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Peter Beinart: Pro-Israel, with questions

Essay on support for Israel sparks heated debate

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

May 25, 2010 | 12:29 pm

Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue, once edited The New Republic (the closest thing to a smicha for Jewish policy wonks) and backed Sen. Joe Lieberman’s quixotic 2004 bid to become the first Jewish president.

Which is why he’s always been counted among the Washington pundits who defend Israel, Zionism and the right of American Jews to lobby for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Beinart also frets about how Jewish his kids will be.

Which is why he worries about how Israel behaves, how it is perceived and what it means for American Jewry. And why, he says, he published a lengthy essay in last week’s New York Review of Books arguing that American Jews are becoming alienated from Israel and blaming U.S. Jewish groups for refusing to criticize the Israeli government’s perceived rightward shift.

“Having kids makes you react differently to things,” Beionart told JTA, speaking of what brought about his 5,000-word (not counting several subsequent rebuttals to rebuttals) encomium.

“It made me think more, not about my own Zionist identity, but about what Zionism was going to be available to them,” Beinart said. “I began to grow more and more concerned about the choice they would make, which would have been agonizing for me to watch unfold”—between an American universalism stripped of Zionism or an “anti-universalistic Zionism that has strong elements in Israel, and in the Orthodox community for which I have strong affection.”

Beinart’s essay has had an impact, unleashing a stream of responses. It is being examined as well in the uppermost precincts of organized U.S. Jewry, and has become fodder for lunchtime chats, insiders say.

“Everyone’s read it and everyone is talking about it,” said Marc Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

The essay comes as dovish and leftist groups in Israel and the United States are beginning to push back against the conventional wisdoms that define organizational American Jewish attitudes about Israel. The most prominent case is the rise in recent years of J Street, but there are other examples: B’Tselem, the human rights group, recently exported an Israeli staffer to direct its Capitol Hill operation.

Officials of Ir Amim, a group that counsels accommodating some Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem as a means of keeping the peace in the city, are touring the United States this week. They are sounding out Jewish leaders about how to make the case for a shared city to an American Jewish polity where dividing the city is something of a third rail.

For the most part, the debate has assumed something of the tone of an earnest, friendly exchange, with the combatants avoiding the sort of dueling take-no-prisoners charges of dual loyalty and anti-Semitism that sometimes marks such exchanges.

In large part that’s because of Beinart’s biography and standing. Even his critics admit that Beinart—unlike other critics of U.S. Jewish support for Israel who have cast it as an anomaly at best and dual loyalty at worst—cannot be shooed away.

James Kirchick, like Beinart an alumnus of The New Republic, said in a critique published on Foreign Policy’s Web site that Beinart’s arguments could not be dismissed.

“Beinart has never been part of American Jewry’s leftist faction; up until recently, he was a prominent spokesperson for the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party,” Kirchick said.

Beinart’s synagogue door declaration of independence from what he says is establishment Jewish orthodoxy (small o) is framed in the politest of terms, although he names names: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“In theory, mainstream American Jewish organizations still hew to a liberal vision of Zionism,” he writes. “On its website, AIPAC celebrates Israel’s commitment to ‘free speech and minority rights.’

Beinart says the Conference of Presidents declares that ” ‘Israel and the United States share political, moral and intellectual values including democracy, freedom, security and peace.,’ These groups would never say, as do some in Netanyahu’s coalition, that Israeli Arabs don’t deserve full citizenship and West Bank Palestinians don’t deserve human rights. But in practice, by defending virtually anything any Israeli government does, they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”

The response, on the record from the pro-Israel commentariat and off the record from some of Beinart’s targets: He’s moved on. Once an Iraq war supporter, he is now affiliated with the New American Foundation, the liberal-realist think tank that is home to a number of pronounced critics of traditional American pro-Israel orthodoxies.

Shmuel Rosner, a blogger for The Jerusalem Post whose focus for years has been on relations between Israel and U.S. Jewry, wondered whether Beinart hadn’t made it a little too personal.

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