A response to Daniel Gordis

"I am a Zionist, a tribalist, a partisan of the Jewish people and the Jewish state."

Peter Beinart's book (photo credit: Courtesy)
Peter Beinart's book
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Daniel Gordis’s review of my book, The Crisis of Zionism, is a remarkable document. Again and again, he makes claims about what I believe that are directly contradicted by what my book actually says.
According to Gordis, I claim “The second intifada was Israel’s fault.” As evidence he cites me saying that it “erupted because while many Israelis genuinely believed that [Ehud] Barak was trying to end the occupation, Palestinians felt it was closing in on them.”
Yes, that is one reason the second intifada erupted, at least according to Israeli Maj.-Gen. Ya’acov Or, who oversaw the West Bank at the time. But I also blame the second intifada on Yasser Arafat, saying that his role in the Palestinian turn to violence “was no small offense. Indeed, it was a crime.” Gordis must have missed that part.
Gordis says my book includes “not one mention of the extraordinary social organizations in Israel, or the many cultural, literary and other accomplishments of Jews and Arabs in Israel society.” Really? Let me quote from one of the many passages in the book celebrating Israel’s accomplishments: “Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy individual rights like freedom of speech, assembly and worship.
They sit in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and on its Supreme Court. Arab Israelis also enjoy the kind of group rights for which many ethnic and religious minorities yearn. They maintain their own religious courts and their own, state-funded, Arabic-language schools and media. Indeed, Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages. Arab citizens have also made dramatic educational and economic gains under Israeli rule. The political scientists Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman note that in 1948 the illiteracy rate among Israeli Arabs was 80 percent.
By 1988, it was 15 percent.
“In a nation that has lived since its creation with the ever-present threat of war – a strain that would have turned countries less nourished by liberal ideals into police states – these are impressive accomplishments. The very anti-Zionist critics who attack Israel most ferociously often rely on the work of Israeli historians, Israeli journalists, Israeli human rights activists, and Israeli lawyers.
Yet they rarely acknowledge that the ability of Israelis, including Arab Israelis, to damn their government in the harshest of terms – and rarely see the inside of a prison cell – says something admirable about the Zionist project. It is far from clear that, under similar circumstances, any of the democracies that criticize Israel’s human rights record would have done better.... Certainly, no American familiar with the way the United States government treated German Americans during World War I, Japanese Americans during World War II or even Muslim Americans during the ‘war on terror’ – during wars, that, unlike Israel’s, mostly took place thousands of miles from America’s shores – has any cause for sanctimony.”
FOR GORDIS to ignore passages like this (and there are plenty of others) and declare that I “detest” Israel represents a blatant act of deception.
Similarly, Gordis claims that I write emotionally only about Palestinian suffering and not about the suffering of Jews. Nonsense. Yes, I describe my shock at watching a Palestinian boy my son’s age screaming as his father is hauled away in the West Bank. But I also describe the “gouging out” of the eyes of the Israeli reservists beaten to death by a Palestinian mob in October 2000. I give the ages of the Fogel children in Itamar, and the method by which their young lives were snuffed out, precisely in order to convey the horror of their murder.
I call Palestinian terrorism “grotesque and unforgivable.” I chronicle the psychological damage endured by children traumatized by Palestinian rocket fire in Sderot. I describe the “soul-stirring” image of “thousands of emaciated Ethiopian Jews, isolated from the rest of their people since the days when the First Temple stood, trekking through the Sahara to reach the planes that the Jewish state had sent to take them home.” I describe the “devotion, reverence, love and awe that I feel toward the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”
Gordis wants me to be some deracinated Rosa Luxemburg, cold to my own people and moistened only by the pain of others. Sorry, that’s not the book I wrote because it’s not the person I am.
At the root of Gordis’s misrepresentations lies this problem. As he’s written elsewhere, he’s convinced that many young liberal American Jews are embracing a brand of universalism that undermines their commitment to the Jewish people. It’s convenient for him to make me the poster child for this phenomenon.
Thus, he centers his review upon my supposed hostility to “tribal Judaism.”
The problem with this analysis is that I actually share Gordis’s concern. I call the failure to give young American Jews the Jewish education necessary to live committed Jewish lives a “tragedy.” I say that young American Jews need to care about Israel more than they care “about global warming, health care, gay rights, and a dozen other issues.” I advocate government funding for America’s Jewish schools, a suggestion widely opposed by my fellow American Jewish liberals precisely because it is so, well, tribal. How does Gordis respond to a proposal that so directly undermines the thesis of his review? He ignores it.
He goes on to claim that because I loathe Jewish tribalism, I want to turn Israel into an “ethnic-neutral,” “felafel-eating, Hebrew speaking version of the United States.” Again, false. There have indeed been Americans like Judah Magnes, Henrietta Szold and more recently Tony Judt who proposed turning Israel into an American-style secular state. But I reject that view in the very first sentence of my first chapter, in which I write, “As a Zionist, I believe that after two millennia of homelessness, the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land.”
Relying on the Israeli academics Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, I go on to defend exactly the proposition that Gordis says I deny: that Israel can be both a Jewish state – with Jewish symbols and a preferential immigration policies for Jews – and still be a liberal democracy.
The real difference between Gordis and me is this: I believe that Israel must work much harder to reconcile its tribal obligation to protect the Jewish people with the universalistic commitment enshrined in its Declaration of Independence: “complete equality of social and political rights... irrespective of race, religion and sex.” As an example of how to do that, I cite former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who between 1992 and 1995 doubled spending on education for Arab Israelis, ended the discrepancy between the amount the government paid Jewish and Arab families per child, built dozens of health clinics in Arab Israeli communities and introduced affirmative action to boost the number of Arab citizens in Israel’s civil service.
Rabin was not a pure universalist, but he knew that the most ethical way to secure Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state was to offer fuller equality to its Arab citizens and thus ease their alienation from the government that controls their lives.
Gordis’s answer is different. In his 2009 book, Saving Israel, he calls on Israeli Jews to seriously consider “population transfers” of their Arab neighbors. Perhaps, he muses, Arab countries might take in those Israeli Arab citizens that Israel expels. “Alternatively, perhaps the international community could raise sufficient funds and offer massive cash settlements to those Israeli Arabs willing to relocate.”
Unlike Rabin, Gordis is not seeking to reconcile Jewish tribalism with democratic principle.
He is using the former as license to trample the latter in ways that should send chills down the spine of any morally sentient Jew.
I am a Zionist and a tribalist, a partisan of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. But I also believe in something called Jewish honor. I believe that given the ethical visions we spun during our long night of powerlessness, that honor is at stake in the way we wield power over those Palestinians who live under Jewish control. I believe that when we help Israeli Arabs live as full citizens within Israel and help Palestinians become citizens of their own state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, we are not betraying the bonds of Jewish peoplehood. To the contrary, we are honoring the ethical impulses that give Jewish peoplehood deeper meaning. I don’t think Daniel Gordis understands that at all.
Peter Beinart is author of The Crisis of Zionism and editor of the Daily Beast blog Open Zion.