May 25, 2010
Peter Beinart: Pro-Israel, with questions
Essay on support for Israel sparks heated debate
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“It is a story worthy of telling, with careful attention to detail, with open mind,” Rosner wrote. “A story more interesting than the personal misgivings one Jewish liberal is trying to impose on the community as a whole.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent at the Atlantic, and Leon Wieseltier, Beinart’s former colleague at The New Republic, chided Beinart for publishing his essay in The New York Review of Books, which has published material questioning the validity of a Jewish state. In response, Beinart has noted that it also has published tough defenses of Israel—and that it is an apt forum for a writer trying not only to reconcile Zionism with liberals, but liberals with Zionism.
More substantive complaints had to do with Beinart’s omissions: He mentions only in passing the Palestinian responsibility—through the failure to contain terrorism and incitement—for frustrating the peace talks, and also does not substantially treat the existential threat implied by Iran’s current rulers. He also focuses on Netanyahu’s 1993 book “A Place Among the Nations,” which severs the Palestinians from his vision of a peaceful Middle East instead of the prime minister’s more recent pronouncements acceding to a two-state solution.
Beinart, in follow-up essays in the online Daily Beast, another of his employers, argues that he glances by the Palestinians because he is writing about and for Jews.
“My piece never claimed to offer an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Iranian conflict.,” he wrote. “Rather, it was a plea for American Jewish organizations to take sides in Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians, and thus help save liberal Zionism in the United States. Those American Jewish organizations, of course, don’t need to be encouraged to criticize Iran and the Palestinians.”
As for Netanyahu, Beinart argues that his acceptance of Palestinian statehood was only grudging and came under intense American pressure.
Rosner also picks over Beinart’s statistical analyses, wondering if they hold up. The research, Rosner says, shows that American Jews who believe in trading land for peace—and who conceivably would be at odds with its current government—nonetheless describe themselves as attached to Israel, whatever its current political posture. Kirchick notes that attachment to Israel has traditionally increased with age.
Steven M. Cohen, one of the sociologists whose work Beinart cites in his essay, thinks Beinart is right to say younger Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel, but wrong to blame it on politics. Instead, he argued in a response published by Foreign Policy, the main factor is intermarriage—more specifically, the “departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic ‘groupiness,’ of which Israel attachment is part.”
That said, Cohen added, “Jewishly engaged young adults” are turned off by their perception that debate over Israel is not welcomed in Jewish communal circles.
“If Israel is to retain the engagement of the coming (and present) generation of American Jews,” he wrote, “organized American Jewry will need to provide a third alternative—one that combines love of Israel with a rich and open discourse on its policies and politics.”
Whatever the dimensions of the threat, even some of Beinart’s named targets—speaking off the record—agreed that a crisis was imminent and that he raised worthwhile issues.
“Is my diagnosis as dour as his is? No, I’m probably not as pessimistic as Beinart is,” said one such official. “But anybody’s who’s not worried about” disaffection among younger Jews, “whether they believe his thesis or not, is fooling themselves.”
Beinart’s best point, this official said, is that young Jews are not as prone to see themselves as victims as the establishment is.
“The most correct part of his analysis, the challenge for us, is a Jewish community that is changing,” the official said. “We have viewed ourselves as having been powerless and weak, but we have evolved into a community that is powerful and strong.”
Plenty of previous debates over Israel and the pro-Israel lobby have descended into name calling and generated plenty of hostility. Not this time, according to Beinart.
“In all honesty, the thing I worried about most was the reaction of some of our friends because a lot of the people whose friendship I really value are significantly to my right, which isn’t surprising at an Orthodox synagogue. But I mostly worried for nothing,” Beinart wrote in an exchange with Goldberg. “There’s been a lot of disagreement, but nothing the least bit malicious. It’s made me realize how remarkable and unusual a community we live in, in fact. I think I may even have smoked out one or two hidden doves.”
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