Think Again: Peter's navel-gazing

Israel has made Peter Beinart feel ashamed as a Jew, and now Israel must bear the brunt of his wrath.

Peter Beinart (photo credit: J Street)
Peter Beinart
(photo credit: J Street)
Israel has made Peter Beinart feel ashamed as a Jew, and now Israel must bear the brunt of his wrath.
President Barack Obama is the rod of that wrath, determined, in Beinart’s telling, to bring an end to the occupation and return Israel to its former state of moral purity.
Beinart’s new book The Crisis of Zionism amplifies his 2010 New York Review of Books essays, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” If American Jews are forced to choose between their liberalism and their support of Israel, Beinart argues, the former should triumph.
In the meantime, he advocates a boycott of the settlements.
Defending himself from Bret Stephens’s criticism that he never left his study to research the reality in which Israelis live, Beinart writes that his book is primarily about American Jewry. Fine. So what does The Crisis of Zionism tell us about that segment of American Jewry for whom Beinart claims to speak? First, they are bit too concerned with their good image. Beinart’s solipsism recalls that of the late Tony Judt, who in a 2003 NYRB essay termed Israel “an anachronism” that should cease to exist: He was sick and tired of being the brunt of unkind remarks about Israel at faculty sherry parties.
Yossi Beilin once said, in a revealing moment, “I could not bear to live in a world in which peace was not possible,” as if that were somehow proof that peace is possible. Similarly, Beinart offers his own shame over the settlements, as if it necessitated any risk entailed by withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines. But Israel does not exist to make American Jews feel good, though one wishes they were curious enough to find out why they should.
Second, Beinart’s cohort shares with its fellow liberals a preference for moral absolutism. They write as if the Jews of Israel find themselves confronted by exponents of the universal brotherhood of man rather than by a far more virulent and exclusivist Palestinian nationalism.
Yoel Finkelman, a left-wing, national religious Jew, highlighted this moral absolutism in his resignation letter from Beinart’s blog Open Zion: “I wanted a discussion of how, without sacrificing its vital security interests, Israel can empower moderate Palestinian leadership, foster the creation of a stable and trustworthy Palestinian state – and crucially diminish Palestinian suffering until such time... I wanted insight into the complexities of how and under what circumstances Israeli might relinquish more territory to Palestinian control now that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza has brought on a Hamas takeover.... I wanted serious consideration of how Zionist proponents of territorial compromise can minimize conflict and violence between the State and settler population that stands to lose so much.”
Instead, he got debates about whether Israel is an apartheid state, self-righteous moralizing about Zionism’s culpability for the evil of the occupation and cavalier posturing about Jews boycotting other Jews.
Third, Beinart and his J Street groupies think little of their fellow Jews in Israel. They show little curiosity as to why a broad consensus against further territorial concessions has developed among Israelis, who will pay the ultimate price for any miscalculation. Israel has gone to war three times in the last decade: in 2002, after 139 Jews were killed by Palestinian terrorists in a single month; in 2006, after Hezbollah crossed the border to kidnap four Israeli soldiers and fired a rocket salvo at northern Israel; and in 2009, after enduring thousands of rockets from Gaza over three years. Each operation (if not their execution) commanded almost unanimous support, with 100 percent of reservists reporting for duty.
Nor are Beinart’s young American Jews curious about how six million Jews in Israel, whose ancestors are only one or two generations removed from their own, have experienced such a swift decline in humanitarian sentiment.
Perhaps that is the point of Beinart’s description of Israel as increasingly dominated by an unruly mob of primitive Sephardim, nationalistic Russians, and religious Jews of various stripes.
But events, not demographics, explain the current Israeli consensus. A majority of Israelis embraced the Oslo Accords with almost messianic fervor, and later the Gaza withdrawal, until both blew up in their faces.
Beinart seeks to undermine the Israeli narrative. He asserts that Palestinians “are capable of peace” as an article of faith. But Israeli prime ministers have twice offered the Palestinians well over 90% of territory conquered in 1967 and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.
Arafat walked away, without even a counter-offer, at Camp David in 2000, and Abbas in 2008. The Palestinians have not returned to the bargaining table for the entirety of the Obama presidency, preferring to rely on American pressure on Israel.
No Palestinian leader has ever taken the first step to educate the Palestinians for peace or hint at the compromises Palestinians would have to make for any peace agreement. Palestinian children are still educated with maps showing all of Israel as Palestine. And even the “moderate” leaders continue to glorify archterrorists as “holy martyrs” and name public places after them.
