Jewish Journal

Beinart’s Crisis

by Rabbi David Wolpe

March 23, 2012 | 2:13 pm

Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart’s new book showcases its deepest flaw on the very first page, courtesy of his grandmother. From her home in South Africa, she says to her American grandson who is boasting about his country, “Don’t get too attached. The Jews are like rats. We leave the sinking ship.”

This is a curious and perhaps unwitting inversion of Jewish history. Jews have left many countries, but rarely to abandon a sinking ship. Rather, they have repeatedly been thrown overboard. There are instances when Jews left of their own accord, but those are dispiritingly few. Wandering in Jewish history was an affliction, not a choice.

Despite the many cogent and important observations strewn throughout Beinart’s just released “The Crisis of Zionism” (Times Books), his grandmother’s voice unfortunately predominates.  Are there things for which to reproach the Jewish state in the historic conflict? Of course.  But it is both unfair and unhelpful to blame Jews for a predicament largely created and perpetuated by others.

Beinart’s fluent, readable narrative goes as follows: Despite the undoubted hostility of the Arab world and the historic powerlessness of Jews, today’s Judaism has been captured by an old paradigm.  The now powerful Jewish state and its supporters feel themselves free to oppress Palestinians as they nevertheless continue to feed a victimization story to an increasingly uninterested young American Jewish community. Geriatric, shortsighted Jewish organizations such as AIPAC wield such outsized power that they force otherwise devoted liberal Zionists, like President Barack Obama, to retreat and betray their ideals.

There are important arguments in the book, if not new ones. It is hard to make a case that many of Israel’s settlements are anything but an impediment to a final resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. Granted, there are settlements and there are settlements, a distinction to which Beinart gives little attention. Ma’ale Adumim, for example, is a town of 40,000.  But 50 people planted between Palestinian cities needing to be guarded by Israeli soldiers, bent on proving that Jews can live anywhere on God-given land, are a foolish and shameful drain on the resources of the state, a calculated humiliation of the surrounding population and a deliberate sabotaging of those who would have negotiations succeed. Advocates always say that settlements are not the crucial obstacle to peace, acceptance is. That is true, but they sure don’t help.

Yet along the way to making his point, Beinart offers up some spotty history, and an inaccurate picture of both American Jewry and some of its central organizations.

Recounting the history of the conflict, Beinart repeatedly blames Israel.  The collapse of the summit at Camp David in 2000 was seen by almost everyone as a failure of the Palestinian side to respond to very generous concessions.  Despite a later campaign headed by Robert Malley, an American negotiator, to blame Israel for the failure, the overwhelming consensus endured. Not to Beinart. Outlining Israel’s presumed shortcomings, Beinart quotes the Israeli historian and former diplomat Shlomo Ben-Ami as saying: “If I were a Palestinian I would have rejected the Camp David accords.” Perhaps so. Rare is the negotiator who simply accepts the other side’s proposals. 

Ben-Ami is a noted dove, yet the quotation is a complete misrepresentation of his views. As Beinart surely knows, in a widely circulated interview in Haaretz (available online) Ben Ami said: “Never, in the negotiations between us and the Palestinians, was there a Palestinian counterproposal.  There never was and there never will be. So the Israeli negotiator always finds himself in a dilemma: Either I get up and walk out because these guys aren’t ready to put forward proposals of their own, or I make another concession.  In the end, even the most moderate negotiator reaches a point where he understands there is no end to it.”

Moreover, in trying to equally apportion blame for Camp David, Beinart neglects to mention President Bill Clinton’s widely reported recounting of his exchange with Yasser Arafat:  Clinton told guests at a party at the Manhattan apartment of former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his wife, writer Kati Marton, that Arafat called to bid him farewell three days before Clinton left office. “You are a great man,” Arafat said. “The hell I am,” Clinton said he responded. “I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”

Palestinian responsibility for the conflict seems to elude Beinart in these pages.  Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza did not occasion a flourishing of the economy and self-government, but a continuing fusillade of rockets. The fractured political culture of the Arab nations does not stop at the borders of the presumptive Palestinian state.  A thought experiment: If tomorrow the Gaza Strip, under the same conditions, with the same international concern, was filled with the population of Israel, how long do you think it would be before there were seaside resorts and software start-ups? 

Contempt for AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is a constant theme, perhaps unsurprising for a book whose launch is to be at the J Street conference. In Beinart’s pages, AIPAC is led by old men, mostly the children of survivors, whose deep intent is to sabotage moves toward peace and push the American government to the right with the help of its Evangelical allies.

In a book capable of balance and nuance, repeatedly fairness falls victim to polemics. To take one example, Sheldon Adelson (the recent benefactor of Newt Gingrich) is described as “the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, one of the largest donors to AIPAC and the more right-leaning Zionist Organization of America.”

Actually, Adelson backed away from funding AIPAC, and two different reasons have been reported. One was AIPAC’s support of the 2007 Annapolis process, which promoted the two-state solution. The other was AIPAC’s support of more aid to the Palestinian Authority. Neither sounds like the sort of policy that would be adopted by the book’s caricature of AIPAC.

Having just returned from the AIPAC Washington conference of 13,000 people, the largest ever, I can tell you that the conference was filled with young people, high school age and up, in the thousands.  Our own Sinai Temple delegation of 285 people included young and old and everyone in between.  Anything but enfeebled, the conference, which was covered on the front page of major newspapers around the country, was vibrant and exciting.

