Keep dreaming: Beinart's good old-fashioned Zionism
Martin Buber once observed that a people cannot be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. Are we ready for redemption?
Peter Beinart Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Engaged as I am in a lifelong struggle to keep my weight under control, I refuse
to get on the scale after any occasion on which I know I’ve eaten way beyond
what I should have. Which means I haven’t weighed myself for a week
Do I think by not looking down at those discouraging digits on the
dial, I will eliminate the unwanted pounds brought on by latkes and doughnuts?
Of course not, but it does allow me to avoid confronting truths that I prefer
not to deal with.
For much the same reason, if I’d known what I was in
for, I might never have opened Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. From what
I’d heard about the book, I expected to be exasperated by a bleeding-heart
liberal who really didn’t understand what was going on here, a quasi-supporter
of Israel who, from the comfort of his cosseted life in America, had the
audacity to lecture those of us whose lives are on the line about the need to
risk our safety in the name of American liberalism that has little applicability
in our neighborhood.
Instead, I found myself staring directly at what I
had become in the eyes of others after long avoiding that proverbial good look
in the mirror. Captivated by Beinart’s sobering account of the erosion of
Israel’s ethical high ground, I was unable to avert my gaze from the unbecoming
blemishes his writing exposed.
And while I don’t concur with everything
he describes, I did find myself agreeing with much more of it than I am
comfortable admitting. Even if Beinart’s narrative is infused with a degree of
naivete, there can be no denying that it includes at least an equal measure of
truth. And if he is overly forgiving of Palestinian culpability for things being
as they are, his objective was not to influence Muslim behavior but to coax the
Jews of Israel and the Diaspora to press more aggressively for peace and social
justice. In doing so, he advocates eloquently for the sort of Israel of which I
Ultimately, The Crisis of Zionism is a passionate plea
that we abide by the principles of decency and democracy enshrined in our
Declaration of Independence while aspiring to the noble moral standards
bequeathed us by Theodor Herzl, who is quoted extensively. For all the brouhaha,
Beinart is a champion of good old-fashioned Zionism, zealously concerned that
Israel is moving steadily toward its demise as both a Jewish and a democratic
state, an end he is afraid will come about less “because Arab armies invade the
West Bank than because Israel permanently occupies it.”
what he wrote not to harangue us, but to sound a wake-up call. His analysis is
not that of a disinterested party who bears no accountability for what is going
on here, but rather that of a member of the tribe who feels personally
responsible for doing anything and everything he can to prevent us from
continuing along a trajectory of self-destruction.
worried that we are nearing the point of irreversibility, he wrote what he wrote
in the hope that collectively we might yet avoid our own undoing.
a message particularly pertinent in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of
Defense, the UN decision to grant Palestine non-member observer state status and
our government’s response authorizing the planning of 3,000 new housing units in
With whatever weapon systems we have that might
prevent missiles from landing in Israel, he writes, “they will be of no use on
the day that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians march, non-violently, to
demand the very ‘equality of social and political rights’ promised them in our
Declaration of Independence.”
Metaphorically, that is pretty much what
happened in New York last month. And he is concerned not only that our actions
will lead to the unraveling of Israel’s delicate social fabric and its isolation
in the world, but also that “if American Jewish leaders continue to defend the
Israeli government at the expense of Israeli democracy, they may find their own
children and grandchildren cheering these protesters on.”
too. Beinart sends them to a Jewish day school, maintains a kosher home,
frequents an Orthodox synagogue and, like Yehuda Halevi before him, lives in the
utmost reaches of the West while his heart is in the East. But all of this will
not be enough to keep the next generation bound to Israel, he argues, if we
abandon the moral foundations of what it is that the Zionist movement set out to
“Jewish texts connect the Jewish right to sovereignty in the land of
Israel to Jewish behavior in the land of Israel,” he insists, quoting from the
innumerable biblical sources that say just that. If we teach our children that
our tradition demands of us that we not oppress the stranger, forsake the poor
or pervert justice, and they perceive that we are acting otherwise, then we
should not be surprised if they abandon us and come to question the very idea of
a Jewish state.
Nor should we be surprised if that Jewish state were to
disintegrate. The last two times that happened, he reminds us, “our tradition
insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse.”
THERE is one cardinal matter about which I take issue with Beinart, and that is
his determination as to how to make things right: his call for a “Zionist”
boycott of West Bank settlements.
Though he pointedly insists that
sustained pro- Israel activity must be integral to any such campaign, the
proposal must be rejected on a number of grounds, even by those sympathetic to
his contention that the settlements are responsible for much that is wrong with
1. With the exception of a number of illegal outposts,
which, for the most part, have been removed over the years, the settlements were
It would be unfair to punish those who have been
implementing the policy of democratically elected governments (including those
on the Left), rather than seeking to effect a change in regime by effecting
change in public sentiment.
2. I have railed against rabbis who instruct
soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements and who call upon their
disciples to resist evacuation. But how different are the rabbis’ efforts to
keep the settlements in place from Beinart’s call to action that he hopes will
lead to their removal? Besides, I am afraid of the consequences. Civil
disobedience is one thing; civil war is something else.
3. Even if I were
able to make the case for boycotting the settlements, I am not prepared to risk
legitimizing the contemptible international campaign that calls for a boycott of
Israel as a whole and that seeks to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish
state. The line that Beinart draws between one sort of embargo and the other is
far too fine and therefore unacceptably risky.
My rejection of Beinart’s
prescription of how to heal that which ails Israeli society does not mean I
reject his diagnosis of the disease. I merely argue for alternative treatment.
Israelis have the ballot box, and with elections on the horizon the opportunity
is immediate. For Diaspora Jews, there are numerous NGOs through which they
might strive to influence Israeli policy.
The bottom line is this: One
need not agree with the particulars of Beinart’s account of the failed peace
process and his strategy for reviving it in order to take note of the broad
strokes he paints in regard to what he says is “the central Jewish question of
our age: the question of how to ethically wield power.” It is a question
particularly pertinent during these days immediately following
In the reading of the prophets recited this past Shabbat,
leadership engaged in rebuilding the Jewish homeland is enjoined not to forsake
the path of righteousness in its pursuit of national revival. “This is the word
of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says
the Lord of hosts.” More easily preached than practiced, but nevertheless
expressive of what we must strive to be as an antidote to what we might
otherwise become. “Either our generation will help Israel reconcile its
democratic and Zionist ideals,” Beinart writes, “or we will make our children
choose between them.”
A people cannot be redeemed until it recognizes the
flaws in its soul and tries to efface them, Martin Buber once observed. It is
time we get on the scale and look down before the bulges we’d prefer to ignore
(including the one expanding into E1) grow to proportions that make it
impossible to read the numbers altogether.
The writer is vice chairman of
the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive. The
opinions expressed herein are entirely his own.