April 7, 2012
Why Is Peter Beinart’s Book About Israel Different From All Other Books?
Of Peter Beinart’s much-attacked book, “The Crisis of Zionism” (Times Books, $26), I am compelled to ask: Why is this book different from all other books about the politics of Israel and the Zionist movement?
Beinart’s book has been ably covered in these pages by several of my colleagues at The Jewish Journal, but the book is so compelling that, frankly, I am sufficiently provoked by the book itself to have my say, too.
Over the last year or so, I have reviewed three other books whose authors, like Beinart, courageously ask questions about the challenges that Israel is facing, both in its own democracy and in dealing with the aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs. None of them attracted a fraction of the attention that Beinart now commands.
All of the other authors — J-Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami in “A New Voice for Israel,” Hirsh Goodman in “The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival” and Gershom Gorenberg in “The Unmaking of Israel” — asked the same tough questions that are so concerning to Beinart and came up with many of the same unsettling answers. Only Peter Beinart, however, has sparked such a firestorm in the media and the Jewish community.
One reason is that Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic, seems to know how to make himself heard. He trailed his coat provocatively in the pages of The New York Review of Books in 2010 and thus prompted his critics to attack the ideas in his book long before you could actually buy and read a copy.
Above all, however, Beinart did something that none of the others dared to do — he openly calls for American Jews to participate in a boycott aimed at Jewish enterprises located in the West Bank. The so-called “Zionist B.D.S.” — the acronym refers to “boycott, divest, sanction” — is meant to pressure Israel into ending Jewish settlement in the occupied territories by resorting to the same economic weapon that the United States is deploying to pressure Iran into ending its nuclear weapons program.
Even his sympathetic readers cannot quite endorse Beinart’s book, although they are willing to credit him for a certain measure of courage in speaking his ideas aloud.
“Although I doubt a ‘Zionist boycott’ is the right tactic, ‘The Crisis of Zionism’ is a remarkably articulate and compelling statement about what has gone haywire in Israeli politics and at the top of some American Jewish organizational leadership,” writes Don Futterman in Haaretz. “Refusing to accept the settler map, calling for an honest debate, on both sides of the Atlantic, about the occupation, and demanding accountability of ourselves - these are Jewish and Zionist acts of the highest order, the acts of ‘free people’ who have left the slave mentality of bondage behind.”
Beinart certainly knows that a call for a Jewish boycott is a poke in the eye, not just to the settler movement in Israel but to the Jewish people around the world. To be sure, Israel is now forced to confront one of the fundamental flaws in the Zionist idea — Palestine was never “a people without a land for a land without a people,” and no one has a good solution to the problem of Arab-Jewish co-existence. But Beinart is far too smart to believe that any significant number of Jews in America will use the checkbook as a weapon against their fellow Jews in Israel.
Indeed, Jews who live in security and prosperity in the United States are — or should be — reluctant to dictate to Jews who live under the threat of annihilation in Israel how they should deal with the dangers that beset them. We may share Beinart’s conviction that the occupation of the West Bank is ultimately an existential threat to Israeli democracy — it is also Goodman’s belief, and Gorenberg’s, and Ben-Ami’s — but, after all, the rockets are falling on Ashdod, Beersheba and Eilat rather than Dupont Circle, Union Square or Westwood Village.
Israel will survive Beinart’s book, which suggests that all of the anxiety directed at his book is overstated. A more subtle point is also true — Beinart only subverts himself by calling on American Jews to boycott Israel. He may sell more copies by charging his book with such an explosive idea, but he is unlikely to convert even his like-minded readers to his own way of thinking.
Of course, I think he knew it all along.