Admired or reviled—but never ignored—how has Peter Beinart created a firestorm with well-worn ideas about Israel and American Jews?
The main problem with Beinart’s argument, Harris told me, was that it seemed designed to be maximally appealing to people who don’t want to confront the ethical complexity of the situation as it stands today—people who want Israel to make itself easier for them to love. “The AJC is an organization that has been committed to a two-state solution since Peter was in elementary school,” Harris went on. “And Peter seems to think that there’s an easy way to get there that Israel hasn’t taken, and therefore Israel engages in these ugly practices.” He laid out the familiar narrative: Israel won the Palestinian territories fair and square in a war it did not choose to fight; Israel has tried, perhaps imperfectly but nevertheless seriously, to reach peace with the Palestinians; the Palestinians have repeatedly found reasons to reject any deal. “For some reason Peter and his cohorts don’t see this, or see it and dismiss it,” Harris said. “But I see it—and not because I’m against a two-state agreement or because I enjoy Israeli occupation.”
To Beinart, that kind of on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other thinking is exactly what has left the American Jewish community paralytic in the face of an increasingly untenable status quo in Israel. He says it was the recent rightward turn of Israeli politics with the election of Netanyahu in 2009—especially in the wake of the mobilization of so many young American Jews for Obama in the 2008 election— that inspired him to write his essay in the first place. “The election of Obama and of this Israeli government put things in sharper relief than they’d been before,” he told me. “When I saw that [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman’s emergence was provoking no outcry from the organized Jewish world, it felt to me that the organized Jewish community had essentially accepted a Zionism that would go wherever the Israeli government wanted to go.” To Beinart, Obama and Netanyahu represented two opposite, incompatible political poles. “It seemed Obama and Netanyahu’s agendas were going to be radically different,” he told me, “so, supporting one meant not supporting the other.”
It’s understandable that young liberal Jews would welcome Beinart’s ability to act as a lightning rod. The problem is that the discussion has increasingly become about Beinart, and not about Israel’s policies. That’s partly a reflection of the poverty of debate within American Jewry when it comes to Israel, and the deep structural questions facing the community. “The American Jewish institutional world is terrible, plain unadulterated terrible,” said Michael Steinhardt, the hedge-fund manager and philanthropist behind Birthright Israel. “So, when Peter says something, whether it’s right or not, it sounds fresh and new.”
Some of Beinart’s critics have also been more than happy to make the whole thing personal. “It’s a narcissistic book, and the narcissism of privileged and haughty people is never particularly attractive,” Martin Peretz, the former owner of the New Republic and Beinart’s earliest patron, told me. “I always knew he was a very vain man, but a lot of us are vain, and if you had his mother, or if I had his mother, I’d be even more vain than I am.” Peretz put on a mocking falsetto—“this is the most brilliant boy, he’s so smart, he’s so touching”—before going on: “It’s a Jewish mother situation. You can use that—even if it makes me sound a little bitchy.”
It does. Still, there is something fundamentally self-regarding about the way Beinart often goes about making his case. In his book, Beinart asserts that the failure of Zionist democracy would be “one of the greatest tragedies of my life.” It may be too much to expect that Beinart, and others who are as concerned about Israel’s future, pick up their lives and move to the Levant, but it’s striking that his argument isn’t directed at Israelis—the people enfranchised with the power to either betray or redeem the idea of Israel that Beinart loves. They aren’t addressed in his book at all. It’s another example of what Gorenberg recently ridiculed as the desert island effect in American Jewish debate about Israel—conducted at a sanctimonious, comfortable remove. “Obviously, someone arguing 6,000 miles away about our politics is less interesting to Israelis than arguing about our own politics,” Gorenberg told me when we spoke.
Beinart responds that American Jews, and more broadly, American liberals, have their own role to play by exerting their leverage in Washington. In our conversation, he talked about pressuring American lawmakers. “I just so wish that we had one brave, mainstream Jewish member of Congress who would be willing to stand up, for the sake of their conscience, to say for the sake of their children or grandchildren that they believe the course on Israel is a disaster,” he told me. “A Waxman, Berman, Feinstein, Lowey—that they’ll just say screw it, that they’ll see the writing on the wall and say, ‘We can’t do this.’ ” In their absence, he added, there are ways for concerned Americans to act beyond Washington—specifically by stigmatizing what he calls “non-democratic Israel,” the territory beyond the Green Line—by boycotting products made in the settlements.
To some ears, that sounds too easy. “I have no problem with a boycott of the settlers—I’ve been conducting a personal boycott of their products for decades,” said Wieseltier. “But Peter’s not making any really inconvenient demands on anybody.” At the end of our chat, Beinart said that his goal was simply to curate an open debate. “I don’t think we’re going to be having this discussion forever,” he replied. “There will be some point in the future when the two-state solution either will happen or it won’t.” He likened the American Jewish community to Wile E. Coyote, racing off the edge of the cliff. “No one will want to look down,” he told me. “I don’t know at that point whether I’ll have the heart or the stomach to be part of it.”
Correction, March 23: This article previously described Beinart as a “secular Jew who attends Orthodox services.”
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