PETER BEINART’S PEACE-MAKING
Jerusalem Post, March 22, 2012
‘To save Israel, boycott the settlements,’ Peter Beinart pleaded [in March] in [the] New York Times. Israel, he says, is dangerously creating one political entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, in which “millions of West Bank Palestinians are barred from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.”
Therefore, it is time to drop the phrase “West Bank.” Or “Judea and Samaria.” Rather, Beinart suggests, freedom and democracy-loving Jews should now call the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel.” Perhaps, he muses, that name and the boycotts of West Bank settlements that he hopes will follow might save whatever hope remains for a two-state solution.
Many Jews, including Zionists deeply committed to Israel, will resonate to portions of Beinart’s argument. They will agree that the conflict has lingered far too long, and that it is, at certain times, brutal and ugly.… They will certainly share Beinart’s wish that matters could be otherwise.
But Beinart’s op-ed is cavalier, and thus dangerous, on many levels.… Beinart argues that the boundary between Israel and the West Bank has become unconscionably blurred, but then ignores his own complaint in pretending that one could boycott the latter without punishing all of Israel. The whole plan is so half-baked that one knows, instantly, that it cannot be taken seriously. Why, then, even suggest it? Because of a psychology we need to understand.
A similar line of reasoning leads Beinart to place most of the blame for our morass on the Israeli side. Though he acknowledges that the Palestinians haven’t been much help, Beinart invariably spotlights Israel. “Many Israeli maps and textbooks no longer show the green line at all,” he notes. That’s true. But what about Hamas? And what about the maps distributed by the Palestinian authority? Surely, Beinart knows that they have always avoided showing the Green Line, suggesting that all of Israel will one day be theirs. Why does he never mention that? As Clinton might have said, “It’s the psychology, stupid.”
That very same dangerous psychology also leads Beinart to a complete ignoring of history and of the future. Nowhere in this op-ed…do we learn about how the “occupation” began. It’s as if Israel woke up one morning, and for want of anything better to do, grabbed the West Bank. Or why no mention of the fact that Ehud Olmert, to cite but one example, was elected prime minister on a platform of getting out of the West Bank, after the Gaza fiasco had already begun to unfold, but was stymied by the Second Lebanon War, which he, of course, did not start? In Beinart-land, the past is a blank screen.…
The future is absent as well. Beinart cannot bear the occupation, but dares not imagine what might unfold if Israel retreated tomorrow. Just last [month], the southern portion of Israel was immobilized by rocket-fire from Gaza, even with Iron Dome in place. What would Beinart have us do? Move back to the Green Line so that Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the runways of Ben-Gurion Airport would also be in range?… Does Beinart believe that pulling back to the Green Line would end the armed resistance? Hezbollah and Hamas insist that it wouldn’t. Does he not believe them? Does he understand their intentions better than they themselves do? We don’t know, because he never even raises the subject of what the future might bring. The psychology precludes that.
The seemingly noble but tragic psychological logic of Beinart’s worldview goes like this: Good Jews do not occupy people. Therefore, for this unbearable conflict to continue violates our most basic Jewish sensibilities. And since, deep down, we know that Israel’s enemies are not going to compromise (and why should they, given that time and increasing numbers of Jews are on their side?), we must do whatever it takes to end it. Better that Israel should take the moral high road—even at great danger—so that we no longer feel shamed. The less they budge, the more we must. For the conflict must end at any cost.…
What Beinart and his movement owe those of us dubious about their proposals is an answer to these questions: Do you really believe that compromise on Israel’s part now will end the conflict? Do Fatah agreements with Hamas mean nothing? If peace will not come even when Israel retreats, what do you propose that Israel should do once rockets are launched from the West Bank, too? And perhaps most damning: Is it possible that when people espouse your position they give the Palestinians ever less reason to compromise, thus making war more likely, not less?
As the American Civil War raged, John Stuart Mill had this to say to Americans wearying of the conflict: “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral…feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
Sadly, some battles cannot be ended, and when they cannot, even if they occasionally shame us, they must be fought. Neither personal safety nor even absolute moral comfort are ultimate values. Any Jew with even a smidgeon of Jewish sensibility wishes that this simmering war could end. But we ignore John Stuart Mill at our own peril. Ending a war at any cost sounds noble, but it is cowardly. For if we cannot articulate that there are things worth fighting for—and yes, killing and dying for—then tragically, we are “miserable creatures who have no chance at being free.”
