Marketing professionals often speak of “not reinventing the wheel.” It seems
that when it comes to selling the need to critique Israel, this concept has not
been well understood.
The latest manifestation is Peter Beinart’s The
Crisis of Zionism, due to be published in late March.
The buzz is already
Roger Cohen profiled the book in a New York Times
February 13. Employing words like “important,” “timely” and “new”. Mr. Cohen hit
all the important notes in his laudatory remarks.
What is important to
understand is that this latest polemic is navigating familiar waters. Remember
The Israel Lobby
by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt of the
University of Chicago and Harvard respectively, initially published as an essay
in the London Review of Books
in March 2006?
The essay itself garnered a huge
amount of attention, with spots devoted to it on National Public Radio and The
New York Review of Books
. A year later it appeared as a book and was again
treated as if it was some new idol-smashing research. In a similar twist
Beinart’s essay-to-book odyssey began at the New York Review of Books
The problem with this story is not the method by which a well
received article becomes a book. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air
began as a
wonderful story in Outside magazine before becoming a best seller. But unlike
Krakauer, who detailed a tragedy on Everest, Beinart’s banal, brooding book is
merely parroting a well-known critique.
So why is it considered “new” and
“important”? In his initial essay Beinart wrote, “in the world of AIPAC, the
Holocaust analogies never stop, and their message is always the same: Jews are
licensed by their victimhood to worry only about themselves.”
writes, as if he has just had a Road-to-Damascus moment, that this “new book
rejects the manipulation of Jewish victimhood in the name of Israel’s domination
of the Palestinians.”
That’s all well and good, except former Knesset
speaker Avraham Burg wrote precisely the same thing in his 2008 book The
Holocaust is Over: “We have become a nation of victims, and our state religion
is the worship and tending of traumas, as if Israel forever walks down its last
path.” He also wrote that American Jews are guilty of “raising the Shoah banner
high to the sky and exploiting it politically.”
The victim argument is
used to set up an Israeli straw man. Israel is accused of manipulating the
Holocaust and the Jewish people’s status as a victim to justify its suppression
of the Palestinians. It is a convenient and clear claim, since what better
stereotype is there than the villain who was initially abused. But it isn’t
It is not typical that an IDF commander tells his soldiers to be
cruel because of what happened in the 1940s. Israeli leaders don’t say that the
checkpoints must be extra stringent because Jews were victims 65 years ago. But
these words are put in the mouths of Israelis so that some intellectual can
easily demolish the fake argument.
It is easy to be misled, since those
reading books in the West often don’t live in Israel, so they assume that if an
“expert” tells them that “Israelis use the Holocaust to excuse the Occupation,”
then this must be true.
Another “new” argument is that American Jews are
naturally progressive, universalistic humanists who simply can’t identify with
an Israel that is antithetical to them. Beinart claims that American Jews are
“supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel” and become “bodyguards”
for Israeli leaders that “threaten the very liberal values they profess to
admire.” J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami in A New Voice for Israel
assertion that “our community will suffer greatly if we refuse an open and
honest discussion of how those same values manifest in the national home of our
The solution proposed by Ben-Ami, Beinart, and many others is
that American Jews must critique Israel at every possible opportunity. They
accuse American Jewish leaders of not being critical of Israel and claim the
establishment is thus out of step with the “liberal” Jewish youth who are
walking away from Zionism. This is the “crisis” they refer to. To bring Jews
back into the tent, the tent must be one that is critical of Israel, bashing it
just enough so that people can feel comfortable.
None of this makes much
sense. Why is Israel one of the few causes people are encouraged to embrace
primarily through offering “constructive criticism”? The young liberal Jews who
supposedly abandon Zionism in order to campaign for something else don’t often
need to have a deep, nuanced discussion about whatever other cause they joined.
If they are involved with fighting global warming, the umbrella organization is
not usually involved in “constructive criticism” of the very thing they are
fighting for. Those active on behalf of unions or immigrants don’t spend an
equal amount of time examining how their, in the words of Ben-Ami, “policy and
behavior are at times wrong.”
So why must AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation
League, the Conference of Presidents or other Jewish organizations be up to
their knees in the appropriate amount of castigating, so as to supposedly win
back a few Israel-critical students here and there.
The Zionism of Israel
is not synonymous with the Judaism of America.
Oddly, the critical voices
are asking that one fit neatly into the other. They claim that once upon a time
these two cultures meshed, but that now they are being pulled apart by Israel’s
ultra-Orthodox, Avigdor Liberman or the policies of Binyamin Netanyahu. The
reality is that the two largest population centers of Jews in the world were
never hand-in-glove. Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee
in the 1950s, famously told David Ben-Gurion that he would only advocate
financial support for Israel if the country agreed to a whole series of
compromises in its relations with the Americans. In that sense, there is no
“crisis of Zionism,” but an ongoing crisis of criticism, one which continues to
bedevil the Diaspora.