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Jewish Journal

Wolpe vs. Beinart

by Rabbi David Wolpe

February 13, 2012 | 11:03 am

Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart

Announcing his new book in a hucksterish e-mail to J street members, Peter Beinart details the truths vouchsafed to him and his fellow enlightened acolytes. A brief sampler:

“I’m looking forward to being with all of you at J Street, since you understand that an American Jewish community that sent its sons and daughters to Mississippi when African Americans were denied equal citizenship merely because they were not white cannot turn away when millions of West Bank Palestinians are denied rights simply because they are not Jews.”

“Finally, it [Beinart’s new book] offers an agenda for what American Jews — especially young American Jews — must do if we don’t want to be the generation that watches the dream of a democratic Jewish state die.”

“The great Jewish question of our age is whether a people who for millennia lived as strangers — and spun visions of justice that inspired the world — will act justly now that we wield power.”

The parade of self-confident sophistries is confounding. “Denied rights simply because they are not Jews.” Beinart’s phrase elides a torturous history of renunciation, rejection, terror, promises of annihilation and, well, war. It places the entire burden of the conflict on the Israelis, inhabitants of the only state in the world whose existence is constantly questioned and threatened. It turns what has been a painful (and, to be sure, sometimes brutal) occupation of a population, with agonizing options on both sides and blood-strewn sidewalks, into the thinly veiled implication of racist oppression. If you said the reverse, that the Arab nations made war on Israel “just because they were Jews,” you would have a more supportable sentence.

I’ve read Beinart’s writings, heard him speak and always thought him smart and thoughtful, even when I disagree. But now, the pen of the propagandist is masquerading as prophet.

The second quote is more appropriate to an oracle than an analyst. “Must do” is not “what I believe we should do” or “what I think Israel needs.” This is not punditry, but revelation. It characterizes those who disagree with Beinart as the destroyers of democracy — pretty dramatic rhetorical overkill. My guess is he has been watching too many Republican debates.

Is there no room for honest dissent? I am no fan of the settler movement. I agree that two states is the only just and workable solution. But (and this is where we apparently diverge) I acknowledge I could be wrong about how to get there. We agree that Palestinians have suffered terribly. An end to the current impasse is urgently needed. But Beinart’s certainty about the ends of equality and statehood has frozen into lockstepping the means, and dictating acceptable attitudes. There are thoughtful, kind people who disagree. Many of them, I suspect, do not aspire to raze democracy. This e-mail is an end-zone dance, a strutting lack of humility.

What is the principal concern of the letter? The good fortune of the author: It begins, apropos the timing of his book, “Sometimes you get lucky.” Its guiding metaphor? The Jewish participation in the black civil rights movement. Its driving assumption — that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is the “great Jewish question of the age.”

Yet Mr. Beinart, this is not the great Jewish question of the age. It is a great and important question, to be sure. But when a nation struggles with the threat of being vaporized in a nuclear conflict, to call its policies on the West Bank and Gaza “the great question” is myopic at best. (It also is somewhat ironic to call it the great Jewish question and not cite a single classical Jewish source. So let me repair the omission: Talmud Bavli, Berachot 4a: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know.’ ”) Does Beinart, does anyone, imagine for a moment that reconciling with the Palestinians will persuade Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stop weaponizing high-grade plutonium?

The prospect is not theoretical. Here is one of any number of statements from Iran’s president: “Nations in the region will be more furious every day. It won’t take long before the wrath of the people turns into a terrible explosion that will wipe the Zionist entity off the map.” Dead nations have no ethical dilemmas. Still, to Beinart this is not Israel’s principal problem, perhaps because there is no useful analogy to be made between Ahmadinejad’s resolve to destroy Israel and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

Invoking the civil rights movement is an act of unhopeful audacity. (J Street as the NAACP? I wonder which Palestinian leader is Martin Luther King Jr.; let us dream of the time children will be off of school for Abu Mazen Day.) Comparing the Israeli struggle with the Palestinians to the American civil rights movement not only erases historical distinctions, it wields a grotesque historical analogy as a club to beat the political position with which you disagree. It is dispiriting to read this from a former editor of The New Republic, a venerable and important magazine. Is Israel not nestled among enemies? America changed radically in response to 9/11; surely we can sustain some flickering awareness of what it must be to exist surrounded by nations that dream of wreaking such havoc each day? I wonder how this letter would strike the schoolchildren of Sederot.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a historic tragedy. Israel has sometimes done bad, misguided, even terrible things. But it lives every day knowing that peaceful coexistence is for many a stepping stone, not an endgame. This makes the dilemma of deciding how to conduct Israeli policy more difficult than the bromide blast of Beinart’s e-mail suggests. Reading it makes me want to go down on my knees and beg for the same commodity that I beg for when reading or hearing screeds from the far right: Nuance, please. Complexity, please. Humility — for God’s sake, please.

My children do not patrol the borders. They do not dismantle unexploded rockets. They do not walk gingerly into cafes, always wondering, always fearful, even in quiet times. There aren’t too many bomb shelters in Westwood. When I express my opinions about Israel’s conduct, which I do, this reality is foremost in my mind. There is a penalty for choosing not to live in Israel: A certain diffidence, a willingness to listen and appreciate the result of a democratic process, even when one disagrees with the result. A corresponding reluctance, at least, to demonize the elected leaders of the Jewish state. 

Beinart’s e-mail represents what is wrong with the debate: It is smug in its dismissal of Israel’s leadership and grandiose in presenting one view as the sole salvation of that beleaguered nation’s honor. Peter Beinart raises crucial, abiding issues. Then he compares those who take a different view to racist destroyers of democracy. This is not debate. This is not dialogue. This is demagoguery. He is better than this and we must be, too. In Pirkei Avot, Avtalion warns sages to be careful with their words. The warning applies to those who are not sages, as well.

David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook/RabbiWolpe.

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