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
Similarly, about my quotation of former Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash saying, “There is no longer an eastern front” (meaning that Israel no longer faces a serious threat of invasion from across the Jordan River), Stephens declares ominously that “there are, however, problems with this reference,” and continues:
You have to realize that the quote is at least eight years old, uttered when the United States appeared to be triumphant in Iraq. You have to realize that it is lifted with little context from a Brookings Institute report by Gal Luft, whose views on the matter are more-or-less the opposite of Beinart’s. You have to realize that Farkash has been outspoken in warning that an independent Palestinian state poses all kinds of security hazards to Israel. And you have to realize that even if Israel were to receive various security guarantees in a prospective peace deal with the Palestinians, it can have little confidence that those promises would be honored for very long.
Well, there are problems with the problems. First, most of the threats Farkash outlines concern threats from inside the West Bank—not the threat of outside invasion by Israel’s Arab neighbors. I address those concerns as well (actually in the very next paragraphs), but the Farkash quotation he cites comes at the end of a section discussing conventional threats from abroad, so Stephens’ jabs mostly amount to a red herring.
Further, Stephens’ implication that Israel is substantially more at risk of invasion from the east than it was in 2003 is puzzling. With Syria paralyzed by internal strife, and the Sunni Jordanian government (which has a peace treaty with Israel) alienated from Shia-led Iraq, why does Stephens think I’m wrong when I say that the threat of conventional attack across the Jordan River is low? He doesn’t say.
Reading Stephens’ review, you’d also never know that I quote the eminent Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld as saying, “Israel can easily afford to give up the West Bank. Strategically speaking, the risk of doing so is negligible.” And then I criticize him for being over-optimistic. I don’t, contra Stephens, argue that there aren’t security risks associated with a Palestinian state. I say explicitly that there are, but I argue that the risks of making the occupation permanent—and thus inviting a one-state struggle—are greater.
Even when Stephens lands a blow, it’s of the nitpicking variety. True, the footnote for my argument that the Israeli blockade crippled the Gazan economy mistakenly cites a 2003 IMF report rather than the 2008 report. But does anyone doubt that the blockade was an economic catastrophe for Gaza? According to John Ging, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, between June 2007 and April 2008, 90 percent of Gaza’s industrial companies closed.
Stephens goes on to argue that I’m wrong to suggest that since the easing of the boycott the Strip “remains a place of brutal suffering.” To support this, he cites New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who said in July 2010, “Israel is correct when it denies that there is any full-fledged humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” Never mind that Kristof—in the exact same column—argues that “Israel should lift the siege altogether.” (Talk about quoting selectively.)
There’s no contradiction between Kristof and me: Gaza may not be experiencing a “full-fledged humanitarian crisis,” but it remains a place of “brutal suffering.” I chose those words carefully. Had Stephens not ripped that phrase out of context, readers would know that it refers to a 2011 report by the World Food Programme, which found that more than half of Gaza’s households are “food insecure,” which means they lack “access to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs.” Does Stephens deny the World Food Programme findings, which were what “brutal suffering” referred to? No, he doesn’t even acknowledge them.
Likewise with surveys. In the 2010 report by Brandeis’ Theodore Sasson, which claims to show that American Jews are not growing more distant from Israel, Stephens believes he’s found a “Fat Man” for my “Nagasaki.” But it pays to be skeptical of Stephens on WMDs. First of all, reading Stephens you’d think that Sasson and his colleagues were the first academics to ever study American Jewish distancing from Israel, and that I had been working off of anecdotal evidence until they came along to finally do some serious research.
That’s nonsense. Sasson’s isn’t the only study on American Jewish distancing; it’s just the only one Stephens gives any evidence of having read. Had Stephens studied the question carefully, he’d know that Steven M. Cohen—a preeminent scholar of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel—has been studying the distancing question since 1982. I cited one of his studies in my New York Review of Books piece in 2010, and cite several in The Crisis of Zionism. Sasson’s study challenges the conventional wisdom that Cohen helped forge: that American Jews are indeed growing more distant. But in 2010, when the journal Contemporary Jewry asked more than a dozen scholars their opinions, the predominant view was that Cohen was correct. Stephens gives no evidence of being familiar with the Contemporary Jewry special issue, either.
On the narrower question of why most scholars don’t agree with Sasson, it’s true that Sasson’s studies do include some Jews who don’t identify by religion (a cohort that tends to be more distant from Israel). I misread an essay by Ariela Keysar, a demographer and the study director of the American Jewish Identity Survey of 2001, who wrote in her critique of other distancing studies, “AJIS 2001 remains useful despite its age, because unlike other studies cited in the [Cohen and Sasson] papers, it covers all Jews, including those with no religion.”
So no, Sasson’s report didn’t study only Jews who identify by religion. But it did radically oversample them: Non-religious Jews (also known as “ethnic” or “cultural” Jews) make up roughly 12 percent of Sasson’s respondents, but in 2008, 37 percent of American Jews identified by ethnicity alone—and that number is growing. Since cultural Jews have a weak attachment to Israel, tripling their representation (to reflect the realities of American Jewry) would have resulted in a very different study. That discrepancy helps explain why Sasson’s findings place him in the scholarly minority.
Jewish college basketball coaches will gather for their annual Final Four bagel brunch on Saturday, despite scandals surrounding two founding members