I’ll say this for Peter Beinart: he’s a marketing genius. I don’t remember the last time that the author of a book on Israel and Jewish affairs received such media exposure. Not only the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but—far more important for reaching the younger generation—the Stephen Colbert show.
I have refrained from commenting on Beinart because I had not read The Crisis of Zionism. Now that I have, I see that he has written not one book but two.
The first is on Israel and is flawed on many counts. As innumerable commentators have pointed out, he attributes a measure of moderation to Palestinian leaders that they simply do not possess. Beinart does not hold the Palestinians blameless, but he strains to present them as more reasonable in the peace negotiations of 2000 and 2008 than they actually were. He also presents a plan for boycotting Israeli goods produced in the West Bank that is deeply flawed morally, not to mention wildly impractical; it would succeed only in strengthening the hand of the Israel-hating BDS movement.
The second book is on American Jewry, and it’s not bad. True, it is given to sweeping generalizations (the Orthodox do not support a democratic Israel; the non-Orthodox are on the verge of assimilation) that are difficult to stomach, but he gets a lot of things right. Note the following:
*American Jewry is far too focused on the idea of Jewish victimhood. (Correct. We are Jewish because being Jewish is a joy and a privilege and Judaism is a compelling, commanding religious tradition; not because everyone hates us.)
*The Jewish situation on campus is deeply troubling. (Correct.)
*Our problems on campus are due in some measure to the fact that too many of our young people have not received a serious Jewish education. (Correct.)
*They are due also to the fact that Israel’s democratic character and the growth of West Bank settlements are major issues on campus and for all younger Jews. (Correct. The fact that we keep saying “settlements are not the issue” does not make the issue go away—particularly on campus. If you don’t believe me, ask a young Jew that you know.)
Beinart’s contemptuous dismissal of major Jewish leadership goes farther than it needs to or should—and I say that as a self-interested party who has had a role in that leadership for many years. The idea that Jewish leaders are simply unthinking apologists for immorality strikes me as absurd. Still, exaggerations aside, Israel’s democratic character IS an issue, and an important one. So too is the looming possibility of the one-state solution, which is already gaining currency on campus and elsewhere. But even those Jewish leaders who recognize this have little credibility with the young; these leaders are generally content to utter a few generalities (“I am not enthusiastic about all aspects of Israel’s settlement policy,” “I would like to see something done about illegal settlements”) and then quickly move on.
While I adamantly oppose Beinart’s boycott proposal, I wish that we American Jews could find a way to address these matters with some urgency. Young Jews would be profoundly grateful, and especially better educated young Jews who hunger for a solidly pro-Israel voice that speaks openly and honestly about some of the matters that Beinart puts on the table.
And finally, Beinart’s call for serious Jewish education, camping experiences, and Israel experiences, while hardly new, is welcome. While I do not share his enthusiasm for vouchers, he is surely right about the positive impact of Jewish day schools.
I have major problems with Mr. Beinart, but I suspect that he is not going away. Let’s support him in those areas where he is right and take him on in those areas where he is not.