Terra Incognita: The crisis of critical Zionism

The Zionism of Israel is not synonymous with the Judaism of America.

AIPAC conference 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
AIPAC conference 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 starting.
Roger Cohen profiled the book in a New York Times column on 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 in 2010.
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.”
Cohen 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 true.
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 repeated this 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 people.”
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.