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Peter Beinart Responds

The author of the The Crisis of Zionism strikes back at criticism of his controversial new book about Israel and American Jews

Peter Beinart
March 30, 2012

When someone calls you “an angry ex” and an “angry scold” and says your book is an “act of moral solipsism” written in “a spirit of icy contempt and patent insincerity,” it is tough to know where to begin.

Indeed, much of Bret Stephens’ long and vitriolic review of my book, The Crisis of Zionism, in these pages is just invective. Stephens actually begins by attacking empathy. In response to my saying that Khaled Jaber, a Palestinian boy whose father was arrested for trying to bring water to his village, “could have been my son,” Stephens points out: “The connection to Beinart is that Beinart’s son also calls him Baba. That’s it.” Yes, that’s it. Watching a boy my son’s age—who calls his father the same name my son calls me—scream hysterically for his father, unjustly arrested by police from the Jewish state that I love, had a powerful effect on me. Am I supposed to apologize for that?

Stephens criticizes me for not flying out to meet the Jabers. “Nothing in The Crisis of Zionism,” he writes, “suggests that Beinart ever set foot outside of his study to write this book.” But Stephens is making a basic mistake about my book. Unlike Gershom Gorenberg’s recently published The Unmaking of Israel, which Stephens praises, my book is not primarily about Israel, but about American Jews and the relationship between the United States and Israel. Thus, in the sections on Israeli history and politics, I rely primarily on the work of Israeli experts. A reader of my footnotes will find citations of books by Dov Waxman on Israeli Arabs, Benny Morris on Israel’s War of Independence, Gorenberg on the growth of the settlements, Yaacov Shavit on Revisionist Zionism, Tom Segev on Israel’s early years, and numerous other academics, historians, and journalists, some of whom read chapters of The Crisis of Zionism and offered critiques.

But for the larger part of the book—about the politics of Israel in the United States—I most certainly did leave my study. In fact, I conducted dozens and dozens of interviews with people in the organized American Jewish world and in the Obama Administration. Surely Stephens knows this, because he got a Wall Street Journal column out of my reporting on Obama’s Jewish influences in Chicago. As a columnist and editorial writer who largely writes from his own armchair, he’s got a lot of chutzpah to bite the reportorial hand that feeds him.

Stephens makes much of my supposed errors “of omission.” He points out, for instance, that I quote former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami saying, “If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well,” but that I don’t cite Ben-Ami’s description of Arafat as “morally, psychologically, physically incapable of accepting the moral legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of its borders or whatever.” Stephens then speculates that I must have gotten Ben-Ami’s quote from Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer’s book, The Israel Lobby, since apparently they use the same Ben-Ami quote that I do. That is absolutely untrue. I don’t cite Walt and Mearsheimer at all in The Crisis of Zionism for a simple reason: I didn’t read it as part of the research for my book. My footnotes explain exactly where I got Ben-Ami’s quote—from the Democracy Now interview where he said it.

Think about Stephens’ claim for a second. My footnotes say very clearly where I got the Ben-Ami quote. Stephens, without any evidence, essentially accuses me of lying in order to tie me to two writers widely loathed in Jewish circles whose book I have publicly criticized. And he’s questioning my intellectual honesty?

So, why didn’t I quote Ben-Ami’s attack on Arafat? Because it was irrelevant to my point. I wasn’t arguing that Arafat wanted to make peace. In fact, my book repeatedly condemns Arafat. I call him “corrupt and tyrannical” and say that there were good reasons to doubt he would budge on the Right of Return. Rather, I was arguing that then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer was not as generous as it is sometimes described by American Jews running major community organizations. To back up that claim, I quoted not just Ben-Ami, but also Aaron David Miller (President Clinton’s deputy special Middle East coordinator) and Martin Indyk (Clinton’s ambassador to Israel). If established centrists like these agree with me on Camp David—despite their views on Arafat—doesn’t that actually strengthen my argument?

Similarly, about my quotation of former Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash saying, “There is no longer an eastern front” (meaning that Israel no longer faces a serious threat of invasion from across the Jordan River), Stephens declares ominously that “there are, however, problems with this reference,” and continues:

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.

