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Lightning Rod

Admired or reviled—but never ignored—how has Peter Beinart created a firestorm with well-worn ideas about Israel and American Jews?

Allison Hoffman
March 22, 2012
Beinart at the 2011 J Street Conference.(J Street/Flickr)
Beinart at the 2011 J Street Conference.(J Street/Flickr)

In May 2010, just as the relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was moving from chilly to frozen over the announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem, the New York Review of Books published an essay by Peter Beinart, the former editor of the New Republic, provocatively titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” In just under 5,000 words, Beinart argued that by continuing to abet Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, American Jewish leaders risked alienating an entire generation of young Jews who found the occupation to be morally odious and fundamentally incompatible with their liberal politics.

The essay dropped at a moment when the establishment Beinart targeted was more anxious than it has perhaps ever been about its relevance. The longtime leaders of the largest Jewish organizations—the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the like—found themselves sidelined by a White House that seemed determined to pressure Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and saw little use in building bridges with people who were unlikely to be supportive. They were made doubly anxious by the sudden emergence of J Street, the upstart dovish Israel advocacy group whose leader, Jeremy Ben Ami, told the New York Times that he was Obama’s new “blocking back” on the Hill.

Beinart—whose most significant previous foray into writing about domestic Jewish issues was a 1999 essay for the Atlantic about day schools—hit a perennial raw nerve: the acute and age-old fear among a graying generation about what kind of Jews their children and grandchildren will turn out to be. But he pushed the argument a step further with his claim that their failure to publicly condemn the occupation threatened the future health not just of the American Jewish community, but of the Jewish state these leaders had devoted their careers to defending.

The firestorm was instant. Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, responded immediately, and indignantly, in the Review; over at the New Republic, Beinart’s former colleague Leon Wieseltier rued what he argued was Beinart’s blinkered and simplistic view of the situation. In Commentary, Noah Pollak decried Beinart’s “public apostasy” and accused him of selling out his Zionism to satisfy his liberal friends. The attention catapulted Beinart onto Charlie Rose, the advisory board of the left-wing Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, and the masthead of the Daily Beast, where earlier this month he launched a new Israel-themed blog called Zion Square.

The response seemed to suggest that Beinart was saying something profoundly new about the predicament facing the Jewish state. But in fact, plenty of other, better-known commentators had consistently made similarly aggressive stands against the status quo in Israel. New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen have vociferously accused Netanyahu, with the help of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, of making Israel into a pariah state by undermining the Obama Administration’s early efforts to jump-start the peace process. Last fall, the American-born Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg released The Unmaking of Israel, a jeremiad arguing that the 45-year Israeli occupation has been a cancer on the country’s body politic; the book scored a glowing endorsement in the New York Times Book Review from Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg.

And yet Beinart remains the only critic of the Israeli occupation to have become a sort of folk hero; at last year’s J Street Conference, participants could buy T-shirts with Beinart’s face rendered Shepard Fairey-style above the slogan “Beinart’s Army.” Ben Ami said recently that Beinart, who will debut the book-length version of his essay at this weekend’s J Street confab, is “the troubadour of our movement.” Indeed, Beinart’s name—including in parts of the Israeli government—is now synonymous with the idea that Israel’s policies are a wedge that will ultimately alienate liberal American Jews from their increasingly right-wing Israeli brethren.

For a younger audience whose template for the Israeli-American relationship is Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, and “Shalom, haver,” Beinart makes a perfect Cassandra. He is the former editor of the leading journal of the American Jewish liberal political class, a grandson of Holocaust refugees, and the son of South African Jews who left for the United States rather than raise their children under apartheid. He’s a Yale graduate who keeps kosher, doesn’t go out on Friday nights, sends his kids to a Jewish school, and goes to an Orthodox shul every week. Not incidentally, Beinart is also a former star of the AIPAC lecture circuit who commanded handsome fees speaking at events across the country as recently as 2008. “It matters that he was the wunderkind editor of the New Republic, that he was a neocon when it comes to Israel, that he was from a Jewish background,” said Daniel Sokatch, the head of the New Israel Fund, which funds progressive organizations in Israel. “Peter was in the right place at the right time, and he was the right guy.”

It’s not clear how many people Beinart speaks for, but there’s no question that he has captured and channeled the anxieties of people on all sides of the issue. Even his fiercest detractors concede he has a genius for publicity. But on an issue that many people have devoted their lives to, some see Beinart as a Johnny-come-lately. “Peter’s a quick study, but some things you can’t study quickly,” Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, told me. “He had a hit, and ran with it.”


Until fairly recently, Beinart was most famous as the author of multiple apologias disavowing the support he gave, when he was still editor of the New Republic, to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Like so many hawkish American liberals who found themselves backing the Bush Administration’s policies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, only to reverse themselves after the revelations from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Beinart now desperately wants to be on the right side of Middle East history. In The Crisis of Zionism, he explicitly connects younger Jews’ rejection of the Iraq War to their opposition to Israel’s foray into Gaza in late 2008: The essence of his case is that American Jews like him are as horrified to discover YouTube videos depicting the brutish realities of the Israeli occupation as they were by the realization that Saddam Hussein really didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.

Beinart focuses on one video in particular, of a Palestinian child screaming as his father is arrested by Israeli police on suspicion of stealing water from a settlement near his village. The little boy, Beinart writes, keeps howling, “Baba”—coincidentally, the same name Beinart’s own son, once unable to pronounce the Hebrew word “Abba,” calls him. This, he says, is what forced him to speak up against the occupation: his desire to prevent a day when he feels he cannot in good faith teach his young children, who have an Israeli flag hanging in their nursery, to be proud Zionists as well as committed Jews.

