system of religious and otherwise overtly Jewish education for the American Jewish community. From the point of view of us assimilees (Christmas tree Jews), however, Beinart’s argument is not merely a solution to a non-existent problem, it would actually create a really big problem where none existed. Even leaving aside the issue of whether it is assimiliation or rather religion that requires an “antidote,” Beinart has apparently failed to notice that both in Israel and in America, it is the orthodox or ultra-orthodox Jews—especially those whose education has been in religious schools and Yeshivas--who are typically the least well-educated as that term is usually understood, and therefore the most parochial, undemocratic, and illiberal members of our community.
Indeed, in Israel itself, as Beinart has oddly failed to notice, where all education is to one degree or another Jewish, the results are not pretty. The greater the emphasis on religious Jewish education, the more illiberal and benighted the political, social, and human rights views of its adherents.
In short, in both the U.S. and Israel, Jews who receive religious education are precisely those most likely to reject—indeed, detest—Peter Beinart and what he otherwise stands for. And as for us seculars, the only point in remaining a self-identified Jew is our belief—getting mighty thin, these days—that the Jewish tradition places special emphasis on liberal values and Western moral principles.
The Attack From the Right
While strongly praised by some--including Bill Clinton, David Remnick in the New Yorker, Andrew Sullivan in his highly influential blog, and many others--Beinart’s analysis and, in particular, his call for an economic boycott against goods produced by the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, have been severely criticized—even from the left as well as the right. It is the right-wing attack on The Crisis of Zionism, however, especially the reviews in the Washington Post and the New York Times, America’s most important newspapers, that are more likely to be influential among mainstream American Jews and perhaps even succeed in discrediting and marginalizing Beinart’s most important and persuasive arguments. There are already disquieting indications that it is doing so
Another reason to focus on these reviews, aside from the fact that they are especially important because of where they appear, is that they illustrate only too well the typical nature of “pro-Israel” discourse in the U.S: the disregard of crucial and proven facts. Indeed, as in many other cases, the reviews of Alana Newhouse in the Post and Jonathan Rosen in the Times not only fail to address Beinart’s discussion of the facts and the obvious implications of them, they positively sneer at him.
Here are the main facts about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as reviewed by Beinart:
1.The Nakba: the expulsion (or worse) of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and the destruction of their homes and villages in the 1947-48 period.
2. The forty-five year Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians, including the ongoing expansion of the settlements in the West Bank and their encroachment on the land, water, and agriculture of the Palestinians—enforced by severe economic pressures, home and farm demolitions, imprisonment, assassinations, and periodic outright major military attacks.
3. The various forms of economic, political, and social discrimination of the Palestinian minority (the Arab Israelis) in Israel itself.
4. The spread of racism, political extremism, religious fanaticism and outright violence in Israel—including terrorism and routine police violence against even the Jewish dissenters. As Beinart puts it, a vicious cycle has been created, “in which illiberal Zionism beyond the green line destroys the possibility of liberal Zionism inside it; as survey after survey has demonstrated, there has been a rapid decline in democratic and liberal values, and each succeeding Israeli generation, certainly including the current one, is worse than the previous one.
5. The long history of Israeli intransigence or outright torpedoing of various opportunities to reach a two-state compromise settlement with the Palestinians—including the last serious negotiations, at Camp David and Taba in 2000. In his analysis, Beinart incorporates the scholarship and the Israeli journalism as well as diplomatic memoirs that have thoroughly refuted the standard argument that Arafat rebuffed a generous Israeli two-state offer and then turned to terrorism and violence. Today, no serious analysis of the events of 2000-2001 accepts this mythology.
6. The Israeli refusal to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, despite the growing evidence that Hamas is now opposed to terrorist violence against Israel and is increasingly likely to agree to a two-state settlement of the conflict. Indeed, not only has Israel ignored these trends, as Beinart points out it has often provoked violence with Hamas, especially but not limited to the massive Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008-09.
