The demise of an ambitious forum for the discussion of ideas is never a happy occasion, particularly if it employed thoughtful people whose views ought to be heard. But the recently announced shuttering of Open Zion, Peter Beinart’s Israel-themed blog hosted by The Daily Beast, begs more than a note of sympathy to its contributors. Now that the blog is winding down, an assessment of its attempt at fostering “an open and unafraid conversation about Israel, Palestine, and the Jewish future” is useful not only as a post-mortem of a specific publication but as a reflection on the larger conversation it was trying to stir.
From its very start, the conversation was marked by awkward silences: shortly after the blog’s launch, one of its contributors, the Israeli sociologist Yoel Finkelman, quit in a public letter to Beinart. Open Zion, he wrote, “has emerged as a site with a few rich discussions of complex issues, but also as a venue for unbalanced accusations against Israel, Zionism, and settlers. I found a few thoughtful and thought-provoking articles, but they were interspersed among simplistic arguments, one-sided claims, Twitter-feed journalism, snarky prose, and an unexamined assumption of Zionist guilt.”
This indictment still reads true. While it would be very difficult, given the sheer volume of Open Zion posts published over the years, to rely on anything more substantial than anecdotal evidence, one still can, without trying too hard, recall a staggering number of pieces that prove Finkelman’s allegations. These range from the patently
preposterous—Euny Hong’s silly claim that anti-Semitism in France, though well documented, is somehow overhyped, say, or Diarmaid MacCulloch’s argument that Evangelical support for Israel is somehow the driving force behind the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries—to the tediously parochial, such as Ali Gharib’s most recent attack on pro-Israeli activist Josh Block, more a partisan smack-down than a reasoned, well-constructed, or meaningful argument. The list goes on.
More regrettable is the fact that even Open Zion’s most luminous contributors frequently presented their best work elsewhere. This week, for example, Bernard Avishai wrote an illuminating piece about the economics behind a possible peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It ran in The New Yorker. Open Zion received a brief, watered-down excerpt. This is not an anomaly.
These problems, and others, might have been fixed. Now they’ll never get the chance, as Beinart’s farewell message makes clear. After praising his writers, Open Zion’s editor announced that the enterprise would be no more given his own desire to once again write and report. He was leaving Open Zion, he made it clear, in its prime: “Our traffic was good,” he wrote. “We had several multiyear financial commitments and plenty of money in the bank.” One is free to ask why a media organization with a solid staff, an attractive topic, decent traffic, and a sizable budget would cease to exist simply because its founder felt the need to move on. I asked Beinart just that, and he replied that he was going to let his statement speak for itself. Sadly, like so much of Open Zion’s content, it ultimately does not.