‘The Crisis of Zionism’ — a book better left unpublished

Two years ago, Peter Beinart published an essay entitled, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”  That article, which appeared in The New York Review of Books, formed the basis of Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism.    Both article and book stirred up a veritable firestorm of controversy in the Jewish community; Beinart has gone on to helm “Zion Square,” a new feature on the Daily Beast website.

Beinart’s main thesis is that support for Israel is eroding among the young generation of American Jewry.  He contends that they are drifting away, in part, because of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.  He places the blame squarely on the Jewish community ‘establishment’ for what he views as their lockstep support of Israel, thereby hastening this disaffection. He further called upon liberal American Jews to pressure Israel to change their policies.  And, finally, in both his book and in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, he issued a call to boycott goods made in the West Bank by Israeli settlers.

Beinart’s book and articles touch on issues with which I have been grappling for most of my adult life. Foremost among them is the dilemma regarding the role of Diaspora Jews in criticizing or supporting Israeli policies? I’ve spent much of my life in the United States and have found myself in the midst of this debate for year.  In my youth, I was a fervent opponent of Breira, an organization founded in the early 1970s by people who considered themselves “Zionist” but opposed many of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinian Arabs.  My opposition back then was vocal and public, so when I moved to Israel in 1975, many people were shocked to learn that my views were not all that different from those espoused by Breira.  My problem with Breira, in truth, was not what they were saying but where they were saying it.  I believed the place to say what they were saying was to the Israeli electorate in Israel and not the American press.

My views were cemented by two events that occurred during my own military service: the first, as an army ‘regular’ in 1975 where I met a fellow solider  whose father had fought in the War of Independence in 1948.  I opined at the time that I hoped my kids do not have to become soldiers, but that if they do, I want to be satisfied that we have done everything possible along the way to ensure that their fighting would be as a last resort, that it would be as a result of the other side’s poor choices, choices which did not allow us to make peace.  The second event occurred five years later, when I was performing milium (military reserve duty) in Gaza during the summer of 1980.  That experience convinced me that the occupation was corrupting the Israeli soul, that it was not healthy for Israelis to be occupiers.  On both those occasions, my concern was not for the Palestinians – I’d always maintained that as a group, they had made the absolutely worst national choices —   but instead, for our own future

During the many unplanned years that I lived in the United States, I ruminated constantly on the question of whether it is ever acceptable to criticize Israel as a Jew not living there and not subject to what might be the consequences of one’s criticism.   When the organization J Street was founded, friends would enquire as to what I thought of them.  In response, I tended to prevaricate.  While I often agreed with some of the things they would say, I questioned both their right to say it and, especially, where they often chose to say it.   I struggled with my own position on the issue, especially after I started writing a daily update of events in Israel about five years ago.   I granted myself a little more latitude to criticize. The argument that I would not have to suffer the consequences of my criticism did not fully apply, since my oldest child had by then returned to Israel and had served in the IDF and both my family’s return to the country and the draft of my next child were quickly approaching. But I would be less-than-truthful if I said that the basic conflict did not still plague me: What is appropriate to say what is not while one is sitting in New York versus sitting in Israel? I would often find myself self-censoring and ardently wishing that J Street would do the same.

Then along came Peter Beinart and his essay. It did not deal with the failures I had always believed were obvious, but instead concentrated on the unqualified support that American Jewish organizations give to Israel.   His comments, published in a periodical known for its not particularly sympathetic stance on Israel, created quite a stir. Its appearance coincided with the growing visibility of J Street and the very public disagreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama.  Beinart then tossed more oil on the fire by contributing an op-ed piece to The New York Times calling for the boycott of products produced in Israeli settlements, an action he calls for in the conclusion of his book as well.  (I imagine that this roiling controversy has served nicely to boost sales of his book.)

Now, to the book itself.  To begin with, the summary is a monumental disappointment.  It does not really tackle some of the most difficult issues, demonstrated little insight into the State of Israel, and was astonishingly sloppy with the facts.  This last was particularly disappointing coming from a supposedly credible journalist.

Next, there is the question of his choice of title, The Crisis of Zionism.  That is a serious and very real topic and it deserves a serious piece of work.  There can no question that there is a crisis in Zionism, whether in America or worldwide, and any serious book would look at issues such as the decline of Zionist Youth Movements, the irrelevance of the World Zionist Organization, the dearth of Aliyah, or even the question of what it means to be a Zionist today. None of those are present in this book. Instead, a book purportedly on Zionism is totally focused on Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and the failure of the American Jewry to intercede.