Of course it is possible to disagree with Beinart’s various policy recommendations on how the Israelis can be induced to end the occupation and repression of the Palestinians—a renewed commitment to a negotiated two-state settlement, U.S. pressures on Israel, an economic boycott of the Jewish settlements over the green line, and others—but no minimally honest and intellectually as well as morally respectable assessment of The Crisis of Zionism is entitled to ignore the facts, let alone sneer at them.
The Washington Post Review
On March 30, the Washington Post published its review of The Crisis of Zionism, by Alana Newhouse, the editor of Tablet, a Jewish magazine. The review failed every intellectual and moral test of serious and honest analysis. The full review can be read HERE; I’ll just point out the low-lights:
*The Facts. As indicated, Newhouse does not address the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as summarized and discussed in the Beinart book. Actually, while claiming she largely agrees with Beinart, Newhouse dismisses the book as a “jeremiad” aimed at those “who do not have the time or ability to study the issues.” Talk about chutzpah: I don’t know whether Newhouse has the time or ability to study the issues, but she surely lacks the inclination to do so, and as far as I can determine, she has written little or nothing of her own on them.
*Beinart’s Credentials. Newhouse dismisses Beinart’s book on the grounds that it is “based almost entirely on newspaper clippings and other second-hand sources.” It is true that the Crisis of Zionism is based primarily on secondary sources, but (as I have said) it also contains original research, particularly Beinart’s discussion of Obama’s progressive surrender to the Israeli and American rightwing. In any case, the Newhouse charge is irrelevant, since Beinart did not claim to have written a work of original scholarship, as opposed to reviewing the best scholarship and journalism and compiling the known facts and their unavoidable implications in a book whose primary audience is clearly intended be the general American Jewish community.
The importance of such a work, especially when it is written so compellingly, ought to be self-evident. Anyway, since when can’t one learn facts from newspapers, journalists, and secondary sources?
*Ad Hominum Smears. Newhouse characterizes the Crisis of Zionism as “at least in part a political stump speech for an attractive young candidate who is seeking the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews.” Elsewhere Newhouse repeats her charge that the Beinart book is the work of an ambitious “politician” whose “obvious politicking” is explained by his ambition for that “job.”
Newhouse apparently has manufactured this astounding charge out of whole cloth, for she offers no evidence—as in, not a shred--to support it. Anyway, it would be a non-sequitur even if it were true. What’s wrong with seeking to head a political movement if the cause is both crucial and just?
*The Sneers. Newhouse writes that the Beinart book is “calculated to appeal to disillusioned Jewish summer camp alumni, NPR listeners and other beautiful souls who want the Holy Land to be a better place” but don’t know the facts—that is, as understood by Newhouse. At least she stopped short of “quiche-eating, wine-sipping limousine liberals”—but not by much.
Newhouse concludes: “Peace will be made only by Israelis and Palestinians together,” so there should be no pressures on Israel from the U.S. government or the American Jewish community. No one either knowledgable-- or honest--about the history of Israeli torpedoing of the “peace process” would write that. What, then, should we make of Newhouse’s bland obtuseness: lame-brained or merely disingenuous?
The NY Times Review.
As shameless and demagogic as was the Newhouse review, it was outdone by Jonathan Rosen’s April 13 review in the New York Times. As thin as are Newhouse’s credentials to review a book about Israel, Zionism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rosen’s are even fewer: he is described in the Times as “the editorial director of Nextbook and the author, most recently, of “The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature.” My Google search turned up nothing at all by Rosen on the actual topic at hand.
Why, then, was he chosen? Here’s my theory. Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Sunday Times Book Review, is a well-known conservative, so it is fair to assume he is a defender of Israel. I can no longer remember the details, but in my opinion it is not the first time that Tanenhaus has chosen reviewers who lack serious credentials to analyze important books, nor the first time that the choice of such reviewers dovetails with Tanenhaus’s political inclinations. For that reason, it is hard not to believe that Tanenhaus knew exactly what he would get when he commissioned Rosen to write the review.
