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Lightning Rod

Admired or reviled—but never ignored—how has Peter Beinart created a firestorm with well-worn ideas about Israel and American Jews?

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Beinart at the 2011 J Street Conference. (J Street/Flickr)
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Peter Beinart’s False Prophecy

The Crisis of Zionism, his book arguing that the Israeli occupation alienates young American Jews, is sloppy with facts and emotionally contrived

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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Beinart came to prominence simply because his anti-Israel, woe-is-me rhetoric is pushed and prodded by the anti-Israel-leftist media, such s the New York Times and those who support Obama’s version of Middle East reality. He found a niche that has alot of money to promote his false narrative. He is no more a folk hero than the anti-Semitic race baiting Al Sharpton is a true man of God.

Geoff M says:

Marty Peretz is right, at least about the narcissism (I can’t and won’t comment on Beinart’s mother).

Essentially, Beinart is dismayed that Israel is not the liberal Jewtopia of his dreams, an upper West Side on the Mediterranean, and it is up to enlightened, liberal, American Jews to show Israel the light. This will, of course, entail Israelis to “take risks” for peace, not that Beinart nor his ilk will ever have to suffer any of the consequences of said risks. I dare Beinart to visit the people of Sderot or Ashdod and ask them to take more risks for peace.

And of course, in Beinart’s world, history only started with the coming of Obama, because apparently Israel has done nothing to try and end the occupation, like offering the Palestinians a state multiple times or pulling out of Gaza.

And in fact, it would seem that the Palestinians barely exist in Beinart’s world, because in his telling, only Israel is the problem, and if only the settlements were removed, Peace, ushered in by the first “Jewish” president, of course, would be at hand.

The only reason why Beinart is at all taken seriously is because progressive Jews have managed to simultaneously develop an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and oppression; in their tiny little minds, only they know the true path to peace, but the overbearing Jewish establishment just won’t listen to them.

Beinart’s anti-Israeli biases and worse are evident in his failure to apply the same criteria and basis for judging the Palestinians as he does of Israel.

Does he speak of “non-democratic Palestinian territories” or “non-democratic Gaza”?

Does he expect the same efforts at negotiations and peacemaking from the Palestinians?

And does he propose the same economic boycotts etc.?

Rob Willingham says:

eli,

Of course there’s a double standard, because we and Israel insist that it is different from the other countries around it. That’s why we’re such close allies, because we share the same values, right? So, don’t we get to say when we don’t?

BTW, thank you for making your point without calling Beinart a self-loathing jew or a fool. Some people seem to have a problem with that.

ronnie says:

His current twistings sadden me. I did like and respect him. NO MORE

Jill Zimmerman says:

Good for you Allison. Great writing. I absolutely refuse to go to name calling and dissing people’s mothers. Peter’s article hit a raw nerve because it resonates with so many of us. Attacking him doesn’t make those issues go away. The issues are real. And can we please have an adult conversation based on the Jewish value that each one of us is made in the image of god? We tear each other apart more than our “enemies” do. My deepest prayer for our Jewish community is to learn how to speak to one another with respect. Otherwise we are doomed.

bennybenben says:

So we shouldn’t take Beinart seriously because he’s a cocky, self-involved, simpleton with mommy issues? Oh and he’s American too? It’s funny that a piece about Peter Beinart bemoans the fixation of Peter Beinart, and it’s really funny that this appears in Tablet, where “personal history” pieces stack up daily. It’s sad that someone like Leon Wieseltier can’t just agree that we should boycott the settlements – for the future of the Jewish state, and not as a referendum on “Who’s really at fault?”. People seem to content to bemoan the complexity of the situation as a way of avoiding difficult choices. Yes – the Palestinians are guilty. Now, what should we do about it?

For Zlota says:

I don’t really know how to grapple with this without it feeling personal.

Let’s imagine that Beinart’s idea takes root and a boycott of settlements forces Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, thus making the peace treaty/two-state solution happen.

