There is one thing that can be said for Peter Beinart: He has very effectively captured the attention of nearly the entire organized American Jewish community and a fair slice of the general media world besides these past two years. It is a performance he has kept going strong with a much-discussed op-ed in The New York Times, in which he called for a boycott of Israeli settlements, itself an excerpt for a newly released book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” which has been widely reviewed.
Little attention has been paid, however, to the question of how it is that Beinart has so successfully attracted so much attention to himself.
Certainly, it is not the quality or originality of his ideas. The central thesis of his first fame-grabbing turn in The New York Review of Books in 2010 was that the “American Jewish establishment” had “failed” young Jews by not sharing their supposedly vigorous opposition to Israel’s policies, effectively pushing them away from the organized Jewish community. The celebrated line of the time was, “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.”
But as anyone who has paid more than passing attention to the extensive research conducted over the past decade on young American Jews and Israel knew, if there is a new distance between young Jews and Israel, its cause is ignorance of and detachment from Judaism, not the policies of an Israeli government most American Jews don’t know much about. Steven M. Cohen, one of the authors of the “Beyond Distancing” study Beinart based much of his initial argument on, has in fact been laboring to point out in the years since it was first published that by “distancing” he meant apathy toward, not opposition to, and that if there is a single cause, it is intermarriage.
It turns out that on this point, Beinart disagrees with himself. First during an appearance at the General Assembly (the grand national gathering of organized American Jewry) this past fall and again in his new book, he now tells us:
The harsh truth is that for many young, non-Orthodox American Jews, Israel isn’t that important because being Jewish isn’t that important.
There are similar basic problems in understanding and logic in his latest gambit. Would it really be so simple or meaningful to boycott the production of Jewish communities in the West Bank? Can one take this position without providing succor to anti-Israel campaigners? And, most of all, does a position toward the conflict that implies Israel’s sole responsibility for it make much sense in light of the reality of repeated Israeli offers to end the conflict met by no Palestinian response, to say nothing of ongoing Palestinian terrorism, irredentism, and opposition to the very idea of a Jewish state? Far from acknowledging his earlier failure in judgment, Beinart has now doubled-down on a perhaps even more questionable thesis.
Beinart’s latest ideas, both in his op-ed and book, are also far from original. “Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” a book with a similar aim and thesis and co-edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, was published in 2003. “Irreconcilable Differences: The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair With Israel,” a book that thoroughly reviewed the potential fault lines in the relationship of American Jews to Israel, was published in 2001 by Steven T. Rosenthal, a professor of history at the University of Hartford. They are themes that have been written on over and again in the past decade by a variety of writers in nearly any American Jewish publication one might care to peruse, and much of the general press as well.
So why is it, then, that Beinart is able to command the attention of so many Jewish leaders and thinkers with much more important uses for their time? His biography, of course.
A graduate of Yale, a Rhodes Scholar, and the once-20-something editor in chief of The New Republic, his resume hits all the kinds of prestige notes that send American Jews into swoons. The proverbial cherry is that he is a member of an Orthodox synagogue and sends his children to a Jewish day school, credentials that make him a boy who both made good and stayed, and that further supposedly give his criticisms the sharp barb that comes only from the critics within.
Tony Judt (the late professor at NYU whose role as the Jewish bête noir of the pro-Israel community Beinart has eagerly jumped to fill) may have spent his late Saturday mornings out at brunch, but Peter Beinart is the guy standing next to you at Kiddush. In case you missed the implication, he’s now taken to advertising it, writing in The New York Times, “I belong to an Orthodox synagogue, send my children to Jewish school and yearn to instill in them the same devotion to the Jewish people that my parents instilled in me.”
It is a sad commentary on the quality of our debates when the imperatives of biography trump the thoughtful articulation of ideas, but Jews aren’t the only people who suffer such a malady. It would be a mighty step forward for all of us, though, if we could stop treating Peter Beinart like the standard-bearer for the next wave in Jewish intellectual thought.