His book’s introduction presents one of his basic premises: that we, as Jews, need a new narrative, one not based on victimhood.  He complains that the Holocaust has become too central to the Jewish narrative (which is actually something I agree with wholeheartedly).  Unfortunately, he then becomes careless in his description of recent events. He claims that Israel’s worsening relations with Turkey are only due to Israel’s actions in Gaza and the actions of the Marna, without taking into consideration the flagrantly anti-Israel views of Turkish Prime Minster, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — views that he now is free to express, since he no longer needs to bow to the wishes of the military, whose former leaders he has accused of treason and jailed.

Beinart minimizes the potential danger that the Arab Spring has caused. He writes that, “The Egyptian leaders who have emerged in Hosni Mubarak wake are not generally calling for Israel’s destruction.” This may be true — but try telling that to the Israeli Embassy personnel rescued thanks to the direct intervention of President Obama.  Beinart makes one of his most overarching generalizations when he writes that Israel still controls most of the West Bank, thirty years after the Camp David Accords. While that may be “true” in terms of absolute territory, it is certainly not the case when you look at the population centers and, of course, we are no longer in Gaza.  He writes that it is the ongoing occupation which is at the heart of the anger directed at Israel.  But of course Beinart, like most critics conveniently forgets the attitude of the Arab states before the Six Day War and the occupation.

The next chapter is devoted to the problems Beinart  sees in Israel.  He first laments that Arab parties have not been part of Israel’s coalition, governments. His truly absurd  declaration that, “It’s true that major Arab parties do not endorse Zionism, but neither do some Ultra-Orthodox parties,” would be laughable, if he were not so deadly serious. I am no lover of the Ultra Orthodox parties but to compare their goals of getting as much for their constituents as possible, with today’s Arab parties who expend almost all their efforts towards playing the Arab nationalist card and identifying with Israel’s sworn enemies is truly ridiculous.

Beinart uses much ink to recount  the rightward drift of Israeli politics without seeming to understand the reasons for that drift.  It is not that the settlers have won — their support has not grown — it is because the average Israeli is tired of making concessions that eventually — and sometime literally– blow up in their faces.  He goes to great effort to explain away the failure of Arafat to respond to Barak’s offer at Camp David, going against almost all of the accepted narrative that places the blame for the failure  at Arafat’s door, and because of this, Beinart cannot see what most Israelis believe; the country offered unprecedented concessions at Camp David and were rewarded with suicide bombers; we withdrew from Gaza and in return, received missiles and had a soldier kidnapped and held in captivity for years..  Israel withdrew to the International border in Lebanon and now faces a Lebanon armed to the teeth with Iranian-supplied missiles.  He blames Israel for not finding a way to embrace the Palestinian democratic process that elected Hamas, but ignores their brutal takeover of Gaza.  He points to any seemingly moderate statement that Hamas offers  to Western journalists while  ignoring the incessant radical statement they articulate  in Arabic.

He next turns his attention to the failures of American Jewry.  He describes the leaders of American Jewry as men  in their fifties, sixties and seventies, and naturally  puts forth the cry of every generation that the younger folks are not given opportunities to get involved at the leadership level. While the basic premise may not be inaccurate, Beinart seems to have a real obsession with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations Early in the chapter, he quotes a journalist as saying that  Malcolm Hoenlein, the Executive Vice-Chairman of the Conference has  a famous picture- of Israeli F-15 fighter planes flying over Auschwitz. The photo was taken as part of a flyover arranged with the Polish military to commemorate Yom Hashoah.  He makes the ridiculous statement that,  “It is a photo of fantasy.  Israeli jets never bombed Auschwitz and never will.”  Beinart  then goes on to write what I find perhaps the most offensive line in the book:  “What they have bombed in recent years is the Gaza Strip, a fenced-in hideously overcrowded desperately poor slum from which terrorist groups sometimes shell Israel.”

In a later chapter, he returns to the topic of Malcolm Hoenlein, suggesting that his selection as the Vice Chair of the Conference represents a clear decision of the major component organizations to shift rightward..   Beinart states Hoenlein was hired as a known activist with ties to the settler community.  I knew Malcolm Hoenlein quite well years ago and he has never been an activist. I was an activist student leader back then and he was “the Establishment”.  As to ties with the settler community, Hoenlein might well have them, but I never knew him to publically exhibit anything of the kind back then.