Indeed, the choice of Rosen was not merely an obvious ideological one, it was also a quite stupid one. Surely I can’t be the only one who has noticed the utter lack of appropriate credentials of the Jonathan Rosen, the birder. One would have thought that Tanenhaus would have turned to someone who at least had a claim to know something about the book’s subject-- such as, say, Alan Dershowitz or Daniel Pipes. Of course, the result would have been the same, but the choice of the reviewer would not have been quite so risible.
To be sure, unlike Newhouse, who essentially ignores the facts pointed to by Beinart, Rosen does mention some of them. However, he gets everyone of them wrong:
*To support his argument that Israeli peace efforts have been thwarted by the Arabs, Rosen cites the initial Arab refusal (in the days immediately following the 1967 war) to end their conflict with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from conquered territories, but he fails to mention the developments of the past forty-five years, including Egypt’s and Jordan’s agreement to end their national conflicts with Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, the Israeli scuttling of an imminent and highly-favorable peace treaty with Syria in 2000, and the repeated and unanimous offers of the Arab states since 1982 to end the Arab-Israeli conflict in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and its agreement to allow the Palestinians a state of their own on some 22% of the land of Palestine.
*He refers to the “cataclysmic impact”—on the Israelis, of course—of the second Intifada, but fails to consider the ongoing Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians as possibly relevant. Nor does he mention the established facts that the intifada was initially a spontaneous uprising precipitated by Ariel Sharon’s deliberately provocative march to the Haram Al-Sharif, nor that the initial violence of the intifada was overwhelmingly the consequence of massive shooting by the Israeli army and police.
*With no counterevidence or argumentation of his own, Rosen simply asserts that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was an act of “gut-wrenching desperation” rather than a “cynical ploy to continue the occupation by other means.” The evidence overwhelmingly establishes that not only was continuing the occupation by other means the true intention of Ariel Sharon, it has had precisely that outcome.
*Rosen essentially asserts that the 1988 Hamas charter is more important in understanding that organization’s goals than the extensive evidence of its ongoing moderation of its goals in practice. Similarly, Rosen considers that the real goal of the Palestinians is to return to Israel and “destroy the Jewish state,” despite the overwhelming evidence that the Palestinian leadership—including Hamas—understands that it has no chance to do so and will effectively drop the right of return in the context of a two-state settlement.
*Rosen bristles at Beinart’s argument that occupation “requires racism,” as well as “the grotesque idea” that American Jewish organizations have made propaganda use of the Holocaust—despite the obvious evidence that Israelis have become increasingly racist and that the Israeli government as well as the Israeli lobby repeatedly use the Holocaust to justify the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians.
*He characterizes “the notion” that the Israel lobby has enough power to force presidents to alter their policies towards Israel, or that “American Jews revel in Jewish power,” as “formulations favored by anti-Semites.” That statement is particularly revealing. While I have written that the Israel Lobby argument somewhat overstates the Lobby’s power, Rosen’s charge that it is an anti-Semitic argument is a scurrilous one, without foundation. Indeed, it might even be said that referring to “formulations favored by anti-Semites” is a formulation of someone who resorts to innuendo to suggest that anti-Semitism is at the root of strong criticism of Israel and its American supporters, but is too cowardly to make it explicit.
The Criticism from the Left
Although the main attack on Peter Beinart and The Crisis of Zionism has come from the right, there have also been a number of criticisms from the left, of varying degrees of persuasiveness. Several Jewish radicals or anti-Zionists (see Mondoweiss generally) simply reject the concept that Zionism was ever truly “liberal,” or could even become so. The impressive young Israeli journalist, Joseph Dana, is particularly articulate on this issue (here), writing that liberal Zionism is a “confusing ideology” or a “paradox” that while “privileg[ing] one ethnic group over others…rallies behind the idea Israel can exist as a Jewish and Democratic state—a place where liberalism coexists with tribalism.”