Aside from the critical security issues, as in having an al-Qaeda affiliate on the border, what happens to the settlers now? Can they continue to live in the West Bank under the PA? Can they continue to fulfill their religious mandate, if that’s what it is, and continue to live on ancestral Jewish land? Or will they have to evacuate? Even asking the question shows naivete. Of course, the West Bank will be Jew-free, with the silence of the likes of Beinart to support it. After all, you can’t ask the Arabs to accept Jewish citizens of their state as equals, can you? Even to ask the question is to reveal oneself as hopelessly naive, or whatever.

I’m no expert on settlers and settlements, but I think they’d take a deal with the Arabs that gave them the land in return for full citizenship rights and full protection of their civil and religious rights on the West Bank. Something like what the “flawed democracy” (Beinart dixit) across the border has always given Arab, Muslim, and Christian Israeli citizens.

The fact that this sounds like utter fantasy shows up Beinart’s militant hypocrisy more than anything else. He should be calling for a boycott of the PA until it reverses its racist policies and its racist incitement against Jews.

Morris says:

what makes Bienart so smart that he can tell Israelis how to surrender and put themselves in the dangerous position as before 1967.IF some millions of Jews once again are killed because of a weak self defense will Mt. Bienart shrug his shoulder and say he was wrong ?

Yes, the Jewish American community is taking Jews of the cliff, but it’s also taking the 98% American Gentile community with it, not that it matters.

Jewish American community is taking Jews of cliff, but it’s also taking 98% American Gentile community with it, not that it matters.

HannaH says:

These liberal jews who hate Israel. Wish to beloved by the left wing .American and Israeli haters friends. They don’t mind having Israeli or American blood on their hands. Then again I believe before World War II. Several Jews in Norway or Sweden put Hitler’s name up for the Nobel Peace Prize

Jerome says:

I do not understand the animus that greets Beinart and others who deign to suggest one can be pro-Israel and anti-settlement. The ad hominem attacks on him scream of desparation and the inability to reasonably assess the arguments he makes.

Did Marty Peretz really criticize Peter Beinart’s mama?

Why didn’t Marty just call Beinart an “anti-Semite”, “self-hating Jew”, “crypto-Nazi”, or “fag” and just get it over with? Marty’s done it for others…

Beinart makes a big deal of his Orthodox persuasion. He must see this as providing unassailable cred for his weaselly so-called opinions. Instead, he gives Orthodox Judaism, or any Judaism, for that matter, a bad name, if it’s associated with his own. What possible difference could his personal religious beliefs, and his personal parenting choices with respect to religion, make for the argument he wants us to believe? This is just one more way he reveals his character, or lack of it.

Beinart and the like are key details in understanding the US cultural establishment. A nation that allows Beinart and the like to take over public debate on issues has lost its bearings. How did we let pathetic know-nothing nobodies like Beinart, et al, get away with highjacking the debate on anything at all, let alone about Isreal/Palestine?

David Mozes says:

Dear Jill Zimmerman,
I share your view that a reasoned discussion of the issues at hand best serves all of us.
I invite you to consider the writings of Martin Sherman(www.martinsherman.net)Mr Sherman’s analysis reflects a awareness of history and the reality we face. Mr Beinart is simply and profoundly misinformed and un-informed about the realities of Israel and our Arab/Muslim neighbors here. In plain NYC English, “Mr Beinart doesn’t know what the heck is talking about”.
I am writing to you from my apartment in Nahariya, 11 kilometers from Lebanon. I’ll be riding my bike up to the border tomorrow morning. Join me and we can talk about this at a little greater length and depth.Shabbat shalom

Jill Zimmerman says:

Dear David mozes — thank you for your words. Marty Sherman was here in LA for awhile and spoke at a class at Hebrew union college that my husband attends for the community. He found him very compelling and intelligent. I remember my husband telling me that Sherman’s arguments led him to think in a broader way. We haven’t been back to Israel since we lived there for a year in 2004-5 but hope to visit again soon. I welcome the discussion with you. Have a wonderful pesach. Thank you for adding civility to this conversation. I have no more patience for the divisiveness in our Jewish community.