It was precisely that condition that Zionism sought to end. Thinking Jews dare not knowingly embrace it now.
A MISSIONARY IMPULSE
NY Times, April 13, 2012
“The Jews are like rats,” Peter Beinart’s grandmother told him when he was a boy. “We leave the sinking ship.” This grandmother—who was born in Egypt and lived in South Africa but dreamed of joining her brother in Israel—believed that Israel was the last refuge of a hounded people, and she made Beinart, who was born in the United States, believe it, too.
But Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic who now runs a blog called Open Zion, has a problem: he finds Israel, morally, a sinking ship. Instead of simply swimming away, he has written “The Crisis of Zionism,” in which he sets out to save the country by labeling many of its leaders racist, denouncing many of its American supporters as Holocaust-obsessed enablers and advocating a boycott of people and products from beyond Israel’s 1967 eastern border. While saving Israel, Beinart hopes with evangelical zeal to save America from a handful of Jewish organizations that in his view have not only hijacked American liberalism but also stolen the spine of the president of the United States, who, despite having received 78 percent of the Jewish vote, is powerless to pursue his own agenda.
Like a majority of Israelis, Beinart believes that it is depleting, degrading and dangerous for Israel to oversee the lives of millions of stateless Palestinians, and also like a majority of Israelis, he thinks the solution is the creation of a Palestinian state. But because he minimizes the cataclysmic impact of the second Intifada; describes Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza not as a gut-wrenching act of desperation but as a cynical ploy to continue the occupation by other means; belittles those who harp on a Hamas charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews the world over; and plays down the magnitude of the Palestinian demand for a right of return—not to a future Palestine but to Israel itself, which would destroy the Jewish state—he liberates his book from the practicalities of politics.
How you condense a thorny complexity into a short book says a great deal about your relationship to history—and to language. Beinart is especially good at invoking facts as a way of dismissing them. Thus Israel’s offer to withdraw from conquered land in 1967, and the Arab States’ declaration—“No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it”—becomes literally a parenthetical aside in which the Arabs’ “apparent refusal” made Israeli settlement “easier.”
Jews, Beinart insists, are failing what he calls “the test of Jewish power.” He does not mean by this that after millenniums of statelessness, Jews are slow to acknowledge the exigencies of force but something quite the opposite, which allows him to employ several formulations favored by anti-Semites, from the notion of a White House-crushing Israel lobby, and the observation that “privately, American Jews revel in Jewish power,” to the grotesque idea that “in the 1970s, American Jewish organizations began hoarding the Holocaust.…” In Beinart’s world…to worry about existential threats to a country the size of New Jersey, with fewer than eight million people living in a suicide-bombing nuclear age, is to surrender to “Jewish victimhood.…”
Though allowing that “there is some truth” to the argument that Palestinians have turned their back on past offers of a two-state solution, Beinart’s formula—“were Israel to permit the creation of a Palestinian state”—waves that away, establishing, through purely rhetorical means, that peace is Israel’s to bestow, and incidentally robbing Palestinians of any role in their own destiny. But then Beinart has little to say about Palestinians in any case.… He [likewise] pays scant attention to the larger Arab world, finding it easier to recast a Mideast struggle as an American-Israeli drama.…
Beinart has a missionary impulse toward Israel. His faith resides in “liberal ideals,” which he often makes synonymous with Judaism itself, or what Judaism ought to be. Thus we are told that Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t trust Barack Obama because “Obama reminds Netanyahu of what Netanyahu doesn’t like about Jews,” by which he means a sense of moral obligation. In a neat trick of replacement theology, Obama, referred to as “the Jewish president,” becomes the real Jew on whom election has fallen figuratively as well as literally. Netanyahu, meanwhile, languishes in an old and brutal dispensation, indulging in “the glorification of the ferocious Jews of antiquity.…” Beinart declares that we need “a new American Jewish story.…”
Beinart cites approvingly Israel’s declaration of statehood, read aloud by David Ben-Gurion in 1948. It promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Yet Ben-Gurion also decided to eliminate from that document any reference to Israel’s borders, because the Arabs were preparing to attack and he wasn’t fighting to defend rejected borders but to save his state. The written as well as the unwritten words form a kind of text and commentary that Israel still struggles to balance amid all the brute realities of an unforgiving region. Sometimes it does this well and sometimes badly, but the struggle itself is the hallmark of a civilization far beyond Peter Beinart’s Manichaean simplicities.
