Rick Perlstein has a deeply personal essay on Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism which has caused me to rethink, if not the book itself, then the way the book was marketed and received. Perlstein, though one of the country’s leading experts on conservatism in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, is not an Israel pundit or reporter (not, if you will, a card-carrying member of the shtetlsphere). “It is a debate I am unqualified to adjudicate,” he writes of the increasing religiosity of the Israeli public sector. “As for Israel,” he adds, “I don’t think of it much.” He is not saying, like Paul Krugman, that he actively avoids thinking about Israel; he’s saying it’s simply not in the menu of subjects foremost on his mind.
Who was The Crisis of Zionism intended for? I can’t speak for Beinart. But he’s a smart guy who, having edited the New Republic, can have been expected to know the American Jewish community through and through. And so judging from the book itself, I suspect it was intended more for types like Perlstein (and, crucially, less engaged types who nonetheless “don’t think of [Israel] much”) rather than types like, say, myself. The book is not heavily researched, contains few new details (and gets a few big details wrong), and does not bring to bear any particularly original or novel arguments about Israel, the Palestinians, and the American Jewish establishment. What it does offer is a succinct, well-argued, and perhaps above all accessible narrative and argument that might be immensely appealing and useful to a certain type of reader—politically engaged, probably Jewish, but perhaps ignorant of and even indifferent to Israeli issues. And just because his arguments aren’t original or novel doesn’t mean they’re all wrong. For years, Beinart has said he was driven to write his book so that his children could grow up in an American Jewish world where Zionism could be a broadly held value. You would think, then, that he would most like to reach relatively uncommitted, disengaged folks, rather than people with their heels already dug in.
That, of course, is what freaked a lot of people out about the prospect of this book ever since Beinart published its seed essay two years ago this month: that this influential figure would gain widespread attention by his dramatic turn and thereby convert a lot of undecideds to his wrong course. And judging by the book, which has its heart in the right place and contains all the necessary caveats but at the same time really does, I think, ignore large aspects of Palestinian culpability for the conflict and misunderstands what Zionism always needed to be about, their fears were somewhat justified as far as the content of the book is concerned.
However, the worst fears of Beinart’s opponents did not come to pass. Instead, The Crisis of Zionism was covered primarily in the Jewish press (not least, of course, by Tablet Magazine). Influential book reviews at The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal were assigned to figures from the professional Jewish world (again ones with connections to Tablet, as it happened). Newsweek covered it by running an excerpt. It was treated in The Nation by Eric Alterman, who is also a Forward columnist. The New York Times op-ed page, too, merely published an excerpt.
Tablet, the Forward, Commentary, and any other explicitly Jewish outlet that treated it as an inside-the-community matter is blameless. I don’t necessarily think the non-Jewish outlets that played the Jewish game were wrong, either, although you could argue that in this they were symptomatic of something Beinart tries to indict in his book: a certain stifling of the debate on Israel. It’s less a question of the bounds of discourse being policed and more the agita that entering the fray in the first place leads to: if it’s not literally your job to pontificate about Israel, then your health and sanity dictates that you should avoid the topic. (This is coming from one who knows.)
As for Beinart, I can’t speak to his intentions or his marketing strategy, but the result is that the book seems to have sold poorly, and discussion of it, while unbelievably robust within a certain particularly argumentative (and, granted, influential) corner of the world, still seemed confined to that corner. (Which would help explain the poor sales: we all got galleys.) It’s ironic and perhaps sad, because, being occasionally insightful but ultimately pretty trite, it’s the exact wrong book for our corner. On the other hand, with his Open Zion blog, Beinart is clearly playing a long game. His success has to be measured not by whether he prompts defenses from within this closed community but by whether he has piqued interest outside of it.