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
“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 after being repeatedly denied access to pipes serving a nearby settlement. 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 is a former editor of the New Republic who 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. The answers might be flattering to Israel. Or they might not be. But you won’t learn a thing about them here. The Jaber family arrives in Beinart’s story on page 1 and exits it on page 3, never to be heard from again. Beinart might think of them (or, perhaps, think he thinks of them) as flesh-and-blood people. 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.
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As readers of Tablet are surely aware, 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—based primarily on the testimony of a Frank Luntz focus group—a team of scholars led by Brandeis’ Theodore Sasson released an exhaustive survey of American Jewish views toward Israel.
The Sasson study was to Beinart’s thesis approximately what Fat Man was to the city of Nagasaki. 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. Generationally speaking, there even seems to be a rightward tilt among younger Jews. Consider Jerusalem: 58 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 oppose re-dividing it. Just 51 percent of their parents and grandparents feel the same way.
“Political differences on the liberal-to-conservative continuum were unrelated to measures of attachment to Israel,” Sasson and his colleagues noted dryly, adding that these attitudes have pretty much held steady over 24 years of polling. Liberal as American Jews might be when it comes to domestic U.S. politics, on Israel their views tend to be fairly conservative.
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 that, to outsiders at least, appears to be remarkably (some would say excessively) diverse, robust, well-financed and influential? 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?
UPDATED: Many conference attendees stand to the left of the official party line; some support the boycott of products made in West Bank settlements