One of Beinart’s major themes in  his Chapter on American Jews as well as in his earlier essay, is that American Jewish organizations have moved to the right while the Jewish public has not.  He contends  that even as the American Jewish establishment shifted  rightward, the mass of American Jews remained as liberal as ever.  In Presidential elections of 1972 and 1976, Jews voted for George McGovern and Jimmy Carter at higher rates then they did for Adlai Stevenson  in 1952 and 1956.  Beinart conveniently ignores the fact that Stevenson was running against the wildly popular former Supreme Allied Commander Dwight David Eisenhower, under whom many American Jewish soldiers fought and for whom American Jews retained a special reverence based on his participation in the liberation of the Nazi death camps. He also omits to mention that  Jewish support for the Democratic Party did drop in both the McGovern election and in Carter’s second race for the White House.. Most importantly, I think Beinart fundamentally misinterprets the continued American Jewish voting for Democrats as a blanket endorsement of Liberalism. Yes American Jews do tend to be more liberal then other white cohorts, but research I conducted  over decade ago, led me to believe that something else has been at work as well contributing to the ongoing tendency of Jews to pull the lever for the Democrats: a deep-seated belief that t the Republican party remains the party of exclusion, the party of the restricted country club, the party that does not sincerely embrace its  Jewish members.  I believe Beinart oversimplifies when he suggests that Jews have abandoned fear and have embraced liberal values as a result.

I could go talking about this chapter endlessly,  but suffice it to say, I found this chapter unfocused, oblivious to the key questions and factually sloppy.

Beinart next asks,   Should Americans Jews Criticize Israel? He articulates what he the main reasons given  for not criticizing:  that American Jews believe they should not express disapproval of Israel’s security policies because they do not live there nor do they bear  the burden of such  decisions.  That is, the children of American Jews do not go into the army and risk their lives neither do their parents have to worry about rocket fire hitting their homes, schools or businesses if their criticism results in wrong strategic decisions having been made..  Indeed, the question of criticism is a thorny one, but instead of truly formulating an approach to it, Beinart  tosses out a glib answer, stating that this isn’t really a problem for if this standard were to be applied to other places in the world, one could never criticize any other country.  The problem with this response  is that Beinart appears to have forgotten that the title of his book is The Crisis of Zionism.  He is suggesting that committed Zionist can easily criticize Israel, without a second thought, ready to second-guess those who actually life in Israel and are ready to sacrifice what is most precious: their families and their homes.  Beinart shows very little understanding of what Zionism stands for by equating criticizing Israel by Zionists to criticizing events in Russia.  The same logic applies to his discussion of the second reason cited as a poor excuse for refraining from  criticizing Israel: people say that Israel is a democracy and so  we need to follow the will of the people. He answers that we criticize other democracies all the time.  While I find this argument to be somewhat less problematic then his first point, it is  actually related to that point  because it should not be easy for a Zionist to criticize the democratically-elected government of Israel from afar.  Again a complex subject that Beinart fails to explore. He seems not to understand the real ramifications of such glib advice.

Finally, Beinart cites the last supposedly insupportable contention: that because the whole world wants to delegitimize Israel, American Jews should not join in.  He  goes on to  make a truly incredible  statement, “There are, to be sure, left-wing activist and Islamists militants who oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.  But they are marginal compared to the much broader and influential swath of people who seek to delegitimize not Israel but its occupation.” Where is his proof for that incredible claim? He goes as far as  to complain that American Jewish organizations freely quote from the Hamas charter but fail to quote the more moderate statements made recently by Hamas; again Beinart falls into the trap of trying to make the facts fit his thesis about the Arab-Israeli conflict by seizing on a few moderate-sounding comments made to the Western media and hailing them as the herald of a meaningful change in Hamas’ underlying beliefs.

The following  chapter is entitled, “Is the Occupation Israel’s Fault?” One of my most serious problems with this section lies in his rewriting of the events surrounding the Camp David meeting between Barack and Arafat.  He makes the utterly preposterous assertion that the biggest problem at Camp David was the settlements.  Clearly, settlements were not the biggest problem, though they were a complicating factor. When the time really does come to remove them – when peace is really in the offing – the real problems which were recognized at Camp David and remain problems today are that of the Palestinian refugees and what to do about Jerusalem.  The issue of the settlements is an issue of territory and it’s apparent  that the differences between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are  bridgeable; it is in the other areas mentioned above that negotiations have failed. No Palestinian leader has had the guts — or maybe the recklessness — to tell his  people, that they will be not “returning” to Jaffa and Haifa.