Like most liberals, Beinart cannot comprehend the religious dimension of the conflict, or conceive it other than as a conflict over borders, capable of being solved by splitting the difference. But religious duties, like the eradication of the Zionist entity called for in the Hamas Charter, cannot be compromised.
BEINART REPEATEDLY professes his love of Israel. Yet his fun-house mirror distortions of Israel’s leaders and policies, based on Haaretz’s editorial page and discredited NGOs, serve only to guarantee the further alienation of young American Jews. (See my “A Response to Peter Beinart,” The Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2010.) Particularly ugly is his description, following Norman Finkelstein, of Jews using the Holocaust as a license “to worry only about themselves.” Israel leads the world in humanitarian rescue operations and the sharing of medical and technological expertise. No country has placed its soldiers at greater risk to protect civilians, when fighting against an enemy deeply embedded among a civilian population, or come remotely close to Israel’s record in minimizing civilian casualties.
Rather than advancing the cause of peace, Beinart’s one-sided casting of blame on Israel makes peace less likely. By glossing over Arab and Palestinian rejectionism – rejection of Partition in 1948, the three “noes” of Khartoum in 1967, the boycotting of negotiations today – Beinart deprives the Palestinians (and Arabs) of moral agency. The message sent is that they may wait indefinitely for the opportune time to eliminate Israel without suffering any adverse consequences in the eyes of the world.
Similarly, the brutal condemnations when Israel is invariably forced to respond to waves of increased terrorism and rocket fire after each territorial withdrawal convince Israelis that there is no upside to the risks taken. Rather than lessening Israel’s international isolation, every territorial withdrawal only increases it.
THE PRINCIPLE “hidush,” or innovation, of Beinart’s book over his NYRB essay is the story of Barack Obama’s conversion to a “specific and subversive vision of American Jewish identity and the Jewish state” by a group of Chicago Jews led by Reform rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf. Wolf was the “radical” rabbi in the Chicago suburb in which I grew up and later Hillel director at Yale when I was there. I can understand how his absolute certitude of moral superiority would appeal to Beinart.
But the Chicago Jewish acquaintances served only to convince Obama of how critical he could be of Israel without losing Jewish support. Pride of place in Obama’s understanding of the Mideast, however, goes to a series of radical and Palestinian friends: Columbia professor Edward Said, under whom he studied Western colonialism; Hyde Park neighbors and former Weatherman bombers Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn; former PLO spokesman Rashid Khalidi, then a University of Chicago professor and today the Edward Said Professor at Columbia.
Khalidi founded the Arab American Action Network (AAAN). Barack and Michelle Obama supped next to Said, prior to the latter’s 1998 speech at an AAAN gathering in Hyde Park, where Said compared Israel to Nazi Germany and called for a campaign to stigmatize Israel as an apartheid state.
In 2001-2002, the Woods Foundation, headed by the wealthy Ayers, and with Obama on the board, channeled $75,000 to AAAN. Khalidi would later credit Ayers with convincing him to write Resurrecting Empire, the central theme of which is that the problems of the Middle East derive from America’s failure to pressure Israel to resolve the Palestinian question. At a dinner party for Khalidi upon his departure from Hyde Park for Columbia in 2003, Obama paid tribute to his influence in many talks over the years (a video of which The Los Angeles Times still refuses to release).
Beinart labels Obama “the Jewish president.” He maintains that were his hero Stephen Wise to enter a meeting between Obama and Jewish leaders today, the former would be the only one he would recognize as a liberal Zionist in Wise’s mold. Beinart’s adulation of Wise is instructive. The most powerful Jewish leader of his day, Wise put his adoration of president Franklin Roosevelt over saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
When reports of the murder of two million Polish Jews reached him, he initially suppressed the information from other Jewish leaders so as not to pressure on FDR. He consistently followed the administration line that nothing could be done for the Jews until Hitler was defeated, and spoked emergency rescue efforts on the grounds they might hurt FDR’s electoral prospects.
In a recent interview, Beinart expresses the hope that Israel will remain worthy of having its flag hang in his sons’ bedroom. One wishes that he worried less about Israel remaining worthy of his support and a bit more about the threat to six million Jews from a nuclear Iran – a subject almost completely ignored in his book – lest he reprise the Wise role to President Obama’s FDR.