If Israel does not survive as a Jewish democratic state, I want to be able to tell my children that I did what little I’m capable of. I’m a writer, so what I can do is to try to sound an alarm. I just want to be able to say that to them.
— Peter Beinart, Haaretz Magazine, March 23, 2012
Peter Beinart, in his engrossing new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” certainly sounds an alarm. Even more, his book is a frontal assault on the most powerful pillars of the American Jewish organizational world: what he perceives as its political ideology, its lockstep support of the Israeli government, and its betrayal of the liberal and democratic historical legacy of Zionism. It is no wonder that his book has aroused so much controversy since its release several weeks ago.
Among the core issues Beinart explores are the ramifications of the rise of Jewish power after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel unexpectedly found itself occupying vast swaths of territory and ruling over millions of Palestinian non-citizens, while at the same time becoming the strongest military force in the Middle East. Yet, Beinart depicts how, counter-intuitively, the narrative of Jewish persecution and victimhood came to be the dominant theme in the worldwide Jewish community after the 1967 victory, justifying hawkish policies while superseding the ethical and humanistic tradition of Judaism. As he states in the book’s introduction, “In a dizzying shift of fortune, many of our greatest challenges today stem not from weakness but power.”
The heart of Beinart’s book is the first seventy pages, which should be required reading for anyone who cares about Israel and Zionism, no matter what their political orientation. Beinart describes how, beginning with Herzl and early American Zionist leaders such as Louis Brandeis before World War I and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver after World War II, Zionism was inextricably linked to liberalism and democracy. “It is democracy that Zionism represents, it is social justice that Zionism represents.” Brandeis famously said. Along with that, there was a healthy debate about Zionism and, while a diversity of opinion and even harsh criticism of Israel was tolerated, there was always a dedication to human rights. As late as 1964, The American Jewish Committee stated that:
…in our support for Israel, our guiding principle has always been that such support be consistent…with the rights of the individual, be he Jew or non-Jew. As Americans, we have not hesitated to withhold this support or disagree publicly when Israel’s actions appear to depart from the principle.
According to Beinart, this began to change after the Six-Day War. That victory did not gain Israel acceptance, but rather disdain in the decade that followed, culminating with the 1975 United Nations General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism. Israel and Jews were under attack from the world community and perceived themselves as victims as headline-making terrorist attacks increased and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a near-catastrophe, erupted. This led to a circling of the wagons in the American Jewish community. As Beinart writes:
…in the 1970s, [Jewish] victimhood, especially as a strategy for defining Israel, supplanted liberalism as the defining ideology of organized American Jewish Life.
Victimhood required shedding the old liberal Zionism and replacing it with a more robust version of Jewish supremacy over the entire ancient Land of Israel.
Beinart also does a masterful job laying out the history of the advent of Jewish political power in the United States after 1967 that coincided with this new “Greater Israel” Zionism. He creates a captivating story, describing how the old, liberal, broad-based American-Jewish organizations were supplanted by newer right-wing ones such as AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations.
At the same time, in a dramatic break with the past, voicing criticism of Israel began to be regarded as illegitimate or taboo. As Abe Foxman of the Anti-defamation League said, “I’m not a citizen [of Israel], I don’t bear the consequences of my opinion.” Those who today violate this precept are often labeled as anti-Israel, or worse. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to this subject, refuting the arguments that are meant to squelch public disagreement with Israeli government policies.
An eye-opening account
Beinart is a superb writer. He has the ability to convey volumes in an engaging style. An example is his analysis of American relations with Israel since 1990 and the torturous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since then. Much of what he presents is eye-opening, filled with factual details that few Americans know, including information that debunks the widely held perception that the Palestinians have been solely responsible for the failure of peace negotiations. He cites repeated instances of Israeli intransigence or Israeli leaders’ privately stated intentions to not reach a settlement. However, he equally condemns Palestinian actions. He makes a strong case that both sides share responsibility for the lack of a peace agreement, a perspective seldom heard from the leadership in the Jewish community.
Of noteworthy interest are the chapters devoted to the formative influences on Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, which have helped to shape their difficult relationship. Beinart’s analysis of the influences on Netanyahu is especially insightful, specifically regarding the sway of his 102-year-old father, Benzion Netanyahu, a far-right editor and academic whose ideology shaped Netanyahu’s worldview.
Beinart further illuminates the Netanyahu-Obama discord by outlining the liberal Jewish influences on Obama back in his Chicago days. The inevitable result has been a collision during which Netanyahu, by brilliantly marshaling the political power of the Jewish lobby, the Christian right, and the Republican Party, has humiliated and infuriated Obama.
Beinart came to broad public attention in 2010 with a provocative essay in The New York Review of Books challenging the conventional wisdom of why so many young, non-Orthodox American Jews are abandoning Israel. One statement summed up his position:
For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
The boycott is not the main issue
Predictably, his new book has stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism, ranging from ad hominem attacks to accusations of sloppy scholarship. The blogosphere and Twitter have been abuzz, but Beinart has not backed down one inch, answering his critics point by point. What I find most interesting about Beinart’s critics is they frequently attack him from the very perspective that he is criticizing – positioning Israel and Jews as victims, scapegoated and hated by the world – and ignoring the central issue of Jewish power and the occupation. It is almost as if they are scrambling on the scaffolding surrounding a building whose foundation Beinart has suddenly removed.
Which brings me to the one major oversight in the book. There is an implicit assumption that Jews outside Israel have a good understanding of what is going on in the West Bank and the occupation. My experience is that is not the case. After many years of working in Jewish education, and having recently visited over 100 Jewish groups all over the United States, I observed that there is a growing interest in learning about the ideology of the settler movement and the status of the Israeli occupation but a paucity of knowledge about both.
Beinart would have made his case stronger for the average reader if he had devoted a chapter to describe in more detail exactly what he finds so troubling about the occupation, including the impact that Israeli policies and settler actions have had on the daily lives of Palestinians, the effect of the rapid pace of settlement construction on the likelihood of a two-state solution, and how the ideology of redeeming the entire biblical Land of Israel has suffused the religiously observant Jewish world.
Beinart controversially labels the 65% of the West Bank completely under Israeli control “Nondemocratic Israel,” versus the “Democratic Israel” within the Green Line, the pre-1967 border, but he uses mostly generalities to describe this. To his credit, he does outline how Jewish settlers are governed under Israeli law with full rights as citizens, while their neighbors, the Palestinians, are governed under a separate military system with few civil rights and no say over their governing authority. These are two systems with different sets of laws for two ethnic groups living side by side. One group has all the power and the other group has none.
Only near the end of his book does Beinart introduce his controversial proposal, first advanced in a New York Times op-ed last month, for a selective boycott of products made in West Bank settlements. Devoting only a few pages to this proposition, it felt almost as if he was grasping at straws, desperate to suggest something that might have an impact. But the boycott proposal is really a side issue, and has little to do with his core thesis of how Israel is employing victimhood to justify excessive Jewish power and, in the process, destroying the liberal and democratic legacy of Zionism.
Beinart closes the book with the following thought:
We are being asked to perpetuate a narrative of victimhood that evades the central Jewish question of our age: the question of how to ethically wield Jewish power… Either we will help Israel reconcile its democratic and Zionist ideals, or we will make our children choose between them.
Editor’s note: An alternative review of “The Crisis of Zionism” can be found here.