Peter Beinart Responds
The author of the The Crisis of Zionism strikes back at criticism of his controversial new book about Israel and American Jews
When someone calls you “an angry ex” and an “angry scold” and says your book is an “act of moral solipsism” written in “a spirit of icy contempt and patent insincerity,” it is tough to know where to begin.
Indeed, much of Bret Stephens’ long and vitriolic review of my book, The Crisis of Zionism, in these pages is just invective. Stephens actually begins by attacking empathy. In response to my saying that Khaled Jaber, a Palestinian boy whose father was arrested for trying to bring water to his village, “could have been my son,” Stephens points out: “The connection to Beinart is that Beinart’s son also calls him Baba. That’s it.” Yes, that’s it. Watching a boy my son’s age—who calls his father the same name my son calls me—scream hysterically for his father, unjustly arrested by police from the Jewish state that I love, had a powerful effect on me. Am I supposed to apologize for that?
Stephens criticizes me for not flying out to meet the Jabers. “Nothing in The Crisis of Zionism,” he writes, “suggests that Beinart ever set foot outside of his study to write this book.” But Stephens is making a basic mistake about my book. Unlike Gershom Gorenberg’s recently published The Unmaking of Israel, which Stephens praises, my book is not primarily about Israel, but about American Jews and the relationship between the United States and Israel. Thus, in the sections on Israeli history and politics, I rely primarily on the work of Israeli experts. A reader of my footnotes will find citations of books by Dov Waxman on Israeli Arabs, Benny Morris on Israel’s War of Independence, Gorenberg on the growth of the settlements, Yaacov Shavit on Revisionist Zionism, Tom Segev on Israel’s early years, and numerous other academics, historians, and journalists, some of whom read chapters of The Crisis of Zionism and offered critiques.
But for the larger part of the book—about the politics of Israel in the United States—I most certainly did leave my study. In fact, I conducted dozens and dozens of interviews with people in the organized American Jewish world and in the Obama Administration. Surely Stephens knows this, because he got a Wall Street Journal column out of my reporting on Obama’s Jewish influences in Chicago. As a columnist and editorial writer who largely writes from his own armchair, he’s got a lot of chutzpah to bite the reportorial hand that feeds him.
Stephens makes much of my supposed errors “of omission.” He points out, for instance, that I quote former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami saying, “If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well,” but that I don’t cite Ben-Ami’s description of Arafat as “morally, psychologically, physically incapable of accepting the moral legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of its borders or whatever.” Stephens then speculates that I must have gotten Ben-Ami’s quote from Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer’s book, The Israel Lobby, since apparently they use the same Ben-Ami quote that I do. That is absolutely untrue. I don’t cite Walt and Mearsheimer at all in The Crisis of Zionism for a simple reason: I didn’t read it as part of the research for my book. My footnotes explain exactly where I got Ben-Ami’s quote—from the Democracy Now interview where he said it.
Think about Stephens’ claim for a second. My footnotes say very clearly where I got the Ben-Ami quote. Stephens, without any evidence, essentially accuses me of lying in order to tie me to two writers widely loathed in Jewish circles whose book I have publicly criticized. And he’s questioning my intellectual honesty?
So, why didn’t I quote Ben-Ami’s attack on Arafat? Because it was irrelevant to my point. I wasn’t arguing that Arafat wanted to make peace. In fact, my book repeatedly condemns Arafat. I call him “corrupt and tyrannical” and say that there were good reasons to doubt he would budge on the Right of Return. Rather, I was arguing that then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer was not as generous as it is sometimes described by American Jews running major community organizations. To back up that claim, I quoted not just Ben-Ami, but also Aaron David Miller (President Clinton’s deputy special Middle East coordinator) and Martin Indyk (Clinton’s ambassador to Israel). If established centrists like these agree with me on Camp David—despite their views on Arafat—doesn’t that actually strengthen my argument?
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