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 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Peter Beinart 370
(photo credit: 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 now.
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 keep dreaming.
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.”
Beinart wrote 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.
While exceedingly 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.
His is 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 disputed territory.
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.”
His children, 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 do.
“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.”
STILL, 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 Israel today.
1. With the exception of a number of illegal outposts, which, for the most part, have been removed over the years, the settlements were established lawfully.
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 Hanukka.
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.