It may be true, as Beinart writes, that “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.” Perhaps AIPAC does not push Hamas’ change of heart with quite the brio Beinart would wish, but then, mild adjustments in the language of genocide are hard to celebrate.

AIPAC’s tradition is to strengthen Israel-American ties. So it pushed — against the wishes of the Zionist Organization of America and many congress people — for withdrawal from Gaza when that was the Israel government’s policy. Unsurprisingly but also unfortunately, this stand against the right-wing agenda is unmentioned in the book. 

In his zeal to indict AIPAC with ideological rigidity, Beinart sometimes stoops to an unbecoming level of innuendo: “At a rooftop reception during the Democratic National Convention in August, one party official accused AIPAC staffers of disseminating anti-Obama material.” This unsourced charge is based on a single official accusing unnamed staffers. It is not worthy to appear in a reporter’s book.

Such sporadic carelessness mars an otherwise carefully sourced book. For example, Beinart cites Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman’s praise of American diplomat Dennis Ross as being a result of Ross’ “excessive deference” to the Israeli government. Not only did his source (The Forward) say no such thing, but his choice to belittle Ross, an able man who has managed to serve presidents on both sides of the aisle, suggests that Beinart cannot appreciate even a balanced advocate for Israel’s cause. 

A large part of the book is written to establish President Obama’s bona fides as a man who has always been close to Jews and the Jewish community.  About that there can be little doubt. In Chicago and ever since, Obama has been close to a large number of Jews. After all, his chief of staff, Jacob Lew, is an Orthodox Jew, and probably the only high executive official in American history who cannot regularly eat in the White House mess because it isn’t kosher.  The president’s cause is not helped, however, with sentences like this, Beinart’s only reference to the egregious Rev. Jeremiah Wright:

“Obama gravitated toward Reverend Wright’s Trinity Church, partly because of the church’s deep commitment to social justice, partly because it offered him the authentic African-American experience he craved, and partly because it provided him a potential power base in Chicago.” Even for someone who believes, as I do, that the president cares about Israel, this will not do to clarify his attachment to Wright, a man with a long history of inflammatory statements, who in a speech in June 2011 called the State of Israel “illegal” and “genocidal.”

When dealing with the American Jewish community, Beinart once again makes a powerful case abetted by overlooking certain inconvenient facts. In talking about the disaffection of American Jews, he might at least acknowledge that statistics are tricky.  According to the American Jewish Committee polling that has tracked attitudes for years, there is virtually no change in the numbers of American Jews who express themselves as being “close” or “very close” to Israel — in 2001 it was 72 percent; in 2010, 74 percent. The drop-off maintained in the book may seem anecdotally compelling, but doesn’t fit the facts. Similarly, against Beinart’s contentions, a recent CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America)  poll found that more than 75 percent of American Jews blame the Palestinians for the peace deadlock, and not the Israeli government.

Beinart makes an eloquent argument at the close of his book that attachment to Israel is ultimately a result of serious Jewish education. The book ends with a paean to Jewish education in general and day schools in particular. These words warm any rabbi’s heart. Beinart’s recognition of the increasing radicalism of some Israelis (those, for example, who odiously sanctify Baruch Goldstein), the destructive impact of some of the settlements and the importance of Jewish education — these are important and worthy points.  But they are embedded in a narrative that is unreliably one-sided.  Sometimes the language is inflammatory to the point of offense, as when he speaks of Israel’s alternately procedural and military operations in the West Bank as “for every act of law, a little pogrom.” The use here of “pogrom,” apart from being a-historical and irksome, is sticking his thumb in the establishment’s eye. 

Perhaps no single sentiment better illustrates the perceptual gulf than this: “The main reason Israel generates disproportionate criticism from the 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.”

Were the British not Western when they used brutal methods to undermine the Irish Republican Army? Never mind the Middle East or Africa. And where was the repeated worldwide condemnation for the brutality of Latin American dictatorships, or the Russians when they obliterated Chechnya?  Why did none of these regimes merit the constant, unrelenting, pounding condemnation of the world? If you don’t see the specter of anti-Semitism it is not because of its absence; it is because you are either not looking or you refuse to see.

When people ask what keeps the conflict going, I invite them to imagine that tomorrow the Palestinians had the firepower of the Israelis and the Israelis the firepower of the Palestinians. Do you think the Jews would be subject to occasional harassments, resource depletion and roadblocks? Or do you suspect, do you know somewhere deep down, that the world would witness a terrible massacre? And if you think the second, how gingerly would you conduct negotiations toward statehood? 

The word “Iran” is mentioned just once in this book called “The Crisis of Zionism.” Here is the sentence: “Between them, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have missiles that can hit every inch of Israel.” This demonstrates, writes Beinart, since the threat is rockets, a state on the West Bank is, like these threats, a question of maintaining an adequate deterrent. During the Cold War, when all of America was within range of Russian missiles, I wonder if anyone would have considered it an acceptable additional threat to American security to have Fidel Castro establish a state in Texas.

Beinart’s argument for two states has tremendous support in the United States and in Israel, including among Israel’s military specialists who agree that getting to a two-state solution is essential both demographically and humanely.  But we will not get there by whitewashing the unremitting hostility of Israel’s neighbors, or deriding the American Jewish groups that have succeeded in attaining a position of influence through knowledge, hard work and cogent argumentation. 

So why the self-lacerating blame? Perhaps this is the true legacy of victimization — you think you must be at fault when things don’t go right.  It is not always so, no matter what your grandmother says.

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