Admired or reviled—but never ignored—how has Peter Beinart created a firestorm with well-worn ideas about Israel and American Jews?
In May 2010, just as the relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was moving from chilly to frozen over the announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem, the New York Review of Books published an essay by Peter Beinart, the former editor of the New Republic, provocatively titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” In just under 5,000 words, Beinart argued that by continuing to abet Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, American Jewish leaders risked alienating an entire generation of young Jews who found the occupation to be morally odious and fundamentally incompatible with their liberal politics.
The essay dropped at a moment when the establishment Beinart targeted was more anxious than it has perhaps ever been about its relevance. The longtime leaders of the largest Jewish organizations—the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the like—found themselves sidelined by a White House that seemed determined to pressure Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and saw little use in building bridges with people who were unlikely to be supportive. They were made doubly anxious by the sudden emergence of J Street, the upstart dovish Israel advocacy group whose leader, Jeremy Ben Ami, told the New York Times that he was Obama’s new “blocking back” on the Hill.
Beinart—whose most significant previous foray into writing about domestic Jewish issues was a 1999 essay for the Atlantic about day schools—hit a perennial raw nerve: the acute and age-old fear among a graying generation about what kind of Jews their children and grandchildren will turn out to be. But he pushed the argument a step further with his claim that their failure to publicly condemn the occupation threatened the future health not just of the American Jewish community, but of the Jewish state these leaders had devoted their careers to defending.
The firestorm was instant. Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, responded immediately, and indignantly, in the Review; over at the New Republic, Beinart’s former colleague Leon Wieseltier rued what he argued was Beinart’s blinkered and simplistic view of the situation. In Commentary, Noah Pollak decried Beinart’s “public apostasy” and accused him of selling out his Zionism to satisfy his liberal friends. The attention catapulted Beinart onto Charlie Rose, the advisory board of the left-wing Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, and the masthead of the Daily Beast, where earlier this month he launched a new Israel-themed blog called Zion Square.
The response seemed to suggest that Beinart was saying something profoundly new about the predicament facing the Jewish state. But in fact, plenty of other, better-known commentators had consistently made similarly aggressive stands against the status quo in Israel. New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen have vociferously accused Netanyahu, with the help of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, of making Israel into a pariah state by undermining the Obama Administration’s early efforts to jump-start the peace process. Last fall, the American-born Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg released The Unmaking of Israel, a jeremiad arguing that the 45-year Israeli occupation has been a cancer on the country’s body politic; the book scored a glowing endorsement in the New York Times Book Review from Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg.
And yet Beinart remains the only critic of the Israeli occupation to have become a sort of folk hero; at last year’s J Street Conference, participants could buy T-shirts with Beinart’s face rendered Shepard Fairey-style above the slogan “Beinart’s Army.” Ben Ami said recently that Beinart, who will debut the book-length version of his essay at this weekend’s J Street confab, is “the troubadour of our movement.” Indeed, Beinart’s name—including in parts of the Israeli government—is now synonymous with the idea that Israel’s policies are a wedge that will ultimately alienate liberal American Jews from their increasingly right-wing Israeli brethren.
For a younger audience whose template for the Israeli-American relationship is Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, and “Shalom, haver,” Beinart makes a perfect Cassandra. He is the former editor of the leading journal of the American Jewish liberal political class, a grandson of Holocaust refugees, and the son of South African Jews who left for the United States rather than raise their children under apartheid. He’s a Yale graduate who keeps kosher, doesn’t go out on Friday nights, sends his kids to a Jewish school, and goes to an Orthodox shul every week. Not incidentally, Beinart is also a former star of the AIPAC lecture circuit who commanded handsome fees speaking at events across the country as recently as 2008. “It matters that he was the wunderkind editor of the New Republic, that he was a neocon when it comes to Israel, that he was from a Jewish background,” said Daniel Sokatch, the head of the New Israel Fund, which funds progressive organizations in Israel. “Peter was in the right place at the right time, and he was the right guy.”
It’s not clear how many people Beinart speaks for, but there’s no question that he has captured and channeled the anxieties of people on all sides of the issue. Even his fiercest detractors concede he has a genius for publicity. But on an issue that many people have devoted their lives to, some see Beinart as a Johnny-come-lately. “Peter’s a quick study, but some things you can’t study quickly,” Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, told me. “He had a hit, and ran with it.”
Until fairly recently, Beinart was most famous as the author of multiple apologias disavowing the support he gave, when he was still editor of the New Republic, to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Like so many hawkish American liberals who found themselves backing the Bush Administration’s policies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, only to reverse themselves after the revelations from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Beinart now desperately wants to be on the right side of Middle East history. In The Crisis of Zionism, he explicitly connects younger Jews’ rejection of the Iraq War to their opposition to Israel’s foray into Gaza in late 2008: The essence of his case is that American Jews like him are as horrified to discover YouTube videos depicting the brutish realities of the Israeli occupation as they were by the realization that Saddam Hussein really didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.
Beinart focuses on one video in particular, of a Palestinian child screaming as his father is arrested by Israeli police on suspicion of stealing water from a settlement near his village. The little boy, Beinart writes, keeps howling, “Baba”—coincidentally, the same name Beinart’s own son, once unable to pronounce the Hebrew word “Abba,” calls him. This, he says, is what forced him to speak up against the occupation: his desire to prevent a day when he feels he cannot in good faith teach his young children, who have an Israeli flag hanging in their nursery, to be proud Zionists as well as committed Jews.
His critics contend that they want exactly the same thing—and have diametrically opposite views of how best to protect Israel, and the idea of Israel, for the next generation. “I have a son who lives in Israel, not on the Upper West Side, and he lives with a gas mask,” said David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, one of the organizations Beinart criticizes most fiercely in his book for, he argues, betraying its foundational commitment to human rights by defending Israel’s occupation.
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