As the whole Peter Beinart flap was unfolding weeks ago, I had an idea to do a simple but potentially interesting video blog post asking regular, educated Israelis what they thought of Beinart and his ideas. The inevitable response from at least nine out of ten respondents would have been: "Who''s Peter Beinart?"
I rejected the idea at the time, thinking it too snarky, and petty as well. What I realized once I got to America to celebrate Passover, however, is that the point isn''t trivial at all.
American Jewry, and just a small part of it at that, is having a conversation with itself. That its topic is Israel seems like mere happenstance, a pretext for the larger issue, which is the identity of American Jewry and its fading culture.
The question is not Israel''s survival, though this existential element is sprinkled into the mix for effect. Beinart himself is explicit on this point -- he wants to talk not about Israel itself, but about the kind of relationship American Jews should have with Israel today.
But this is where Beinart''s analysis is dishonest. A relationship is not a unilateral thing. Yet Beinart speaks only of the one half, as if the American Jewish understanding of Israel is objective. For him, Israel has no meaningful existence independent of its big brother in the Diaspora. This is the tacit assumption of Beinart''s entire thesis: American Jewish views are central to the Jewish state.
Israelis'' obliviousness to this nuanced (and at times, neurotic) conversation couldn''t be more of a repudiation to the theory -- and neither could Israel''s own history. Independence is the defining feature of the people of Israel. Self-determination, not determination-by-proxy, is the raison d''être of the Jewish state.
Israel will survive. That''s what Israel does. The question is whether American Jewry will survive. Looking at the history of Diaspora communities from Spain to Holland to Yemen, there''s little reason to think that American Jewry will endure indefinitely. Looking to American Jewish life -- including skyrocketing assimilation rates and a diluted, disappearing culture -- there''s even less.
Beinart''s prescription for the ailment is to peg American Jewish identity to a certain political stance on Israel. But the move is factitious and off-mark, a fact underscored by the almost universal derision Beinart has received in reviews of his book, including by some of the most distinguished American Jewish commentators.
One of them, Bret Stephens, the former editor of the Jerusalem Post and now Wall Street Journal columnist, concluded his withering review of Beinart''s book in Tablet magazine by noting how badly Israel could use a book that authentically speaks to the "crisis of Zionism," the eponymous topic of Beinart''s book.
While I don''t completely disagree with Mr. Stephens on this count (there have been a number of groundbreaking books on Zionism written in the past few years), the real, dire need is not for a book about the crisis of Zionism per se, but the crisis of American Jewry.
This is, after all, a great community, numbering in the millions, that has struggled to meld the mores of an ancient civilization with the ideals of a young republic. The struggle is as momentous as it is original: for the first time in history a community of Jews is threatened (in terms of assimilation and the loss of its culture) by the tolerance and openness of its environment.
Looking back to Israel, a Jewish democracy in a sea of political and religious antipathy, the opposite is true. Israel still lives in a ghetto, just on a global scale. And, in a way, this is precisely what protects us, or forces us to protect ourselves.
"Who is Peter Beinart?" is then a very salient question. Who is the American Jew? Asking who he is in relation to Israel, as Mr. Beinart has tried to do, is one way to approach it. But this is a deflection. A truly authentic answer must come from an authentic question. It must come from within. And maybe then, once American Jewry has understood itself, can it properly understand its relationship with Israel.