PETER BEINART’S FALSE PROPHECY
Tablet, March 26, 2012
“I wrote this book because of my grandmother, who made me a Zionist. And because of Khaled Jaber, who could have been my son.” So begins Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, and already you know he’s off to a bad start. Leave aside the oleaginous appeal to Grandma. The real question is: Someone named Khaled Jaber could have been Beinart’s son?
Sorry if I just can’t get past hello, but this curious little intro tells us something about the methods—factually cavalier and emotionally contrived—of the whole book. Here’s the story: Khaled Jaber is a young Palestinian boy whose father, Fadel, was arrested by Israelis in 2010 for stealing water.… The arrest—and Khaled’s frantic efforts to reach his “Baba” as he’s being hauled away—were caught on a video and later reported in the Israeli press.
The connection to Beinart is that Beinart’s son also calls him Baba. That’s it. Yet watching the video sparked in Beinart what he describes as a kind of Damascene conversion: “For most of my life,” he writes, “my reaction to accounts of Palestinian suffering has been rationalization, a search for reasons why the accounts are exaggerated or the suffering self-inflicted.… But in recent years, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I have been lowering my defenses, and Khaled’s cries left me staring in mute horror at my computer screen.”
This is disturbing, though not in the way Beinart intends. Many people form their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on snapshot impressions, often shorn of the most basic context. That’s a shame, but at least most of these people don’t go on to write books on the subject. Journalists, by contrast—and Beinart…currently teaches journalism at City University of New York—are supposed to, you know, dig deeper. Get the full picture. Go where the facts lead.
So, you might expect that Beinart would have made the effort to reach out to the Jabers, perhaps even by flying out and meeting them in person. Who is this family in whose name this book is ostensibly written? Are they supporters of peaceful co-existence with Israel or advocates of terrorism? Do they intend to vote for Fatah or Hamas at the next poll? Was Fadel’s arrest as unjustified as Beinart makes it seem? Is it true that Israel deprives Palestinians of their fair share of water rights? Would the Fadels be better off as farmers in a Palestinian state? What was the state of Palestinian agriculture—not to mention education, health, and infrastructure—before 1967?
These are real questions, worth exploring intelligently.… But in this book they are merely props in the drama known as Being Peter Beinart, the self-appointed anguished conscience and angry scold of the Jewish state.
* * *
…Beinart is the author of a June 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” Beinart’s basic thesis was that institutional U.S. Jewry has slavishly followed a right-wing line on Israel at the very moment when younger American Jews are becoming increasingly sympathetic to Palestinians, ashamed of the occupation, and appalled by what Zionism has become.
How many minutes elapsed between the Review publication and the signing of a contract with the publishing imprint of the New York Times I do not know. Clearly it wasn’t long enough. A few months after “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” first appeared…a team of scholars led by Brandeis’ Theodore Sasson released an exhaustive survey of American Jewish views toward Israel.… The Sasson study [found] a whopping 82 percent of American Jews feel that U.S. support for Israel is either “just about right” or “not supportive enough”—and that’s just among those Jews who describe themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal.” Among those calling themselves “middle of the road,” the figure rises to 94 percent. Regarding the settlements, just 26 percent of even liberal Jews think Israel should dismantle all of them; among moderates, the figure drops to 10 percent.…
To anyone reasonably familiar with the sensibilities of mainstream American Jewry, this finding probably comes as no surprise. How would Beinart deal with it in his book, I wondered? Would the Sasson data at least force him to tone down the thunder of denunciation he had hurled at a “failed” American Jewish establishment?… Would he dial back a little on the notion that an American Jewry that usually votes Democratic is also ripe to adopt the “progressive” line on Israel, too? Yet Beinart would not be toned down.…
* * *
Beinart’s habit of what is either inexplicable sloppiness or extreme interpretative elasticity turns out to be one of the defining characteristics of The Crisis of Zionism. In fact, one of the challenges of reviewing the book is that it practically demands a typology. Consider a few examples:
Elasticity of attribution: Describing the effects of Israel’s policy toward Gaza after Hamas’s election in 2006, Beinart writes that “the blockade shattered [Gaza’s] economy. By 2008, 90 percent of Gaza’s industrial complex had closed.” The source of this claim is a study conducted by the IMF—in 2003.