Beinart is aware of the problem, admits that there is “a fundamental tension between Zionism and liberal democracy,” but thinks it can be resolved “to some extent” by granting equal citizenship to the Israeli Arabs as well as an independent state to the Palestinians. My own view is that this is exactly right. The issue is too complex to be examined here; however, I have written about it to some extent on this blog, and in a few months the journal Political Science Quarterly will publish a long essay in which I fully address it.
The Legitimate Criticisms of “The Crisis of Zionism”
That said, there are a number of legitimate criticisms that have been made—or could be made—of The Crisis of Zionism. Before addressing the most important ones, I will mention a few relatively minor errors of interpretation in Beinart’s book. First, he is somewhat misleading –or wishes to duck the issue--about what happened in 1948, writing that “roughly 700,000 Arabs left Palestine, and irrespective of whether most left their homes voluntarily or were forced out, Israel refused to let them return.” (14) Although Beinart’s emphasis on what happened to the refugees after they “left” is very important, most scholars of the conflict would argue (backed by extensive evidence) that most of the refugees were indeed “forced out”—not to mention the large numbers that didn’t even have that choice, as they had already been killed in deliberate Israel massacres.
Second, Beinart writes that in 1967 Israel’s Arab neighbors “were poised to attack,” until “Israel struck first.” (14) That standard interpretation is now known to be a myth, refuted by detailed studies that demonstrate that while Egypt and Syria certainly took foolish actions that appeared to threaten Israel, they were responding to Israeli actions they quite legitimately considered to be provocative; in an case, neither Egypt nor Syria intended their retaliatory actions to start a war. Indeed, there is no need to consult the historical scholarship, for none other than Menachem Begin, defending his decision to start a “war of choice” with Lebanon in 1982, publicly stated the following: "In June 1967, we had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches (did) not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him."
Third, Beinart does not fully address a crucial tension in the liberal Zionist position: how can Israel remain—or, perhaps, become—a Jewish yet genuinely democratic state if the current Palestinian minority (roughly 20% of the Israeli population) becomes much larger, or even eventually becomes a majority? When asked this question, Beinart responded that “We are a long way away from the time when an Israeli state would have an Arab majority, but “if Israelis thought that was about to happen,” he would oppose any measures, such as expulsion, “designed to coercively impose a Jewish majority.” (Tikkun, May 11, 2012) Perhaps so, but this careful formulation does not address the deeper dilemma of liberal Zionism, nor consider the legitimacy of other coercive or noncoercive measures, short of expulsion, that Israel might take to preserve an overwhelming Jewish majority.
The Nature of the Israeli Occupation
A number of liberal critics of The Crisis of Zionism argue that the book insufficiently focuses on the suffering of the Palestinians and understates the full impact of the Israeli occupation and repression of them. I think this criticism is largely correct. It is possible that Beinart is not fully sensitized to, or even aware of, the full range of Israeli repression. On the other hand, though, the primary target audience of the book is clearly the American Jewish community, so it is certainly possible that Beinart felt that if he fully and unflinchingly described the deliberate pain and suffering visited by Israel on the Palestinians, he would alienate even those who might be inclined to reassess their unthinking support of Israel.
If that was Beinart’s concern, it was a legitimate and perhaps necessary concession to the facts of life. In my own writing I have also pulled some punches, for fear of going further than the traffic will bear. Moreover, from private correspondence, I know that other well-known severe critics of Israel have done the same thing.
Another problem is that while Beinart concedes that the settlements “are not a rogue operation [but]… from the beginning they have been a project of the Israeli state,” he has not fully explored the implications of the painful fact that the occupation and repression of the Palestinians have been carried out by democratically-elected Israeli governments, enjoying continuing support from large Jewish majorities—and never more so than at present, where the Netanyahu government remains highly popular.
