Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Peter Beinart’s False Prophecy

The Crisis of Zionism, his book arguing that the Israeli occupation alienates young American Jews, is sloppy with facts and emotionally contrived

Bret Stephens
March 26, 2012
(Joanna Andreasson)
(Joanna Andreasson)

“I wrote this book because of my grandmother, who made me a Zionist. And because of Khaled Jaber, who could have been my son.”

So begins Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, and already you know he’s off to a bad start. Leave aside the oleaginous appeal to Grandma. The real question is: Someone named Khaled Jaber could have been Beinart’s son?

Sorry if I just can’t get past hello, but this curious little intro tells us something about the methods—factually cavalier and emotionally contrived—of the whole book. Here’s the story: Khaled Jaber is a young Palestinian boy whose father, Fadel, was arrested by Israelis in 2010 for stealing water after being repeatedly denied access to pipes serving a nearby settlement. The arrest—and Khaled’s frantic efforts to reach his “Baba” as he’s being hauled away—were caught on a video and later reported in the Israeli press.

The connection to Beinart is that Beinart’s son also calls him Baba. That’s it. Yet watching the video sparked in Beinart what he describes as a kind of Damascene conversion: “For most of my life,” he writes, “my reaction to accounts of Palestinian suffering has been rationalization, a search for reasons why the accounts are exaggerated or the suffering self-inflicted. … But in recent years, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I have been lowering my defenses, and Khaled’s cries left me staring in mute horror at my computer screen.”

This is disturbing, though not in the way Beinart intends. Many people form their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on snapshot impressions, often shorn of the most basic context. That’s a shame, but at least most of these people don’t go on to write books on the subject. Journalists, by contrast—and Beinart is a former editor of the New Republic who currently teaches journalism at City University of New York—are supposed to, you know, dig deeper. Get the full picture. Go where the facts lead.

So, you might expect that Beinart would have made the effort to reach out to the Jabers, perhaps even by flying out and meeting them in person. Who is this family in whose name this book is ostensibly written? Are they supporters of peaceful co-existence with Israel or advocates of terrorism? Do they intend to vote for Fatah or Hamas at the next poll? Was Fadel’s arrest as unjustified as Beinart makes it seem? Is it true that Israel deprives Palestinians of their fair share of water rights? Would the Fadels be better off as farmers in a Palestinian state? What was the state of Palestinian agriculture—not to mention education, health, and infrastructure—before 1967?

These are real questions, worth exploring intelligently. The answers might be flattering to Israel. Or they might not be. But you won’t learn a thing about them here. The Jaber family arrives in Beinart’s story on page 1 and exits it on page 3, never to be heard from again. Beinart might think of them (or, perhaps, think he thinks of them) as flesh-and-blood people. But in this book they are merely props in the drama known as Being Peter Beinart, the self-appointed anguished conscience and angry scold of the Jewish state.

* * *

As readers of Tablet are surely aware, Beinart is the author of a June 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” Beinart’s basic thesis was that institutional U.S. Jewry has slavishly followed a right-wing line on Israel at the very moment when younger American Jews are becoming increasingly sympathetic to Palestinians, ashamed of the occupation, and appalled by what Zionism has become.

How many minutes elapsed between the Review publication and the signing of a contract with the publishing imprint of the New York Times I do not know. Clearly it wasn’t long enough. A few months after “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” first appeared—based primarily on the testimony of a Frank Luntz focus group—a team of scholars led by Brandeis’ Theodore Sasson released an exhaustive survey of American Jewish views toward Israel.

The Sasson study was to Beinart’s thesis approximately what Fat Man was to the city of Nagasaki. A whopping 82 percent of American Jews feel that U.S. support for Israel is either “just about right” or “not supportive enough”—and that’s just among those Jews who describe themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal.” Among those calling themselves “middle of the road,” the figure rises to 94 percent. Regarding the settlements, just 26 percent of even liberal Jews think Israel should dismantle all of them; among moderates, the figure drops to 10 percent. Generationally speaking, there even seems to be a rightward tilt among younger Jews. Consider Jerusalem: 58 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 oppose re-dividing it. Just 51 percent of their parents and grandparents feel the same way.

“Political differences on the liberal-to-conservative continuum were unrelated to measures of attachment to Israel,” Sasson and his colleagues noted dryly, adding that these attitudes have pretty much held steady over 24 years of polling. Liberal as American Jews might be when it comes to domestic U.S. politics, on Israel their views tend to be fairly conservative.

