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
To all this Beinart’s considered reply seems to be: Whatever. Israel, he says, is a “regional superpower” that can dispatch its enemies almost with the flick of a finger. I can’t swear that Beinart never devotes more than a sentence to Iran’s nuclear capabilities (the review copy I used for this essay lacks an index). But I am pretty sure he doesn’t give the subject more than a paragraph, and certainly not a whole page. It’s true he makes a fuller case when writing about delegitimization and anti-Semitism. But here, too, he’s dismissive of the idea that there’s any real problem: “The main reason Israel generates disproportionate criticism from leftist academics, artists and labor unionists, not to mention the General Assembly of the United Nations, is not because it’s a Jewish state but because it’s perceived as a Western one,” he explains. So, now you know that the General Assembly’s 1975 “Zionism is Racism” resolution really wasn’t aimed at the Jews at all.
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In Beinart’s world, then, Israel has no real mortal enemies—other than itself. Would that it were so.
Would that the happy outcome of Jewish statehood after 2,000 years of exile were the elevation of all politics to a form of ethics, and vice versa. Would that Israel be renamed Altneuland, after Theodor Herzl’s fable. Would that Israel’s politicians all be wise and just and its generals all kind and fair. Would that Israel’s enemies answer conciliation with conciliation. Would that Israel’s friends were true in fair weather and foul.
But that’s not how it is. That wasn’t the hand dealt to the Jews of 1948 when they fought—and shot, and killed and, yes, sometimes murdered—their way to statehood. That hasn’t been the deal with which Israelis have lived ever since. Maybe Beinart imagines that his own treasured Zionist legacy—the one he learned on his grandmother’s knee—exists in some sealed compartment, translucent and softly glowing. I suspect his grandmother knows better.
Here, then, is the core problem with The Crisis of Zionism: It is not a work of political analysis. It is an act of moral solipsism. It shows no understanding that the essence of statesmanship is the weighing of various unpalatable alternatives. Instead, the book imagines that politics is merely a matter of weighing “right” against “wrong,” both words defined in exclusively moral terms, and always choosing “right.”
This is the greatest half-truth in which Beinart traffics: the notion that because politics has an ethical dimension, it is therefore a branch—a subordinate branch—of ethics. It isn’t. It is in the nature of political life that 1) its most decisive moments always involve a choice of evils; 2) that choosing the lesser evil still involves choosing an evil; and, 3) most important, that one can never know with certainty that the choice made was, in fact, the lesser evil. To imagine things otherwise is not only to misunderstand the nature of all politics. It is to completely miss the fundamental purpose of the Jewish state, which is to no longer be at the mercy of someone else’s choice of evils. Or, to put it cute: Israel exists so that the Chosen People might suffer a little less as a Choosing People.
This brings us to the occupation. For the sake of argument, let’s allow that everything Beinart says about it—the indignities it inflicts on Palestinians, its corrosive effects on Israeli values and democracy—is true. Does that alone make for a compelling argument for withdrawal?
A serious person would have to give this subject some serious thought. But not Beinart: Such is the cancer of occupation, in his view, that any kind of surgery that removes it will do. That includes his prescription to apply a limited form of the boycott-divestment-sanctions campaign—call it BDS lite—against Israeli settlements, a suggestion that he admits makes him “cringe.” His hope is to draw a line between the condemnation the settlements fairly deserve and what the current BDS campaign unfairly does to Israel as a whole. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that his idea amounts to another squeaky note in the blasting chorus that is modern-day Israel bashing.
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This has been a harsh review. Perhaps not harsh enough. This isn’t because there’s nothing worth reading in the book—I commended Beinart’s chapter on Obama’s education in Jewish radicalism in a recent column—but because there’s a book called The Crisis of Zionism that really does need to be written.
What would such a book be like? It can’t be a Peacenik’s Complaint. It can’t be a Likudnik’s Lament, either.
What such a book would do, however, is understand that Israel today is a country besieged by real enemies and phony friends. It would appreciate that the purpose of Israel is to defend its citizens, not to make Diaspora Jews feel upstanding. It would attend to Israel’s internal dilemmas, social, ethnic, and economic, which lack the cachet of “the conflict” but are arguably of greater potency. It would cock a listening ear to the conversations of the Arab world and consider carefully the implications of present upheavals. It would not treat the choices of the Israeli electorate with derision or elected leaders as mere boobs and knaves. It would be carefully reported and scrupulously fact-checked. As for “the conflict,” it would be sensible that in the event of a return to the 1967 borders, another day would come, and Israel would find that it had merely traded one set of unpalatable realities for another. This is not an argument for or against withdrawal. It is a plea for an intelligent argument, written in something other than a spirit of icy contempt and patent insincerity.
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UPDATED: Many conference attendees stand to the left of the official party line; some support the boycott of products made in West Bank settlements