His critics contend that they want exactly the same thing—and have diametrically opposite views of how best to protect Israel, and the idea of Israel, for the next generation. “I have a son who lives in Israel, not on the Upper West Side, and he lives with a gas mask,” said David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, one of the organizations Beinart criticizes most fiercely in his book for, he argues, betraying its foundational commitment to human rights by defending Israel’s occupation.

The main problem with Beinart’s argument, Harris told me, was that it seemed designed to be maximally appealing to people who don’t want to confront the ethical complexity of the situation as it stands today—people who want Israel to make itself easier for them to love. “The AJC is an organization that has been committed to a two-state solution since Peter was in elementary school,” Harris went on. “And Peter seems to think that there’s an easy way to get there that Israel hasn’t taken, and therefore Israel engages in these ugly practices.” He laid out the familiar narrative: Israel won the Palestinian territories fair and square in a war it did not choose to fight; Israel has tried, perhaps imperfectly but nevertheless seriously, to reach peace with the Palestinians; the Palestinians have repeatedly found reasons to reject any deal. “For some reason Peter and his cohorts don’t see this, or see it and dismiss it,” Harris said. “But I see it—and not because I’m against a two-state agreement or because I enjoy Israeli occupation.”

To Beinart, that kind of on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other thinking is exactly what has left the American Jewish community paralytic in the face of an increasingly untenable status quo in Israel. He says it was the recent rightward turn of Israeli politics with the election of Netanyahu in 2009—especially in the wake of the mobilization of so many young American Jews for Obama in the 2008 election— that inspired him to write his essay in the first place. “The election of Obama and of this Israeli government put things in sharper relief than they’d been before,” he told me. “When I saw that [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman’s emergence was provoking no outcry from the organized Jewish world, it felt to me that the organized Jewish community had essentially accepted a Zionism that would go wherever the Israeli government wanted to go.” To Beinart, Obama and Netanyahu represented two opposite, incompatible political poles. “It seemed Obama and Netanyahu’s agendas were going to be radically different,” he told me, “so, supporting one meant not supporting the other.”

It’s understandable that young liberal Jews would welcome Beinart’s ability to act as a lightning rod. The problem is that the discussion has increasingly become about Beinart, and not about Israel’s policies. That’s partly a reflection of the poverty of debate within American Jewry when it comes to Israel, and the deep structural questions facing the community. “The American Jewish institutional world is terrible, plain unadulterated terrible,” said Michael Steinhardt, the hedge-fund manager and philanthropist behind Birthright Israel. “So, when Peter says something, whether it’s right or not, it sounds fresh and new.”

Some of Beinart’s critics have also been more than happy to make the whole thing personal. “It’s a narcissistic book, and the narcissism of privileged and haughty people is never particularly attractive,” Martin Peretz, the former owner of the New Republic and Beinart’s earliest patron, told me. “I always knew he was a very vain man, but a lot of us are vain, and if you had his mother, or if I had his mother, I’d be even more vain than I am.” Peretz put on a mocking falsetto—“this is the most brilliant boy, he’s so smart, he’s so touching”—before going on: “It’s a Jewish mother situation. You can use that—even if it makes me sound a little bitchy.”

It does. Still, there is something fundamentally self-regarding about the way Beinart often goes about making his case. In his book, Beinart asserts that the failure of Zionist democracy would be “one of the greatest tragedies of my life.” It may be too much to expect that Beinart, and others who are as concerned about Israel’s future, pick up their lives and move to the Levant, but it’s striking that his argument isn’t directed at Israelis—the people enfranchised with the power to either betray or redeem the idea of Israel that Beinart loves. They aren’t addressed in his book at all. It’s another example of what Gorenberg recently ridiculed as the desert island effect in American Jewish debate about Israel—conducted at a sanctimonious, comfortable remove. “Obviously, someone arguing 6,000 miles away about our politics is less interesting to Israelis than arguing about our own politics,” Gorenberg told me when we spoke.

Beinart responds that American Jews, and more broadly, American liberals, have their own role to play by exerting their leverage in Washington. In our conversation, he talked about pressuring American lawmakers. “I just so wish that we had one brave, mainstream Jewish member of Congress who would be willing to stand up, for the sake of their conscience, to say for the sake of their children or grandchildren that they believe the course on Israel is a disaster,” he told me. “A Waxman, Berman, Feinstein, Lowey—that they’ll just say screw it, that they’ll see the writing on the wall and say, ‘We can’t do this.’ ” In their absence, he added, there are ways for concerned Americans to act beyond Washington—specifically by stigmatizing what he calls “non-democratic Israel,” the territory beyond the Green Line—by boycotting products made in the settlements.

To some ears, that sounds too easy. “I have no problem with a boycott of the settlers—I’ve been conducting a personal boycott of their products for decades,” said Wieseltier. “But Peter’s not making any really inconvenient demands on anybody.” At the end of our chat, Beinart said that his goal was simply to curate an open debate. “I don’t think we’re going to be having this discussion forever,” he replied. “There will be some point in the future when the two-state solution either will happen or it won’t.” He likened the American Jewish community to Wile E. Coyote, racing off the edge of the cliff. “No one will want to look down,” he told me. “I don’t know at that point whether I’ll have the heart or the stomach to be part of it.”

Correction, March 23: This article previously described Beinart as a “secular Jew who attends Orthodox services.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.

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