To anyone reasonably familiar with the sensibilities of mainstream American Jewry, this finding probably comes as no surprise. How would Beinart deal with it in his book, I wondered? Would the Sasson data at least force him to tone down the thunder of denunciation he had hurled at a “failed” American Jewish establishment that, to outsiders at least, appears to be remarkably (some would say excessively) diverse, robust, well-financed and influential? Would he dial back a little on the notion that an American Jewry that usually votes Democratic is also ripe to adopt the “progressive” line on Israel, too?

Yet Beinart would not be toned down. Findings such as Sasson’s, he wrote, “are misleading because they include only those Jews who identify by religion, and a growing number of the least Israel-attached young American Jews identify only culturally.” (My emphasis.)

Interesting if true. Except it isn’t true. Reviewing the original Sasson study’s statement on methodology, one comes across the following:

“Jewish respondents were initially identified by a question about religion. In addition, two items were asked of panel members of no religion in March 2010: whether respondents considered themselves Jewish for any reason and whether they had a Jewish mother or father. … In total, the sample eligible for analysis consisted of 1,243 respondents, of whom 1,089 were Jewish by religion and 154 were Jewish by other criteria.”

If Beinart wants to argue that the Sasson study should have sampled a greater number of “cultural Jews,” fine. That’s a discussion worth having. But to use the word “only” when he means “mostly” should alert readers that no assertion of fact in The Crisis of Zionism can be taken at face value.

* * *

Beinart’s habit of what is either inexplicable sloppiness or extreme interpretative elasticity turns out to be one of the defining characteristics of The Crisis of Zionism. In fact, one of the challenges of reviewing the book is that it practically demands a typology. Consider a few examples:

Elasticity of attribution:

Describing the effects of Israel’s policy toward Gaza after Hamas’s election in 2006, Beinart writes that “the blockade shattered [Gaza’s] economy. By 2008, 90 percent of Gaza’s industrial complex had closed.” The source of this claim is a study conducted by the IMF—in 2003.

Of omission:

Beinart quotes former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami telling Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that “If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well.” Yet Ben-Ami said in the same interview that Yasser Arafat “was morally, psychologically, physically incapable of accepting the moral legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of its borders or whatever.” This goes unquoted. I suspect that’s because Beinart found it in The Israel Lobby by political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, which also quotes the first part of Ben-Ami’s statement but not the second.

Of consistency:

Beinart acknowledges that “the populism sweeping the Middle East has unleashed frightening hostility against the Jewish state.” Yet in the same paragraph he writes: “The Egyptian leaders who have emerged in Hosni Mubarak’s wake are not calling for Israel’s destruction, let alone promising to take up arms in the cause.” Maybe Beinart should acquaint himself with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Essam El-Erian, currently head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Egyptian Parliament. “The earthquake of the Arab Spring will mark the end of the Zionist entity,” El-Erian said recently.

Of fact:

Returning to the subject of Gaza, Beinart writes that the Strip “remains a place of brutal suffering.” This, he adds, is the case even after Israel eased its blockade following the Turkish flotilla business in 2010.

Really? Here’s what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (whose politics track Beinart’s, but who also visits the places he writes about) had to say on that score in a July 2010 column: “Visiting Gaza persuaded me, to my surprise, that Israel is correct when it denies that there is any full-fledged humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The tunnels have so undermined the Israeli blockade that shops are filled and daily life is considerably easier than when I last visited here two years.”

There’s more of this. Much more. In fact, the errors in Beinart’s book pile up at such a rate that they become almost impossible to track.

Still, the deeper problem isn’t that there’s so much in Beinart’s book that is untrue, but rather so much that is half-true: the accurate quote used in a misleading way; the treatment of highly partisan sources as objective and unobjectionable; the settlement of ferocious debates among historians in a single, dismissive sentence; the one-sided giving—and withholding—of the benefit of the doubt; the “to be sure” and “of course” clauses that do more to erase balance than introduce it. It’s a cheap kind of slipperiness that’s hard to detect but leaves its stain on nearly every page.

* * *

Typically, books that are loose with the facts at least offer thought-provoking arguments. Here again The Crisis of Zionism fails us. Its early chapters—on what a sink of oppression, religious fanaticism, diplomatic foolishness, and moral blindness modern Israel has become—read like a slightly less turgid version of parts of The Israel Lobby. In case you haven’t heard, the settlements are corrupting Israel’s soul. In case you haven’t heard, Israel is a “flawed democracy” within the ’67 borders but an “ethnocracy” in the territories. In case you haven’t heard, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000 wasn’t all that generous. In case you haven’t heard, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama aren’t the world’s best friends. In case you haven’t heard, it’s still two minutes to midnight in the ever-ticking demographic time bomb.

