“I find very little interesting conversation about what Zionism is,” Peter Beinart, the former New Republic editor who has emerged in recent years as one of the most prominent center-left commentators on foreign policy, and especially Israel, told Tablet Magazine yesterday. “The term has become so politicized and associated with the right that this is a moment where the question of what Zionism is and the variety of different Zionisms that can exist really needs to be discussed.” The place he hopes this “intellectually open and unafraid” discussion will occur is Zion Square, his new group blog at The Daily Beast, which launches Monday.
According to Beinart, most of Zion Square’s contributors broadly share his belief in “the Jewish democratic state, based upon the principles of Israel’s declaration of independence,” alongside a Palestinian state. Beinart has come to be associated with J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization founded a few years ago to try to counterbalance the center-right pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. At J Street’s conference later this month, attendees will be able to purchase Beinart’s forthcoming book, The Crisis of Zionism; he will be there to sign it.
Among Zion Square’s ten regular columnists, only one would commonly be thought of as offering a right-of-center perspective—the Israeli Benny Morris. The rest are: Bernard Avishai, Lara Friedman, Gershom Gorenberg, Emily L. Hauser, Hussein Ibish, Yehudah Mirsky, Yousef Munayyer, Trita Parsi, and Einat Wilf.
UPDATE: Yousef Munayyer writes in to say that he does not support a Jewish democratic state, and is a “firm supporter of the Palestinian right to return, an end to the Israeli occupation and equal rights for all people living throughout the land regardless to religion, nationality or ethnic background.”
Friedman, of Americans for Peace Now, might be the farthest left (APN, for example, advocates boycotts of goods made in the occupied territories but not Israel). Mirsky, rabbinically ordained and concerned as much with Jewish identity as politics, could also be considered center to center-right. Gorenberg’s recent The Unmaking of Israel is, in my opinion, a fantastic book. Wilf is the only professional politician, a member of the Knesset from Ehud Barak’s Independence Party. And Parsi might prove the most controversial selection: the president of the National Iranian American Council, he has become a lightning rod in the Iran debate, criticized by the right for an allegedly overly credulous view of Iranian willingness to back away from a nuclear program.
Beinart is particularly excited to have voices from the Arab world, including Ibish, who is Lebanese, and Munayyer, who is Palestinian (and he noted that Parsi is Iranian). “One of the defining characteristics of the organized Jewish community’s discussion is the Palestinian voices rarely have a chance to be heard by a Jewish audience,” he argued. The ways in which the organized Jewish community narrow American discussion of Israel is a theme of Beinart’s book, which will be excerpted in Monday’s Newsweek (The Daily Beast’s print counterpart), as well as of the widely read essay he published nearly two years ago, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”
The New America Foundation, where Beinart was already a senior fellow, served as the blog’s “fiscal sponsor” (Beinart himself helped raised money for it; funders will be listed on the Website). Beinart was already a Daily Beast columnist, and it, too, he said, was a “natural place.” Some Daily Beast staffers were informed of the blog in January.
“The debate about Israel and its neighbors and the Palestinian question is a very lively and certainly timely topic,” an excited Mark Miller, Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s director of editorial operations, told Tablet. “Through the blog, Peter will bring a lot of different viewpoints.”
In addition to the blog (to which Beinart will also contribute), Zion Square will, in partnership with Americans for Peace Now, supply a daily summary of the Hebrew-language press, and less frequent ones of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and Russian-language media. (If you know Arabic, get in touch: they’re hoping to perform a similar service for Arab-language outlets.)
It’s a propitious time to start a blog about Israel: the Iranian nuclear question, to which the Jewish state is central, has dominated headlines stateside as well as over there. While acknowledging that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on the media back-burner at the moment, Beinart welcomed the challenge of writing about Iran and going against “the conventional ways in which Iran is being discussed in the American Jewish world.”
Beinart here cited Parsi. There has not been enough discussion, he insisted, of the potential adverse consequences of the heavy sanctions currently being leveled against Iran; nor of realistic diplomatic solutions to the crisis; and nor of the political obstacles in Israel and the United States to striking a deal in which, as he put it, “[Iran’s] going to need to get something in return.”
“One of the things that we’ve learned—that we should’ve learned—from the Iraq War is that those years and years of crippling sanctions on Iraq were part of what undermined and weakened the middle class and made it much harder to function as a stable country after we invaded,” Beinart noted.
The Iraq reference is a reminder of what makes Beinart an unusually compelling—and controversial—commentator: he was a strong supporter of the Iraq War who recanted and now, nearly a decade later, has found himself here. “The Iraq debate has definitely shaped the way I think about Iran,” he said. “One has to really be wary of worse-case scenarios about the threat and best-case scenarios of the consequences of military action, which I think is something that characterized the pro-war voices in the Iraq debate and often on the Iran debate.”
No matter the particular crisis of the moment, Zion Square will have material. “One of the things we want to really have a conversation about,” Beinart explained, “is Jewish identity and Jewish culture more generally, and especially the question of what it means to live an ethical Jewish life in an age of Jewish power.”
He added, “For me, one of the important questions in American Jewish life is the question of whether the Jews are willing to admit that we wield power in a way that we didn’t 50 or 75 years ago, and to acknowledge that with power has to come responsibility.”
Related: The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment [NYRB]