David A says:

Geoff M’s comments are brilliant. Peter Beinart is another leftist American Jew who is clueless about the realities of the Mideast. He is asking Israelis to endanger themselves in order to indulge his fantasies about what it takes to bring peace to the Mideast. He is in love with his own press clippings and has no respect for Israeli democracy. What is fashionable in the Upper West Side is not healthy for Jews who in the State of Israel who have to face the consequences of empowering genocidal Arab regimes and terrorist groups.

I don’t think Mr. Beinart’s ideas are anti-Israel, and they’re certainly not anti-Jewish, either — unless you subscribe to a Judaism that insists that Israel somehow “belongs” to American Jews as much as it belongs to the Israelis. I think his statements have a lot less to say about Zionism and a lot more about class, exclusion, and the clique-y-ness of the American Jewish Establishment in general — and heaven help anyone who dares to question that status quo.

My earliest real Israeli memory was being taken seriously by my mother, for my reaction to reports of the Yom Kippur War. I was ten, and had discovered Ghandi and Thoreau and realized that war simply didn’t make sense as a viable solution to conflict. I creid out loud atreports of Jews and Arabs slaughtering each other over a strip of land the size of Delaware, and wondered why they couldn’t look for a large piece of land where both could live alongside each other in peace. My very Jewish mother, the torchbearer of Yiddishkeit in my mostly secular and splitered family, held me in her lap and dried my tears, and told me that she hoped my generation would teach the world how to create that peace.

Obviously, my parents didn’t raise me to be a Zionist.
Does that make me less of a Jew? I don’t think so. Obviously, there may a huge difference of opinion on that point. The American Jewish Establishment is in danger of alienating a whole generation of American Jews who will insist on creating their Jewish culture instead of simply consuming it.

Matthew says:

The fact that most of the Jewish establishment spends much more energy on attacking Peter Beinart than actually working for a durable 2SS(which includes taking down and halting settlements!) speaks volumes about their true agenda: doing absolutely nothing and saying it’s all “too complicated” to deal with so we must contend with the status quo.

That’s called blind loyalty and it’s undoing the 2SS for every day that goes by. But these people don’t seem to care as long as they get their snide remarks about Beinart into a piece or two.

And these people call themselves ‘liberal Zionists’? Please.

esthermiriam says:

“…leading journal of the American Jewish liberal political class.” Describing The New Republic?! What has the author of this article been smoking?

It is naive for Beinart and friends to be filled with moral indignation and to talk with such great passion and certainty about rights under international law which is really akin to a discussion about rights, in which there is always an awful lot to be said for Jews, the Jewish People and Israel. In particular, the doctrine of “belligerent occupation” is perhaps more realistically to be seen as a small hillock of public international law in comparison with the towering alps of the aboriginal, treaty and self-determination rights of the Jewish People to its ancestral homeland, where some Jews have lived in each and every year since the ethnogenesis of the Jewish People some 26 centuries ago. A Palestinian People self-identified as such after 1960. This new Palestinian People also has a right to self-determination, but is entirely without aboriginal or treaty rights. The Palestinian People’s right to self-determination cannot possibly extend to lands which at this moment are principally inhabited by Jews. Nor is past, present or future Jewish settlement between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea illicit or illegal under international law. The Jewish People’s rights between the Jordan River and the Sea were clearly recognized and set out in a series of declarations, resolutions and treaties from 1917 to 1922, which were later endorsed by the Turkish Republic as successor to the Ottoman Empire. And, treaties are without doubt the highest source of public international law. There is assuredly a territorial dispute there, but Beinart and his left-liberal friends are wrong to be so judgmental about the phenomenon of Jews living in their native land.

Joseph says:

Keeping the entire West Bank or continuing to expand the settlements will only lead to an Apartheid situation. How could it be otherwise?

Michael says:

Joe, it could, but not in the way you think. Keeping the entire west bank would absorb another 3 million Arabs into the 1 million already in Israel. In a few generations, higher birthrates would lead the Arabs to outnumber the Jews in Israel, and they could democratically take control of the nation. At that point, you could have one of two situations. The likely one is that you would have a Lebanon-type situation, where both Arab and Jewish political parties are powerful, and both Arabs and Jews take high positions in government. The unlikely, but still very possible, situation is where you have an Iraq or Egypt situation where the Jews become a persecuted minority and eventually they just start leaving.