A few months ago I read pretty much the same book by Gershom Gorenberg. But whereas Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel is based on the honest toil of on-the-ground reporting, nothing in The Crisis of Zionism suggests that Beinart ever set foot outside of his study to write this book. “That’s not writing, that’s typing!” Truman Capote supposedly once said of a Jack Kerouac novel. Similarly with Beinart: It isn’t reporting. It’s Googling.

Again, you see it in the small but important details that Beinart misuses. For instance, in making the case that Israel could withdraw from the West Bank without putting its security critically at risk, Beinart commends readers to the authority of former Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, who is quoted as saying: “There is no longer an eastern front.” Translation: Top Israeli brass no longer views the Jordan Valley as a strategic asset because they don’t seriously fear a conventional attack along that front.

There are, however, problems with this reference. 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.

Then there is Beinart’s hysteria-fueled treatment of the Israeli political scene. His fundamental contention is that the growth of Jewish communities in the territories has effectively faded the Green Line to the point of near-invisibility. This is the sheerest bunk. The reason Ariel Sharon was reluctant to build the security barrier is that he understood it meant drawing a de facto border between Israel and the territories. But he built it anyway, just as he also decided to get Israel out of Gaza. Since then, Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted the principle of a Palestinian state. Beinart offers a lengthy explanation for why Bibi’s June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech was no more than a tactic of diplomatic delay, and maybe it was. But the fact is that Mr. Revisionist publicly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state—and paid no political price for it with his right-wing base.

The real problem for Beinart’s argument is that, in word and deed, Palestinians have repeatedly furnished good reasons for the Israeli (and American) right to argue against further territorial withdrawals, at least until something fundamental changes in Palestinian political culture. I supported disengagement from Gaza as editor of the Jerusalem Post. But it’s hard to argue that the results have been stellar in terms of what a Palestinian state portends. Last year’s murder of the Fogel family, horrifying as it was, wasn’t nearly as disturbing as the public celebration of the killings among Palestinians. By contrast, when a Jordanian soldier murdered Israeli schoolgirls on a little island in the Jordan River in 1997, the late King Hussein personally begged the forgiveness of the bereaved Israeli families. (Alas, by still another contrast, Jordan’s justice minister has demanded the imprisoned soldier’s release, calling him a “hero.”)

None of this appears to disturb Beinart much, except to prompt some glib and equivocal acknowledgment that Israelis live in a less-than-super neighborhood. Indeed, to read Beinart is to appreciate how much mental slovenliness can be contained by the word “but.”

• “Yes, the Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah traffic in anti-Semitism and murder Jews, but they gain strength when Israel—by subsidizing West Bank settlement and meeting nonviolent protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets and military courts—discredits those Palestinians willing to live in peace.”

• “Discussing the Hamas charter is important; people should read it. But listening to American Jewish organizations, one would never know that Hamas has in recent years issued several new documents, which are more compatible with a two-state solution.”

• “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.”

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.

Whatever his answer, Beinart is singularly intent on scolding Israel, like an angry ex who has lost all grip on the proportions of the original dispute. To him, no Israeli misdeed is too small that it can’t serve as an alibi for Palestinian malfeasance. And no Palestinian crime is so great that it can justify even a moment’s pause in Israel’s quest to do right by its neighbor.

Paradoxically, the result of such thinking is an unwitting, but profound, contempt for the very Arabs for whom Beinart claims so much concern. Beinart’s Arabs are almost always characters off-stage, to be trotted out only when—as with the Jaber family—they can serve some trite homiletic purpose. These are Arabs who have no moral agency: They never act; they only react. 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. They are like some not-fully domesticated animal that requires the ministrations of a horse whisperer lest it trample you underfoot.

This has implications for Beinart’s argument. To typical Israelis, theirs is a country of 6 million Jews faced with the ardent, sometimes fanatic, hostility of 350 million neighboring Arabs (to say nothing of another billion or so non-Arab Muslims) and the contested loyalty of one million of its own Arab citizens. Lebanon is in the hands of Hezbollah; Gaza in the hands of Hamas; Turkey and Egypt—until recently, its only significant Muslim allies—are gradually moving into the column of adversaries. In the past decade, it has had to fend off a steady drizzle of suicide bombers and Kassam and Katyusha rockets over the course of three separate wars. The Arab Spring has become an Islamist winter. Iran has now enriched more than 5,000 kilograms of uranium. Israel will soon have to roll the dice with a military strike or otherwise allow a regime that pledges its destruction the means to carry out that pledge almost instantaneously.

