Beinart blues

On April 23, 2012, The New York Times published a provocative Op-ed piece which argued that, in the absence of a negotiated settlement, Israel should pursue a “radically new” unilateral approach that would involve, among other things:

– Israel taking steps “to advance the reality of two states based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps – regardless of whether Palestinian leaders have agreed to accept it”;

– a unilateral declaration by Israel “that it has no claims of sovereignty on areas east of the existing security barrier”;

– an end to “all settlement construction east of the security barrier and in Arab neighborhoods ofJerusalem”; and

– a plan to relocate “the 100,000 settlers who live east of the barrier” within Israel’s recognized borders after a peace agreement is signed, which would involve the enactment of a law providing for “voluntary evacuation, compensation and absorption” for such settlers even before a peace agreement is reached.

This proposal, authored by three eminent Israelis, including Ami Ayalon, a former Israeli Cabinet Minister, Commander in Chief of Israel’s Navy and head of the Shin Bet, and Gilad Sher, former Chief of Staff to then Prime Minister (now Defence Minster) Ehud Barak and Co-chief negotiator at the Camp David and Taba talks, was clearly intended for an American audience with an interest in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict – an audience that would obviously include the American Jewish community and its leadership.

Despite its provenance and controversial proposals – particularly when considered in light of the communal flack levelled at President Obama for making a very similar territorial proposal at the AIPAC Conference a month before – the piece failed to provoke any public reaction of significance in the American Jewish community.

That mute reaction begs to be contrasted with the virtual mania that continues to surround the equally provocative, but intellectually and morally inferior piece penned by the American journalist, Peter Beinart, in the same Oped pages a month earlier, in advance of the publication of his book. The Crisis of Zionism, by the publishers of the Times.

Notwithstanding the book’s demolition by virtually all its reviewers (including in the Times), Beinart’s article and book quickly became the subject of almost obsessive – and certainly undue – attention in the American (and particularly New York) Jewish community and its press. As has been well documented in these reviews and elsewhere, and as should be patently obvious to any reader with a basic knowledge of the facts underlying the Arab / Muslim war against the existence of a Jewish State on Dar-al-Islam , Beinart’s noxious proposal to conduct economic warfare against those Jews with whom he has a political disagreement is based on an extremely selective and one-sided rendition of recent history.

Despite the obvious flaws in Beinart’s argument, the Beinart-mania continued through the post-Pesach season when Beinart’s flimsy argument and toxic proposal was deemed serious enough to merit a public debate that took place in New York last week between Beinart and the noted American–Israeli writer and scholar, Daniel Gordis of The Shalem Foundation. Dr. Gordis had debated Beinart in Toronto after the publication of Beinart’s equally infamous 2010 article in The New York Review of Books entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”, and had just written a devastating and personally charged review of Beinart’s new book in The Jerusalem Post.

The debate was sponsored by Columbia/Barnard Hillel (on whose premises it took place), the Current, a Jewish student publication at Columbia, and Tablet, a popular online Jewish daily published in New York. This event was billed – rather frivolously given the malevolent seriousness of Beinart’s advocacy of a boycott against 300,000 Israelis – as a “Morningside Heights Matchup: One Night Only: Heavyweights Fight on Zionism”. The debate was reported on by The Jewish Week , The Forward and by its sponsor, Tablet Magazine, which also published a tape of the proceedings.

Oddly enough, New York’s Jews, who apparently can never get too much of a bad thing, are indulging Beinart again with another debate, scheduled for this coming Tuesday evening, again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, improbably this time at The Jewish Center, one of the historic flagship congregations of Modern Orthodoxy in North America. This time, Beinart will take on Rabbi Ari Berman, a former senior rabbi of the congregation (whose predecessors include preeminent rabbis such as Leo Jung, Norman Lamm and J.J. Schacter) . The particularly curious aspect of this event is that American Modern Orthodoxy is generally identified with Israeli religious Zionism, the ideological pillar of the settlement movement and the home of many of its most fundamentalist adherents, and I understand that Rabbi Berman, Beinart’s interlocutor in this debate, lives in Neve Daniel, a settlement in the Eztion Bloc and is therefore a personal target of Beinart’s proposed economic boycott of some Jews.

Is there anything wrong with this picture? Isn’t a vigorous debate about important issues that affect our community an integral part of our contentious tradition; in fact a defining aspect of who we are as a people. Whether it’s the contentious disputations of the Schools of Hillel and Shammai in the Mishna or of Abayeh and Rava in the Gemara, down to the Borsht Belt joke about the one Jew on an island who builds two shuls so he can avoid one of them, we are a disputatious and intellectually charged group and justly proud of it. So, isn’t debating with a gadfly ( or a nudnik depending on one’s perspective) like Beinart just part of that rich legacy?