Well, there are problems with the problems. First, most of the threats Farkash outlines concern threats from inside the West Bank—not the threat of outside invasion by Israel’s Arab neighbors. I address those concerns as well (actually in the very next paragraphs), but the Farkash quotation he cites comes at the end of a section discussing conventional threats from abroad, so Stephens’ jabs mostly amount to a red herring.

Further, Stephens’ implication that Israel is substantially more at risk of invasion from the east than it was in 2003 is puzzling. With Syria paralyzed by internal strife, and the Sunni Jordanian government (which has a peace treaty with Israel) alienated from Shia-led Iraq, why does Stephens think I’m wrong when I say that the threat of conventional attack across the Jordan River is low? He doesn’t say.

Reading Stephens’ review, you’d also never know that I quote the eminent Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld as saying, “Israel can easily afford to give up the West Bank. Strategically speaking, the risk of doing so is negligible.” And then I criticize him for being over-optimistic. I don’t, contra Stephens, argue that there aren’t security risks associated with a Palestinian state. I say explicitly that there are, but I argue that the risks of making the occupation permanent—and thus inviting a one-state struggle—are greater.

Even when Stephens lands a blow, it’s of the nitpicking variety. True, the footnote for my argument that the Israeli blockade crippled the Gazan economy mistakenly cites a 2003 IMF report rather than the 2008 report. But does anyone doubt that the blockade was an economic catastrophe for Gaza? According to John Ging, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, between June 2007 and April 2008, 90 percent of Gaza’s industrial companies closed.

Stephens goes on to argue that I’m wrong to suggest that since the easing of the boycott the Strip “remains a place of brutal suffering.” To support this, he cites New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who said in July 2010, “Israel is correct when it denies that there is any full-fledged humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” Never mind that Kristof—in the exact same column—argues that “Israel should lift the siege altogether.” (Talk about quoting selectively.)

There’s no contradiction between Kristof and me: Gaza may not be experiencing a “full-fledged humanitarian crisis,” but it remains a place of “brutal suffering.” I chose those words carefully. Had Stephens not ripped that phrase out of context, readers would know that it refers to a 2011 report by the World Food Programme, which found that more than half of Gaza’s households are “food insecure,” which means they lack “access to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs.” Does Stephens deny the World Food Programme findings, which were what “brutal suffering” referred to? No, he doesn’t even acknowledge them.

Likewise with surveys. In the 2010 report by Brandeis’ Theodore Sasson, which claims to show that American Jews are not growing more distant from Israel, Stephens believes he’s found a “Fat Man” for my “Nagasaki.” But it pays to be skeptical of Stephens on WMDs. First of all, reading Stephens you’d think that Sasson and his colleagues were the first academics to ever study American Jewish distancing from Israel, and that I had been working off of anecdotal evidence until they came along to finally do some serious research.

That’s nonsense. Sasson’s isn’t the only study on American Jewish distancing; it’s just the only one Stephens gives any evidence of having read. Had Stephens studied the question carefully, he’d know that Steven M. Cohen—a preeminent scholar of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel—has been studying the distancing question since 1982. I cited one of his studies in my New York Review of Books piece in 2010, and cite several in The Crisis of Zionism. Sasson’s study challenges the conventional wisdom that Cohen helped forge: that American Jews are indeed growing more distant. But in 2010, when the journal Contemporary Jewry asked more than a dozen scholars their opinions, the predominant view was that Cohen was correct. Stephens gives no evidence of being familiar with the Contemporary Jewry special issue, either.

On the narrower question of why most scholars don’t agree with Sasson, it’s true that Sasson’s studies do include some Jews who don’t identify by religion (a cohort that tends to be more distant from Israel). I misread an essay by Ariela Keysar, a demographer and the study director of the American Jewish Identity Survey of 2001, who wrote in her critique of other distancing studies, “AJIS 2001 remains useful despite its age, because unlike other studies cited in the [Cohen and Sasson] papers, it covers all Jews, including those with no religion.”

So no, Sasson’s report didn’t study only Jews who identify by religion. But it did radically oversample them: Non-religious Jews (also known as “ethnic” or “cultural” Jews) make up roughly 12 percent of Sasson’s respondents, but in 2008, 37 percent of American Jews identified by ethnicity alone—and that number is growing. Since cultural Jews have a weak attachment to Israel, tripling their representation (to reflect the realities of American Jewry) would have resulted in a very different study. That discrepancy helps explain why Sasson’s findings place him in the scholarly minority.

