Utopian naivety which will not resolve the impasse

The debate around Peter Beinart’s recently published book “The Crisis of Zionism” continues to generate interest across our community.

JLC member organisation BICOM have produced an electronic symposium to help explore the issues.  The symposium includes this critical review of Beinart’s book and a response to his calls for a Zionist BDS by JLC Chief Executive Jeremy Newmark.

In The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart builds upon his 2010 critique of the American Jewish communal leadership.  He contends that young American Jews are becoming increasingly ashamed of the occupation and appalled by what Zionism has become. He believes that in order to preserve Israel’s liberal democratic ideals, Israel must end the occupation and American Jews must help. He levels an accusation at my colleagues in the American Jewish ‘establishment’ of failing the challenge of a new age by superimposing the Jewish past upon the Jewish present.  The ‘evidence’ he presents for this is their failure to prioritise this agenda over and above the threats to the security of Israel, and world Jewry.  Beinart launched the book with a New York Times op-ed entitled “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements”[1], homing in on his centrepiece recommendation of a ‘Zionist BDS’ aimed at settlement produce and suppliers.  In doing this he relegates some of the more thoughtful parts of his book to the status of a mere sideshow.  Unfortunately Beinart seems to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Curiously, Beinart’s main focus is not Palestinian or Israeli rejectionists but the American Jewish establishment, who he presents as a homogenous and powerful group, which slavishly supports Israel and its actions. That is not the American Jewish establishment that I know and work with closely.  Like British Jewry it is an establishment that encompasses a vast array of views and positions on the Middle East and has spawned numerous organisations and institutes to reflect and promote them.  His caricature of Malcom Hoenlein, a figure who plays a huge unifying role in communal life, based upon a photo displayed in his office is an example of the huge leaps of faith required to follow the case that Peter tries to build.  Unsurprisingly most of that leadership has taken issue with Beinart’s key recommendations and conclusions.  Tellingly, those voices include J-Street Director Jeremy Ben-Ami and key progressive Zionist figures such as Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch.

Fundamentally, Beinart’s assertions that the leadership has failed to secure the support of young Jews for Israel, and that this is creating a new faultline in communal life, do not stand up.  Certainly he is correct to point out that there is more nuance, more debate, more questioning and more wrestling with the issues.  However the extensive and authoritative Brandeis University study [2]of American Jewish attitudes about Israel published in 2010 entitled ‘Still Connected’ provides a compelling counter narrative.  Equally, voices on the ground who have successfully revived segments of American Jewry, such as Barry Shrage, the much admired leader of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies have responded to Beinart with the contention that “Israel is our greatest ally, not our greatest problem in engaging the next generation of Jews … the facts are pretty clear”[3].  There are few people with more hands on experience of such matters than Barry.

Beinart argues that American Jews have not adjusted well to the transformation from victimhood – personalised through the example of his grandmother – to empowerment. This he claims is because their leadership has not allowed them to move beyond seeing themselves as victims. While Jewish schools are often ‘decrepit, mediocre, and unaffordable,’ there is ‘no shortage of places to learn how Jews died’.  He rounds upon this perpetuation of Jewish victimhood, which he implies justifies an abuse of ‘Jewish power’. Citing the Chanukah and Purim stories as examples of official Jewish discourse, he criticises the inability of American Jews to talk about what Jews did after they survived brutality – abuse power.  There is an alternative narrative about Jews and power that doesn’t receive any bandwidth at all in Beinart’s worldview – it was best summed up by Abba Eban in his observation that Israel was the only nation to win a war and then sue for peace.

Critically, Beinart presents an argument in which Israel need not take account of the behaviour of its Palestinian interlocutors. The entire conflict is presented through the prism of Israeli policy, almost exclusively one dimension of Israeli policy, namely the settlements, only paying lip service to the fact that Israel does not inhabit the friendliest neighbourhood - Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, an Iran intent on becoming a nuclear power, and the changing dynamic of Egypt and Turkey, former allies.

On settlements he seems to be replaying the kind of polemical discourse that most of us left behind in the 1990s.  Did Beinart miss the fact that the broad majority of the Israel public and the majority of the Knesset have all signed up to the idea of a two state solution, a programme that necessitates withdrawal from most of the settlements by definition?  The coalition promoting a two state solution even includes many of the ideological heirs of the founders of Revisionist Zionism such as Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.  Oddly, Beinart seems locked into an alternative reality where the politics of Bibi’s father and the old historic position of the Likud party matters more than the facts on the ground and political realities of today.  Settlements are certainly an issue, and many mainstream Jewish leaders would go as far as to agree with Peter Beinart that they are a problem – but a tactical problem to be dealt with as part of a process of negotiation.  Not a fundamental which if resolved would suddenly produce a viable peace overnight.  There is anything but peace in Gaza, from which Israel unilaterally withdrew in 2005. The best way for the settlements to go away is for the Palestinians to make peace. Do the majority of Palestinians not want a permanent two state solution? As with all former peace agreements, if it is achieved, it will be supported by Diaspora Jewry, including the American Jewish community and its leadership.