Thus, Beinart overstates the contrast between democracy in Israel and its autocracy in the territories. First, he understates the various forms of political, economic, and social discrimination of the Arab minority within Israel. Second, he does not come fully to grips with the rapid rise of Jewish anti-Arab (and anti-black) racism; the intolerance of dissent; the spread of religious fanaticism; the measures taken against Israeli and foreign ngos seeking to document the Israeli violations of human rights; the governmental and military disregard or outright flouting of Israel’s own laws and Supreme Court decisions, let alone of established international law; and the growing police repression and violence even against nonviolent Jewish protest, let alone that of the Palestinians, where it practically goes without saying.
Are Economic Sanctions Against the Settlements Enough?
While Beinart’s call for a boycott of the products of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories is a good idea in principle, the limited nature of such sanctions and the practical difficulties in imposing them are very unlikely to succeed in moving either the Netanyahu government or the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population of Israel. For one thing, even within the framework of Beinart’s conception of a boycott limited to the settlements, his proposed sanctions are even more limited than they should be: he excludes the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights on the grounds that “Palestinians and other non-Jews in those areas at least have the right to acquire citizenship.” As surely as Beinart must know, that “right” bears little relationship to the realities on the ground, where the remaining Palestinians in those areas have no possibility of genuinely equal citizenship.
In any case, the products of the settlements are now so inextricably part of the overall Israeli economy that they are nearly impossible to disentangle—as the Israeli journalist Joseph Dana recently wrote, “Israel’s economy is deeply entrenched beyond the Green Line,” including water aquifers for drinking, agricultural, or industrial use; the mining of minerals; and the growing spread of “industrial zones,” whose products are usually labeled as coming from “Israel.” Indeed, Akiva Eldar, the great Israeli journalist and severe critic of the occupation, recently wrote that while he “carefully checks every item on the supermarket shelves to avoid buying products made in the settlements,” he isn’t always successful. As Eldar goes on to suggest, if highly motivated Israelis sometimes can’t discriminate between the products of the occupied territories and those from Israel proper, what are the chances that foreigners will be able to do so, especially in the face of systematic efforts by the Israeli government to erase the Green Line?
For now, at least, Beinart does not wish to support a full economic boycott of Israel--let alone the Palestinian-dominated “BDS” movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions)—for fear that the intent is to “delegitimize” Israel as a Jewish state, when he wishes only to delegitimize the occupation.
In an afterword to The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart worries that he may have failed to convey “the devotion, reverence, love, and awe that I feel toward the Jewish people and the Jewish state,” and hopes that he has succeeded in being “a critic who does not judge coldly on high but who feels empathy for…the community with whom he disagrees.” Beinart’s book is very good, but it would have been even better if he had put to one side devotion, reverence, love and awe in favor of a cold look at the full and unexpurgated reality of Israel today.
As an anti-religious Jew, my own self-identification with our community has been principally a function of a defiance of an anti-Semitism that has now essentially disappeared but was hardly uncommon in my youth, combined with pride in the Jewish tradition of rationalism and morality--at least as that has been previously understood, and not only by Jews. The enlightenment tradition has been betrayed by Israel, and it gets worse practically day-by-day. Consequently, there is no good reason to revere or love Israel; such feelings should be reserved for the unflinchingly honest and brave Israeli dissidents.
The Israeli left can be helped only by truly serious outside pressures, including making U.S. and other Western economic, military, and political support of Israel conditional upon an end to the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians. That is the sine qua non for a genuine legitimization of Israel, whether as a full democracy with equal rights for all its citizens, or as a Jewish state which privileges its majority in certain limited ways but which can be legitimately characterized as a democracy in most essentials.
The likelihood of such sanctions being imposed on Israel by the American Jewish community, the U.S. government, and the West, is close to nonexistent. Yet, somehow, even if we believe the struggle is hopeless, we must act as if it isn’t.