To all this Beinart’s considered reply seems to be: Whatever. Israel, he says, is a “regional superpower” that can dispatch its enemies almost with the flick of a finger. I can’t swear that Beinart never devotes more than a sentence to Iran’s nuclear capabilities (the review copy I used for this essay lacks an index). But I am pretty sure he doesn’t give the subject more than a paragraph, and certainly not a whole page. It’s true he makes a fuller case when writing about delegitimization and anti-Semitism. But here, too, he’s dismissive of the idea that there’s any real problem: “The main reason Israel generates disproportionate criticism from leftist academics, artists and labor unionists, not to mention the General Assembly of the United Nations, is not because it’s a Jewish state but because it’s perceived as a Western one,” he explains. So, now you know that the General Assembly’s 1975 “Zionism is Racism” resolution really wasn’t aimed at the Jews at all.

* * *

In Beinart’s world, then, Israel has no real mortal enemies—other than itself. Would that it were so.

Would that the happy outcome of Jewish statehood after 2,000 years of exile were the elevation of all politics to a form of ethics, and vice versa. Would that Israel be renamed Altneuland, after Theodor Herzl’s fable. Would that Israel’s politicians all be wise and just and its generals all kind and fair. Would that Israel’s enemies answer conciliation with conciliation. Would that Israel’s friends were true in fair weather and foul.

But that’s not how it is. That wasn’t the hand dealt to the Jews of 1948 when they fought—and shot, and killed and, yes, sometimes murdered—their way to statehood. That hasn’t been the deal with which Israelis have lived ever since. Maybe Beinart imagines that his own treasured Zionist legacy—the one he learned on his grandmother’s knee—exists in some sealed compartment, translucent and softly glowing. I suspect his grandmother knows better.

Here, then, is the core problem with The Crisis of Zionism: It is not a work of political analysis. It is an act of moral solipsism. It shows no understanding that the essence of statesmanship is the weighing of various unpalatable alternatives. Instead, the book imagines that politics is merely a matter of weighing “right” against “wrong,” both words defined in exclusively moral terms, and always choosing “right.”

This is the greatest half-truth in which Beinart traffics: the notion that because politics has an ethical dimension, it is therefore a branch—a subordinate branch—of ethics. It isn’t. It is in the nature of political life that 1) its most decisive moments always involve a choice of evils; 2) that choosing the lesser evil still involves choosing an evil; and, 3) most important, that one can never know with certainty that the choice made was, in fact, the lesser evil. To imagine things otherwise is not only to misunderstand the nature of all politics. It is to completely miss the fundamental purpose of the Jewish state, which is to no longer be at the mercy of someone else’s choice of evils. Or, to put it cute: Israel exists so that the Chosen People might suffer a little less as a Choosing People.

This brings us to the occupation. For the sake of argument, let’s allow that everything Beinart says about it—the indignities it inflicts on Palestinians, its corrosive effects on Israeli values and democracy—is true. Does that alone make for a compelling argument for withdrawal?

A serious person would have to give this subject some serious thought. But not Beinart: Such is the cancer of occupation, in his view, that any kind of surgery that removes it will do. That includes his prescription to apply a limited form of the boycott-divestment-sanctions campaign—call it BDS lite—against Israeli settlements, a suggestion that he admits makes him “cringe.” His hope is to draw a line between the condemnation the settlements fairly deserve and what the current BDS campaign unfairly does to Israel as a whole. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that his idea amounts to another squeaky note in the blasting chorus that is modern-day Israel bashing.

* * *

This has been a harsh review. Perhaps not harsh enough. This isn’t because there’s nothing worth reading in the book—I commended Beinart’s chapter on Obama’s education in Jewish radicalism in a recent column—but because there’s a book called The Crisis of Zionism that really does need to be written.

What would such a book be like? It can’t be a Peacenik’s Complaint. It can’t be a Likudnik’s Lament, either.

What such a book would do, however, is understand that Israel today is a country besieged by real enemies and phony friends. It would appreciate that the purpose of Israel is to defend its citizens, not to make Diaspora Jews feel upstanding. It would attend to Israel’s internal dilemmas, social, ethnic, and economic, which lack the cachet of “the conflict” but are arguably of greater potency. It would cock a listening ear to the conversations of the Arab world and consider carefully the implications of present upheavals. It would not treat the choices of the Israeli electorate with derision or elected leaders as mere boobs and knaves. It would be carefully reported and scrupulously fact-checked. As for “the conflict,” it would be sensible that in the event of a return to the 1967 borders, another day would come, and Israel would find that it had merely traded one set of unpalatable realities for another. This is not an argument for or against withdrawal. It is a plea for an intelligent argument, written in something other than a spirit of icy contempt and patent insincerity.

Any takers?


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Bret Stephens is a deputy editorial page editor and the foreign affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal. He was previously editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post.

Bret Stephens is a deputy editorial page editor and the foreign affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal. He was previously editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post.