Beinart characterises Arab actions purely as a response to Israeli policy. For example, he contends that Israel’s relations with Turkey only became hostile over the past three years because of Israeli (defensive) actions (the flotilla and Operation Cast Lead). What about the fact that Turkey’s leaders had their own political and strategic reasons for turning on Israel? Similarly, he attests the exploitation of widespread anger in post Mubarak Egypt to Israel not withdrawing its troops from territories won in 1967, showing casual dismissiveness for the very real anti-Semitism that emanates from the heart of the Arab world. In talking about Arab responses, rather than actions, he is appears to engage in a crass form of orientalism – Arabs can only behave by responding to conditions, not sophisticated enough to act according to their will.

Beinart’s oversimplified political and historical narrative paints the Palestinians as passive victims of Israeli brutality who bear no responsibility for the deadlock of the conflict. This of course means that Israel is to blame. This thread, which runs through the book, is intellectually flawed and dishonest.

The book fails to properly acknowledge that peace can only be achieved by a genuine desire on the part of the two parties involved – the Palestinians and the Israelis. American Jewry can’t ‘save’ Israel and he, the self-appointed spokesman of ‘liberal Zionism’, can’t ‘save’ American Jewry.

On the question of countering the ongoing assault upon Israel’s legitimacy, Beinart argues that ‘the less democratic Zionism becomes in practice, the more people across the world will question the legitimacy of Zionism itself’. In saying so, he fails to identify delegitimisation for what it really is - an irrational desire for the reversal of Israel’s existence - pre 1948, not pre 1967. For Israel’s delegitimisers it is not opposition to Israeli policy – which they use as a smokescreen- it is opposition to Israel’s existence. The tactics used by Israel’s delegitimisers, such as denying a Jewish connection to the land of Israel, or in some cases denying the very notion of Jewish peoplehood, will not wane because Israel goes back to 1967 borders. This is not a reason for Israel to stop pursuing peace but it is foolish to think that all antipathy towards Israel is logical and can be reversed.

Beinart calls ‘democratic’ and ‘non-democratic’ Israel (the West Bank) ‘Siamese twins’ as he recognises that they share the same telephone system, bus system, road system, rail system, water system, and electrical grid. How then can his assertion that ‘to save Israel, boycott the settlements’ be taken as a serious and practical tactic?

Perhaps if Beinart were exposed to the more intense and less veiled rhetoric from the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that we see on a daily basis in the European context I suspect that he would be less comfortable with his notion of a ‘Zionist BDS’.  Even so, one only has to look at the ideological fathers of the BDS movement itself, such as Omar Barghouti[4] who makes it clear that settlement boycotts are only viewed as part of a ‘staged approach’ to full BDS.  Whatever the intention, those voices will inevitably become the political bedfellows of any movement based upon the Beinart approach.

As the debate on “The Crisis of Zionism” has spanned the Passover period, many have made unfortunate and unwarranted comparisons between Beinart and the “wicked son” of the Haggadah text.  Such rhetoric is unhelpful and fuels the critique that Jewish leaders seek to shut down or run away from debate on these matters.  Perhaps a more accurate Passover comparison would be with the last of the four sons, the one who “does not know how to ask - She’aino Yodea Lishol”.  This son is often characterised in a similar way to the simple son, however I recently heard it suggested[5] that the She’aino Yodea Lishol was actually the son who was so sure of his own opinions and set in his own worldview that he was unable to disentangle himself from those views and subject them to rational questioning and debate.  There are times in Beinart’s book, and certainly in his New York Times op-ed when this certainly seems to be an apt description of where Beinart is at.  The author of the Haggdah recommends education as the response to this son.  Many commentators describe him as an adult who was denied a holistic Jewish education as a child.  Beinart appears to see American Jewry (or at least its younger and less engaged members) in this light, in need of the Haggadah’s classic response.  Nothwithstanding this, world Jewry’s response to Beinart should be one of confident engagement and debate as part of a global Jewish conversation rather than crude attempts to brand him as outside of the ‘big tent’.

I do not doubt Beinart’s intentions, his passionate Zionism and his commitment to Jewish values and the continuity of a thriving American Jewry, but by ignoring the complexity of the conflict, he displays a utopian naivety which will do nothing to resolve the impasse. Somewhat ironically, it seems that it is he - not the American Jewish establishment - that is pedalling the true legacy of victimhood; that is, as long as the conflict remains unresolved, you must somehow be responsible.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/19/opinion/to-save-israel-boycott-the-settlements.html?pagewanted=all

[2]http://bir.brandeis.edu/bitstream/handle/10192/24037/still.connected.08.25.10.3.pdf?sequence=9

[3]http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/breaking_news/peter_beinart_and_boston_federation_head_spar_over_birthright

[4] Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights By Omar    Barghouti, Haymarket Books, March 2011

[5] By Rabbi Baruch Boudilovsky