Ehud says:

The critique that Peter Beinart uses his Israeli brethren as pawns to satisfy his own moral vanity to engender greater comfort on the Upper West Side is predicated on the notion that his views are not in perfect alignment with massive numbers of Israelis.

It’s one thing to disagree with anti-settlement advocates of a two-state solution, and to take issue with the means by which they have achieved influence. But hurling vitriol at them, or making disingenuous arguments to belittle them suggests that you don’t disagree so much as you feel threatened.

And maybe you do. Some would argue that more land = more security, while others think security can be exchanged for land. Israel, in its democratic wisdom, has opted for the former. I pray that it works.

Rob H says:

Beinart supported the war in Iraq from the position of a ‘liberal hawk,’ seeing it as a “struggle to protect the United States by spreading freedom in the Muslim world.”

He eventually recanted his silly utopian vision of “spreading freedom,” and admitted he was duped by Bush. So one can easily surmise that in order to maintain street cred, he had to stake his claim to something that would readmit him to the progressive ranks on Middle East politics. And these days, that happens to be utterly misguided criticism of Israel.

Since Beinart was a cheerleader for the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq, I have to wonder if he’ll ever get around to assessing that misguided war’s impact on Israel. After all, with Saddam out of the way, there were (and still are) many actors attempting to keep Iran at bay, including, of course, Israel.

As a strong supporter of the Iraq War, does Beinart take an iota of responsibility for its repercussions on the balance of power in the Middle East? Does he connect these dots at all in his shallow analysis?

Of course not. That would require some real thinking and self-reflection. Instead, in his zeal, he gives us more utopian visions for the Middle East.

Meet the new Beinart, same as the old Beinart.

Oren says:

“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.” Why? If Beinart really believes that the failure of Zionist democracy would be “one of the greatest tragedies of [his] life,” and really wants to work on preventing that failure, then the only place to do that is in Israel, as a direct participant, not an outside observer. Nesi’a tova, Peter, u’behatzlaha.

emunadate says:

boycotting products produced in the settlements is a very dangerous card to play. has Beinart taken a good look at the israel’s borders and what Obama is suggesting? http://emunadate.blogspot.com/2011/01/israels-critical-security-needs-for.html

Oudtshoorn says:

Nonsense.   Read your history.   When the Arabs agree that we have a right to live in peace in our own land, THEN the settlements will go.   Right now they are a necessary protection, and you should know that.   The West Bank is Israel’s unwanted empire, gained because the Arabs keep on instigating wars against the Jews.   When they promise to let us live in peace, they can have their land back.   Just as, when they  promise to stop suicide-bombing Jews and buses and civilians in Israel, The Wall will also go.   Wake up.

OK the Arabs want to destroy Israel, as they openly say themselves. The PLO was formed in 1964 prior to any occupation in Gaza or the west bank should clarify any doubts anyone may have. How about an adult answer to the reality of the destruction of Israel and the desire for genocide by our completely unprogressive enemies and why some Jews refuse to acknowledge this fact?

Any article that labels the New Israeli Fund as assisting progressive causes makes me cautious. The NIF has funded Israel’s enemies and it’s detractors on a regular basis. To suggest it is pro Israel is delusional.

shalomfn says:

Beinart ignores the basic reality of the conflict Israel is engaged in. He ignores completely the wishes and actions of the ‘other side’. He supposes it is for Israel alone to make Peace with all its logical rational and humane partners. But Nasrallah, Assad, Abbas. Khalid Maashal and a few others like Ahmadinejad and Khameini have a different idea

As if Jews dont have enough enemies that hate us, we need the Beinarts, Chomskys, Finkelsteins, J streeters, these Jewish (dont call them Jewish self haters) are Jew haters pure and simple. These anti jewish jews dont have an inkling of the tragic Jewish history of 4000 yrs. It’s a miracle that Jews are still sipping tea in Jerusalem and New York! All of these Chomskyites, Soros >Tzouris guys could have worked for Hitlers “DER STERMER”!

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Lightning Rod

Admired or reviled—but never ignored—how has Peter Beinart created a firestorm with well-worn ideas about Israel and American Jews?

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