Of omission: Beinart quotes former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami telling Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that “If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well.” Yet Ben-Ami said in the same interview that Yasser Arafat “was morally, psychologically, physically incapable of accepting the moral legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of its borders or whatever.” This goes unquoted.…
Of consistency: Beinart acknowledges that “the populism sweeping the Middle East has unleashed frightening hostility against the Jewish state.” Yet in the same paragraph he writes: “The Egyptian leaders who have emerged in Hosni Mubarak’s wake are not calling for Israel’s destruction, let alone promising to take up arms in the cause.” Maybe Beinart should acquaint himself with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Essam El-Erian, currently head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Egyptian Parliament. “The earthquake of the Arab Spring will mark the end of the Zionist entity,” El-Erian said recently.
Of fact: Returning to the subject of Gaza, Beinart writes that the Strip “remains a place of brutal suffering.” This, he adds, is the case even after Israel eased its blockade following the Turkish flotilla business in 2010. Really? Here’s what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (whose politics track Beinart’s, but who also visits the places he writes about) had to say on that score in a July 2010 column: “Visiting Gaza persuaded me, to my surprise, that Israel is correct when it denies that there is any full-fledged humanitarian crisis in Gaza.…”
There’s more of this. Much more. In fact, the errors in Beinart’s book pile up at such a rate that they become almost impossible to track. Still, the deeper problem isn’t that there’s so much in Beinart’s book that is untrue, but rather so much that is half-true: the accurate quote used in a misleading way; the treatment of highly partisan sources as objective and unobjectionable; the settlement of ferocious debates among historians in a single, dismissive sentence; the one-sided giving—and withholding—of the benefit of the doubt; the “to be sure” and “of course” clauses that do more to erase balance than introduce it. It’s a cheap kind of slipperiness that’s hard to detect but leaves its stain on nearly every page.
* * *
Typically, books that are loose with the facts at least offer thought-provoking arguments. Here again The Crisis of Zionism fails us. Its early chapters—on what a sink of oppression, religious fanaticism, diplomatic foolishness, and moral blindness modern Israel has become—read like a slightly less turgid version of parts of The Israel Lobby.…
Then there is Beinart’s hysteria-fueled treatment of the Israeli political scene. His fundamental contention is that the growth of Jewish communities in the territories has effectively faded the Green Line to the point of near-invisibility. This is the sheerest bunk. The reason Ariel Sharon was reluctant to build the security barrier is that he understood it meant drawing a de facto border between Israel and the territories. But he built it anyway, just as he also decided to get Israel out of Gaza.…
The real problem for Beinart’s argument is that, in word and deed, Palestinians have repeatedly furnished good reasons for the Israeli (and American) right to argue against further territorial withdrawals, at least until something fundamental changes in Palestinian political culture. I supported disengagement from Gaza as editor of the Jerusalem Post. But it’s hard to argue that the results have been stellar in terms of what a Palestinian state portends.…
Beinart is singularly intent on scolding Israel.… To him, no Israeli misdeed is too small that it can’t serve as an alibi for Palestinian malfeasance. And no Palestinian crime is so great that it can justify even a moment’s pause in Israel’s quest to do right by its neighbor.…
In Beinart’s world, then, Israel has no real mortal enemies—other than itself. Would that it were so…but that’s not how it is. That wasn’t the hand dealt to the Jews of 1948 when they fought…their way to statehood. That hasn’t been the deal with which Israelis have lived ever since. Maybe Beinart imagines that his own treasured Zionist legacy—the one he learned on his grandmother’s knee—exists in some sealed compartment, translucent and softly glowing. I suspect his grandmother knows better.
Here, then, is the core problem with The Crisis of Zionism: It is not a work of political analysis. It is an act of moral solipsism. It shows no understanding that the essence of statesmanship is the weighing of various unpalatable alternatives. Instead, the book imagines that politics is merely a matter of weighing “right” against “wrong,” both words defined in exclusively moral terms, and always choosing “right.” This is…to misunderstand the nature of all politics. It is to completely miss the fundamental purpose of the Jewish state, which is to no longer be at the mercy of someone else’s choice of evils. Or, to put it cute: Israel exists so that the Chosen People might suffer a little less as a Choosing People.…