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
Yet Beinart would not be toned down. Findings such as Sasson’s, he wrote, “are misleading because they include only those Jews who identify by religion, and a growing number of the least Israel-attached young American Jews identify only culturally.” (My emphasis.)
Interesting if true. Except it isn’t true. Reviewing the original Sasson study’s statement on methodology, one comes across the following:
“Jewish respondents were initially identified by a question about religion. In addition, two items were asked of panel members of no religion in March 2010: whether respondents considered themselves Jewish for any reason and whether they had a Jewish mother or father. … In total, the sample eligible for analysis consisted of 1,243 respondents, of whom 1,089 were Jewish by religion and 154 were Jewish by other criteria.”
If Beinart wants to argue that the Sasson study should have sampled a greater number of “cultural Jews,” fine. That’s a discussion worth having. But to use the word “only” when he means “mostly” should alert readers that no assertion of fact in The Crisis of Zionism can be taken at face value.
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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.
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. I suspect that’s because Beinart found it in The Israel Lobby by political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, which also quotes the first part of Ben-Ami’s statement but not the second.
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.
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. The tunnels have so undermined the Israeli blockade that shops are filled and daily life is considerably easier than when I last visited here two years.”
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.
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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. In case you haven’t heard, the settlements are corrupting Israel’s soul. In case you haven’t heard, Israel is a “flawed democracy” within the ’67 borders but an “ethnocracy” in the territories. In case you haven’t heard, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000 wasn’t all that generous. In case you haven’t heard, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama aren’t the world’s best friends. In case you haven’t heard, it’s still two minutes to midnight in the ever-ticking demographic time bomb.
UPDATED: Many conference attendees stand to the left of the official party line; some support the boycott of products made in West Bank settlements