Stephens quotes Sasson as saying, “Political differences on the liberal-to-conservative continuum were unrelated to measures of attachment to Israel.” From this he concludes: “Liberal as American Jews might be when it comes to domestic U.S. politics, on Israel their views tend to be fairly conservative.” But that leap requires conflating attachment to Israel and agreement with Israeli governmental policy. And no less than Theodore Sasson cautions against doing this:

Notwithstanding the lack of relationship between ideology and attachment, the present study showed that respondents’ general political orientations played a large role in their perspectives on virtually all policy issues related to Israel. … Political ideology was also a decisive factor in assessments of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship and with respect to opinions about the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem.

In another distortion, Stephens claims that “just 26 percent of even liberal Jews think Israel should dismantle all of [the settlements]; among moderates, the figure drops to 10 percent.” This sounds damning, until you remember that no final status agreement contemplated thus far has included the dismantling of all the settlements; nearly everyone agrees there will be land swaps. When you remember that, the statistics look pretty different. Fifty-seven percent of liberal American Jews support dismantling all or some of the settlements as part of a peace deal, while only 13 percent support dismantling none. In fact, when you factor out the 28 percent of the sample who answered “don’t know” (Stephens ignored them), you find that liberal American Jews support giving up settlements by about four to one. Even when you include the moderates and conservatives, Sasson’s sample still favors dismantling settlements, 46 percent to 28 percent.

It’s worth noting that prominent commentators who share Stephens’ political views agree with me that younger American Jews are distancing from Israel. “There is ample evidence of a general decline in American Jewish identification with Israel,” writes the right-leaning Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the Contemporary Jewry special issue. “Generationally speaking,” Stephens claims, “there even seems to be a rightward tilt among younger Jews.” I’ll let him explain that to the well-known Israeli commentator Daniel Gordis, president of the conservative Shalem Foundation, whose June 2011 Commentary article “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” bemoaned “weakening Zionist loyalties” among American rabbinical students—surely the most affiliated of young American Jews—“who are increasingly distanced from Israel.” Gordis went on to ask, “What has happened to this generation of young rabbinical students? Why are their instincts so different from those of my generation?”

Finally, there is Stephens’ struggle with himself over whether to call me an anti-Semite:

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.

I admire Stephens’ restraint, but not his logic. In the quotation of mine that directly precedes this paragraph, I say, “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.” The only way that statement can be interpreted as attributing anti-Semitism to Jewish actions is if you assume, a priori, that the criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. It’s a circular argument.

Over and over in his piece, Stephens hammers the point that Palestinians want to kill Jews, and that their violent rejectionism is what prevents peace. There’s some truth to that; that’s why in the book, I call Arafat’s role in the second intifada “a crime.” But Stephens claims, “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.” He must think I’m an idiot. Not only did I describe in grisly detail the horrific murders of the Fogel family in the Jewish settlement of Itamar in March 2011, I explicitly said that during Oslo, “Palestinian leaders had not done nearly enough to stop the terrorism that traumatized Israel. At times, in fact, they had actively abetted it.” So, yes, it has crossed my mind.

After ignoring my repeated criticisms of Palestinian leaders, Stephens wrongly accuses me of denying Palestinians moral agency by, well, not criticizing Palestinian leaders. But let’s turn the question around: How much moral agency does Stephens grant Israel? Does he grapple at all with the moral problems inherent in holding millions of West Bank Palestinians as non-citizens for 44 years? Does he concede that subsidizing Israelis to move to the West Bank—including to settlements deep in the West Bank—is self-defeating if you believe in a two-state solution? No, he ignores those uncomfortable questions almost entirely.

If we want Palestinians to take responsibility for their actions, we must ask Israel to do the same. One of the central arguments of The Crisis of Zionism is that the American Jewish establishment has not found an authentically Jewish language in which to discuss the ethical responsibilities of power. Stephens’ review illustrates the point all too well.

Raphael Magarik and Elisheva Goldberg helped with the research for this piece.


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Peter Beinart is author of The Crisis of Zionism, just out from Times Books, and editor of the Daily Beast blog, Open Zion. He is also associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.

Peter Beinart is author of The Crisis of Zionism, just out from Times Books, and editor of the Daily Beast blog, Open Zion. He is also associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.