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
Stephens quotes Sasson as saying, “Political differences on the liberal-to-conservative continuum were unrelated to measures of attachment to Israel.” From this he concludes: “Liberal as American Jews might be when it comes to domestic U.S. politics, on Israel their views tend to be fairly conservative.” But that leap requires conflating attachment to Israel and agreement with Israeli governmental policy. And no less than Theodore Sasson cautions against doing this:
Notwithstanding the lack of relationship between ideology and attachment, the present study showed that respondents’ general political orientations played a large role in their perspectives on virtually all policy issues related to Israel. … Political ideology was also a decisive factor in assessments of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship and with respect to opinions about the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In another distortion, Stephens claims that “just 26 percent of even liberal Jews think Israel should dismantle all of [the settlements]; among moderates, the figure drops to 10 percent.” This sounds damning, until you remember that no final status agreement contemplated thus far has included the dismantling of all the settlements; nearly everyone agrees there will be land swaps. When you remember that, the statistics look pretty different. Fifty-seven percent of liberal American Jews support dismantling all or some of the settlements as part of a peace deal, while only 13 percent support dismantling none. In fact, when you factor out the 28 percent of the sample who answered “don’t know” (Stephens ignored them), you find that liberal American Jews support giving up settlements by about four to one. Even when you include the moderates and conservatives, Sasson’s sample still favors dismantling settlements, 46 percent to 28 percent.
It’s worth noting that prominent commentators who share Stephens’ political views agree with me that younger American Jews are distancing from Israel. “There is ample evidence of a general decline in American Jewish identification with Israel,” writes the right-leaning Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the Contemporary Jewry special issue. “Generationally speaking,” Stephens claims, “there even seems to be a rightward tilt among younger Jews.” I’ll let him explain that to the well-known Israeli commentator Daniel Gordis, president of the conservative Shalem Foundation, whose June 2011 Commentary article “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” bemoaned “weakening Zionist loyalties” among American rabbinical students—surely the most affiliated of young American Jews—“who are increasingly distanced from Israel.” Gordis went on to ask, “What has happened to this generation of young rabbinical students? Why are their instincts so different from those of my generation?”
Finally, there is Stephens’ struggle with himself over whether to call me an anti-Semite:
In 2003, in connection to the late historian Tony Judt’s own contribution to the anti-Israel oeuvre of the New York Review of Books, Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic observed that characterizing anti-Semitic acts as a response to something Jews did doesn’t explain anti-Semitism. It reproduces it. I’m tempted to accuse Beinart of doing the same thing here. I won’t. But Beinart should at least trouble himself to wonder, as Wieseltier also suggested, why the same logic doesn’t apply to other minorities. For example, would Beinart object to an argument that African-Americans are at least partly responsible for white racism because they commit a disproportionate share of violent crime in the United States? Let’s hope he would.
I admire Stephens’ restraint, but not his logic. In the quotation of mine that directly precedes this paragraph, I say, “There is, of course, real anti-Semitism in today’s Middle East. But by too often ascribing criticism of Israel to a primordial hatred of Jews, American Jewish leaders fail to grapple with Israel’s own role in its mounting isolation.” The only way that statement can be interpreted as attributing anti-Semitism to Jewish actions is if you assume, a priori, that the criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. It’s a circular argument.
Over and over in his piece, Stephens hammers the point that Palestinians want to kill Jews, and that their violent rejectionism is what prevents peace. There’s some truth to that; that’s why in the book, I call Arafat’s role in the second intifada “a crime.” But Stephens claims, “The very thought that Palestinians need not celebrate suicide bombers or cheer the murder of Jewish children seems never to have crossed Beinart’s mind.” He must think I’m an idiot. Not only did I describe in grisly detail the horrific murders of the Fogel family in the Jewish settlement of Itamar in March 2011, I explicitly said that during Oslo, “Palestinian leaders had not done nearly enough to stop the terrorism that traumatized Israel. At times, in fact, they had actively abetted it.” So, yes, it has crossed my mind.
After ignoring my repeated criticisms of Palestinian leaders, Stephens wrongly accuses me of denying Palestinians moral agency by, well, not criticizing Palestinian leaders. But let’s turn the question around: How much moral agency does Stephens grant Israel? Does he grapple at all with the moral problems inherent in holding millions of West Bank Palestinians as non-citizens for 44 years? Does he concede that subsidizing Israelis to move to the West Bank—including to settlements deep in the West Bank—is self-defeating if you believe in a two-state solution? No, he ignores those uncomfortable questions almost entirely.
If we want Palestinians to take responsibility for their actions, we must ask Israel to do the same. One of the central arguments of The Crisis of Zionism is that the American Jewish establishment has not found an authentically Jewish language in which to discuss the ethical responsibilities of power. Stephens’ review illustrates the point all too well.
Raphael Magarik and Elisheva Goldberg helped with the research for this piece.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning
Jewish college basketball coaches will gather for their annual Final Four bagel brunch on Saturday, despite scandals surrounding two founding members