Well – and here’s a Jewish answer for you – yes and no. Another aspect of our tradition is intellectual acuity which I would describe as the ability to analyze ideas critically and to assess their relative intellectual value; in short, the ability to separate the intellectual wheat from the chaff. That responsibility is particularly acute when presented with a proposal as toxic as an economic boycott of fellow Jews, which, if taken seriously, would have profound and devastating human consequences on our targeted brothers and sisters.

While the vigorous debate of ideas is healthy, necessary and integral to our identity, the ideas that are worthy of serious debate have to meet a basic threshold of intellectual and moral integrity. In my view, Beinart’s argument lacks intellectual integrity because he plays fast and loose with the historical record and the political realities, and his proposal to use economic warfare against other Jews with whom he has a political disagreement, by its very terms, lacks any moral integrity.

It is instructive in this regard to contrast Beinart’s argument and proposal with the similarly positioned Oped piece by Ayalon, Petruschka and Sher to which I referred at the outset. While Beinart treats the 1949 armistice lines as if they were Israel’s legal borders, and advocates boycotting any settlers living beyond those lines (other than in East Jerusalem , which ironically Ayalon et al would return in part) Ayalon et al, understand , as did the United Nations Security Council in 1967 when it adopted Resolution 242, the Governments of the United States and other western powers and even the Palestinian Authority (based on the available chronicles of the Camp David and Taba negotiations in 2000 and 2001 and the Olmert Government negotiations in 2006) that those lines are anything but legal borders and that, as a practical matter , the “settlements” adjacent to those lines – and the 200,000 plus Israelis (Jews and Arabs) living therein – will be part of the Jewish State in any eventual agreement on borders. Aside from being immoral, it is simply intellectually dishonest for Beinart to advocate a position that fails to take that history and those facts into account and fails to consider the sheer impossibility of attempting to impose a solution that has essentially been rejected by the relevant parties all of whom understand that any settlement of the border dispute would have to at a minimum include within the borders of the Jewish State the settlements that are adjacent to the Green line.

Second, unlike the American Beinart, the Israelis Ayalon, Petruschka and Sher, do not advocate that any pressure, economic or otherwise, be brought to bear on their fellow citizens who live across the Green line. They do argue that those settlers who live on the east side of the security barrier will need to withdraw once a peace agreement is in place but only in the context of a detailed and legally binding plan that provides evacuation, compensation and absorption assistance to them immediately in contemplation of such an agreement. They also note that according to a survey conducted by Israeli polster Rafi Smith, nearly 30 percent of these 100,000 settlers would prefer to accept compensation and quickly relocate within the Green line or to adjacent settlement blocs (the ones that Beinart wants us to boycott).

Finally, (and I could go on but I’m writing a blog- not a book) Beinart sets up a false and intellectually dishonest dichotomy between what he sees as the right wing ideologues leading Israel today, and the liberal idealists who led the pre-State Zionist movement in the United States, particularly his idol, the great Reform Rabbi Dr. Stephen S. Wise. It goes without saying that the iconic liberal Jewish leaders of pre-State American Jewry, like Brandeis and Wise, were able to preach a pristine liberal Zionism in the absence of having the responsibility of governing and defending a state besieged by hostile neighbors intent on destroying the State and evicting its inhabitants.

A cursory reading of the many reviews of Beinart’s book will signal to anyone interested that , at its very least, Beinart’s book and his ideas are thin gruel which cannot, and should not, be taken seriously.

If that is the case, why is he still getting so much attention from the American Jewish community and its media? If there is to be a debate about the types of issues that Beinart raises, then it should revolve around intellectually honest proposals that are grounded in reality and that don’t propose to inflict harm on other Jews. The Oped piece by Messrs. Ayalon, Petrushcka and Sher is one such proposal. While I may personally disagree with it, it is compelling and fair enough to require serious consideration and response.

Instead we have the bread and circuses of ersatz prize fights between reputed intellectual heavyweights. The very frivolity surrounding the discussion of such a grave issue is itself distasteful. The apparent appetite of the American Jewish audience and media for controversy over substance is deeply disturbing.

How can we bring this ordeal to an end? Ironically, Peter Beinart may have provided us with the solution.

Two weeks ago I wrote to the very fine and talented Rabbi Yosie Levine of The Jewish Center in New York, and asked him to cancel this Tuesday’s event. We have exchanged phonemail messages since but have yet to connect. When I do speak to him, I will ask him to do one thing going forward– boycott Peter Beinart.

I would suggest that the rest of us do the same