The author also makes another very significant mistake when he minimizes Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, claiming that it was merely an attempt by Sharon to stop the creation of a larger Palestinian state.  Sharon came to a fundamental strategic revision in his thinking and acted on it boldly. It was an action that forced him to leave the party he had founded  (Likud) and to start a new party. The fact that the pullout resulted not in the development of a peaceful state in Gaza but  to an area run by an organization that was and remains committed to the destruction of Israel, is not a reason to claim that this fundamental change in Israel’s policy was nothing more than a tactical move.   Beinart then goes on to blame Israel for not thinking outside the box in order to reach an accommodation with  Hamas’ take-over of the Gaza Strip, thereby making it Israel’s fault that the ceasefire broke down and resulted in the launching of Operation Iron Shield .  In short, provides a complete rewriting of history.

Luckily –at least for the reader of this lengthy review– Beinart writes four more chapters that, though interesting to read, are largely  irrelevant to this book. One chapter looks at President Obama and describes how his views on the conflict were shaped by the liberal Jews of Chicago that were among his early supporters and friends. Then, a chapter on Prime Minister Netanyahu and how all his views are a result of his commitment to the Jabotinsky-esque views of his 100-year-old father, and finally two chapters on the clash between the two leaders  Since the chapters are irrelevant to the theme of the book , I won’t bore the readers with my critique. I will, however, make one point: Beinart attacks Netanyahu for his oft-stated demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Beinhardt correctly points out  that neither the Egyptians nor the Jordanians did so in order to reach a peace agreement.  When I  heard of Netanyahu’s demand, I remember saying to myself à la Ronald Reagan “there he goes again.”  But upon reflection and after re-reading the 1947 Partition Plan, it is clear that accepting Israel, as a Jewish state really is fundamental to ending the conflict.  It was the Palestinian Arabs’ refusal to accept that plan and accept the establishment of the Jewish State that resulted in these 65 years of conflict.

Beinart next looks at the future.  He worries about the seemingly inexorable shift to the right of the Orthodox community in the United States.  For many non-Orthodox Jews, that is certainly something easy enough to agree with.  His understanding of the causes of that shift differs from mine, but that is a different subject and I won’t address it here.  He worries that the Jewish community will soon be dominated by an ever right-leaning Orthodox community, and gives what I see as a peculiar example of this shift.  He describes how one observer claimed that more than  70% of the participants in the huge  2002 Washington DC rally  held to support Israel during the Intifada, were Orthodox.  I attended that rally as I have attended umpteen rallies since my first in 1967  and I must say the participants at this rally appeared no different from those who attended all the others over the years.

Beinart  expresses concern that even  those Jews who are not Orthodox but are passionately committed to their Judaism, do not appear  concerned by what is going on in Israel.  He asks why, but never really answers.

The final Chapter in the crisis of Zionism is naturally called conclusion.  In it, he tries to be prescriptive.

Beinart sends his children to the same pluralistic Day School whose high school, was attended by my younger daughter.  He attempts to puts forth an argument  championing Day School education. His theory  is that the only way to turn out more Jews who  care about Israel and who are not Orthodox is to increase Day School enrollment among the non- orthodox.  It’s a valid argument and, as a founder of another pluralistic Day School, an argument  I can agree with.  He also recognizes that the attempt to increase Day School enrollment slammed into a brick wall when the financial meltdown  hit. People were put in the position of having to stringently prioritize their expenditures and for many of them, Day School education was not high on that list..  Beinart then makes a curious proposal coming from a self-identified liberal: give federal aid to parochial schools.  Wearing my former-president-of a day-school hat, it looks like a great idea; as an American historian, not so good.

All of this works it way to his ultimate conclusion that the way to solve American Jewish liberal disaffection with Israel and influence Israeli policy at the same time is for what I can only call a hare-brained scheme: boycott products produced in what he call non-democratic Israel, (i.e., the settlements).  He opposes the general boycott Israel movements but thinks boycotting the settlements would be  a good thing.  Leaving aside that this is  a difference many of Israel’s critics of will fail to see, the idea is  so unimaginatively small, that it’s only laughable.  What are they going to boycott — a few wines and maybe a seltzer or soda  enterprise? This is going to impact on  Israeli policy?  I could come up with quite a long list of actions  that would help promote a “liberal agenda” in Israel. But it seems sad  that after producing such a heated polemic and receiving so much attention, Beinart’s near-total unfamiliarity with Israel and what can be done to change Israel is so glaringly obvious in the pages of his book.

The Failure of Zionism is a book that should not have been written.  It  fails to deal with what Zionism is, nor does it provide any real solutions.  Any fidelity to actual history seems merely incidental and easily gave way to the needs of a polemic.  It’s a shame because Beinart clearly hit a sensitive nerve when he brought up the topic. Unfortunately he was unable to take it to the next step. And, please change the name of the book to what it really purports to be: The Agony of a Liberal supporter of Israel.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne