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Peter Beinart and the literary assault on Israel

Most 'liberal' attacks on Israel rely on a relatively small number of accusations that constantly get recycled. Most of these are easily refutable, since they rest on misrepresentation and hypocrisy

Almost two years ago, Peter Beinart wrote an article in New York Review of Books that sent shock waves through the Jewish community. He argued that liberalism was losing out in Israel to a far-right, anti-democratic, and even racist form of Zionism largely rooted in an ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Judaism. Worse still, the organizations of the American Jewish establishment were too reflexively supporting the policies of the Israeli government, and failing to criticize its illiberal behavior. Consequently, young American Jews perceive that there is a conflict between their own liberal values and Israel’s policies, and they are withdrawing their support from Israel and the American Jewish organization that support the Zionist cause.

Beinart has elucidated these ideas in a book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” that’s slated to go on sale in late March. Yet, at least two fawning assessments have already appeared. Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor with the National Interest, has a lengthy review essay in the March/April issue of that journal. Roger Cohen devoted one of his New York Times columns to the book. You can expect that the publication of Beinart’s book will spawn many more articles that viciously attack Israel.

Peter Beinart (photo credit: courtesy)
Peter Beinart (photo credit: courtesy)

Unveiling the hypocrisy

I’ve seen enough of the “liberal” attacks on Israel to realize that most rely on a relatively small number of accusations that constantly get recycled. Most of these are easily refutable, since they rest on misrepresentation and hypocrisy.

For instance, Heilbrunn repeats the oft-heard assertion that “the longer Israel occupies the West Bank, the more it fuels the very terrorist forces that plague it and America.” It’s understandable that virtually nobody making this charge can provide evidence to support it. Such evidence doesn’t exist. Indiscriminate Arab attacks on Jewish civilians go back as least as far as widespread rioting in 1921. Of course, that’s decades before Israel occupied the West Bank or even existed as a Jewish State. Ever since then, terrorist attacks against Jewish communities has been virtually unceasing.

Consider the Palestinian revolt that is said to have started in 2000, and became known as the Second Intifada. Heibrunn, like many others, portrays it as a response to Ariel Sharon’s controversial decision to take a walk on the Temple Mount. For argument’s sake only, let’s assume that Sharon’s excursion gave the Palestinians a legitimate reason to be angry. Was a sustained four-year campaign of violent attacks that killed and maimed about 4,000 Israel civilians a proportional response to Sharon’s provocation? Could the Palestinians have effectively expressed their grievance peacefully? Unfortunately, few of the commentators who claim that Israel has not done enough to pursue peace ask these questions.

In any case, the Second Intifada was not a reaction to Sharon’s walk. Rather, it was a culmination of a period of Palestinian violence that started in 1993. In compliance with the Oslo Accords, Israel pulled out of parts of the West Bank to be replaced by the Palestinian Authority. In the first 31 months following the signing of first Oslo Accords, Palestinian terrorists murdered 213 Israelis. That was the largest number of fatalities for any time period of the same length in the country’s history to that point. The attacks on Israel only ended after 2002, when Israel reoccupied parts of the territory that it had abandoned in 1993, a move which allowed it pursue individual terrorists and the heads of terrorist network who had found sanctuary within the lands controlled by the PA. So, not only have Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank led to an increase in terrorism, but armed Israeli control of the West Bank has been necessary to stop terrorist attacks. So much for the occupation leading to terror.

A legitimate excuse for killing thousands of Israelis? Sharon on the Temple Mount. (photo credit: Flash90)
A legitimate excuse for killing thousands of Israelis? Sharon on the Temple Mount. (photo credit: Flash90)

Israel’s critics, like Heilbrunn, see no contradiction between, on the one hand, criticizing Foreign Minister Lieberman for calling for “population transfer” of the Arabs from Israel, and, on the other, their own demand that all Jewish communities within the contours of the proposed Palestinian state be dismantled. Yet, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed a couple of years ago, James Woolsey, a CIA director under Bill Clinton and certainly no Zionist extremist, wrote:

Even if every settlement and its residents we transferred to Palestinian sovereignty, Jews would still compromise under 10% of the population of the new Palestinian state. Arabs, overwhelmingly Muslim, would continue to compromise nearly 20% of Israel’s population. Why should such a minority be forbidden in… Palestine?

Here’s a good question for Beinart and his admirers to address. Melanie Philips, who writes with Britain’s Daily Mail, recently asserted that anyone who calls for the dismantling of West Bank settlements is racist. This seems entirely appropriate. After all, if calling for the transfer of Arabs from Israel makes Lieberman anti-Arab, why doesn’t calling for the expulsion of Jews from the West Bank make someone anti-Jewish?

Calls for the “transfer” of Jews from the West Bank are just part of the evidence demonstrating how unconditionally Israel’s critics have aligned themselves with the current rulers of the Palestinian Authority. There are many other similar indicators. While Beinart and his admirers frequently complain about what they consider the large amount of aid that Israel receives from the US, they hardly ever mention that the PA is the most aid-dependent political entity in the world. In his original article, Beinart called on Israel and his supporters to be sensitive to the welfare of the Palestinians. If his own concern were genuine, wouldn’t you expect him to take an interest in how this aid is spent? Yet, in the writings of Israel’s critics, one rarely finds anything about the majority of this aid being diverted into the bank accounts and companies controlled by the PA’s top leaders. Nor have many of those who claim that Israeli democracy is on its deathbed ever complained about the failure of the Palestinians to establish any of the institutions — such as an independent court system and ongoing procedures for democratic elections — necessary for a liberal society.

If calling for the transfer of Arabs makes Lieberman anti-Arab, why doesn't calling for the expulsion of Jews make someone anti-Jewish? (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)
If calling for the transfer of Arabs makes Lieberman anti-Arab, why doesn't calling for the expulsion of Jews make someone anti-Jewish? (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

The refusal of Israel’s leftist critics to scrutinize Palestinian society and governance makes it blatantly hypocritical for them to lament the failure of American Jewish organizations to criticize Israel.

More obscenely, Beinart’s admirers have enthusiastically endorsed his charge that Israel and its supporters have manipulated the memory of the Holocaust to justify the domination of the Palestinians. For example, Roger Cohen wrote the following in the New York Times:

This is not 1938 revisited or even 1967. Israel is strong today, a vibrant economy and the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed state. Its unwavering ally, the United States is a home to a Jewish community that has never been more integrated or influential.

Thus Cohen endorsed Beinart’s claim that, “We are being asked to perpetuate a narrative of victimhood that evades the central question of our age: the question of how to ethically wield Jewish power.”

‘Existentialism’ and the Jews

In the narrowest sense, Cohen is right. This is not 1938; a Holocaust is not imminent; and the establishment of a full-fledged Palestinian state in the West Bank may not pose an existential threat to Israel. Still, those who accuse Israel of sabotaging the two-state solution fail to mention that the PA’s leadership has never accepted the legitimacy of Israel or the right of the Jews to a homeland. The Palestinian Authority’s regime-controlled media continues to spew anti-Israel and anti-Jewish programming. So what if — as is quite possible, given their attitude toward Israel and Jews — once they achieve full statehood, the Palestinians launch a new Intifada or a fresh round of Sderot-like missile attacks? Based on experience, it’s possible to predict with almost perfect accuracy how Beinart’s crowd with react. It would ignore the violence until Israel took action to defend its inhabitants, at which point it would condemn Israel’s “overreaction.” Apparently, according to people like Roger Cohen, Israel must grin and bear any threats that fall short of the threshold of “existential,” as they define it, regardless of how many Israelis are killed or injured.

The left also views the Diaspora with tunnel vision. Surely, Cohen is correct in asserting that the United States has been more accepting of Jews than perhaps any other country in history. However, over the last decade there has been an upsurge of violent anti-Semitism in Europe. Even if this doesn’t foreshadow another holocaust, shouldn’t it make someone question whether the 2,000-year history of Jewish victimhood has ended? Or does Cohen agree with the US ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, who in a speech late last year blamed Israel for the increase in anti-Jewish violence?

Turning to the US, left-wing commentators often refer to an alleged increase in Islamophobia since 9-11. However, FBI statistics indicate that in 2010 — the last year for which data are available — 12.3 percent of religiously motivated attacks targeted Muslims, while 65.4 percent were directed at Jews. This was not a fluke. Although the total number of anti-religious attacks has always been small, the number of anti-Jewish attacks has dwarfed the number of anti-Islam attacks in every year since statistics have been collected. That includes 2001, when anti-Muslim attacks increased in the wake of 9-11. Reporting on the FBI statistics last fall, Jonathan Tobin of the conservative magazine Commentary acknowledged that “Muslims… have had to labor under guilt by association since 9-11,” and therefore “cannot be blamed for worrying about perceptions of their community.” However, this is no excuse for ignoring the more prevalent anti-Jewish violence.

Alan Dershowitz (photo credit: Gidon Markowicz/Flash90)
Alan Dershowitz (photo credit: Gidon Markowicz/Flash90)

Moreover, every new crisis between Israel and its neighbors results in the adoption of enhanced measures to secure Jewish targets in the United States. Recently, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened, in the case of an Israeli attack, “to take the war beyond the borders of Iran and beyond the borders of the region.” A recent Iranian News Agency headline declared that “Israeli people must be annihilated.” Alan Dershowitz addressed the issue in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal

These and other recent threats have, according to news reports, led Israeli and American authorities to believe that Iran is preparing attacks Israeli embassies and consulates world-wide, as well as against Jewish houses of prayer, schools, community centers, restaurants and other soft targets.

Yet, those who complain about the supposed increase in Islamophobia do not protest these threats or express any outrage at the need to secure Jewish sites whenever tensions rise in the Middle East. In fact, we have come to view as normal the need to add such security at times of crisis.

So, in spite of Israel’s creation, and full equality for Jews in the West, there are extra threats associated with living distinctively Jewish lives, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. It’s absurd to claim that these threats are not real, and that Jewish organizations have been conjuring them up in order to hold on to the West Bank. And it’s hard to attribute the failure of so many pundits to acknowledge these threats to anything other than an obsession with blaming Israel and Jews for all friction between Jews and Muslims.

Beinart and his followers claim that the American Jewish community’s leadership is ignoring them largely because they dare to criticize Israel’s intransigent policies. But in fact, being critical of Israel has turned out to be a boon to Beinart’s career. His New York Review of Books tirade against Israel made him a much sought-after speaker by synagogues and other Jewish organizations. That’s unfortunate. Those who care about the safety of Israel and Jews should shun people like Beinart. That’s not because they have publicly expressed their opposition to some of Israel policies. Rather it’s because they have thrown their unqualified support behind a Palestinian national movement that has provided ample evidence of its hostility towards both Israel and Jews.

About the Author
Martin Krossel is a freelance political journalist living in New York