The Crisis of Zionism opens with Peter Beinart watching a video on his computer sent by an Israeli friend. It depicts an incident on the occupied West Bank: Israeli military police arrest a Palestinian man for trying to siphon water from the pipes that feed an Israeli settlement, after he had made repeated efforts to secure permission. As he is taken away his five-year-old son, Khaled, cries plaintively after him, “Baba, Baba.”
For those familiar with the occupation, the context is clear. The settlers, with the legal rights of citizens of Israel, have privileged access to the aquifers in this arid land and use water at five times the rate of the Palestinians. This inequality is secured by Israeli military law, which governs the stateless inhabitants of this occupied territory.
Beinart describes the emotions the video set off in him:
As soon I began watching … I wished I had never turned it on. For most of my life, my reaction to accounts of Palestinian suffering has been rationalization, a search for reasons why the accounts are exaggerated or the suffering self-inflicted. … But in recent years, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I had been lowering my defenses, and Khaled’s cries left me staring in mute horror at my computer screen.
It is a powerful passage in a book filled with them, one that encapsulates and personalizes the inequity of the occupation, the apartheid-like legal distinctions between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, and the grotesque disparity between two people’s access to natural resources and civil and political rights. It captures with precision the rationalizing process of many American Jews, most of whom would decry such injustice were it to occur in America or elsewhere in the Western world. Finally it touches on the ineffable mystery of how sophisticated people change their minds—“I had been lowering my defenses”—a puzzle even for those at the top rungs of opinion journalism.
Peter Beinart is a young (early-40s) and precocious former editor of TheNew Republic and “liberal hawk” who had once been a prominent voice promoting the Iraq War. For several years now he has been recasting his views, first on American foreign policy and now on the questions of Israel and the Palestinians. He remains a liberal Zionist, committed to a Jewish state that practices the democratic values proclaimed at its founding: “complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion.” He is aware that the plausible window for creating such an Israel—with a viable Palestinian state alongside it—is closing rapidly and may be already shut.
The Crisis of Zionism is in part a meditation on the present “golden age of Jewish power,” a critique of the American Jewish establishment, and a less than optimistic view of the increasingly Orthodox religious attitudes that will replace it; in part a history and analysis of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tactical success in undermining the Oslo accords and his shocking humbling of President Obama. While most of Beinart’s arguments are not novel, they are presented with unerring precision. His book is full of keen insights into the contradictions and self-deceptions of his former side. It would not surprise me if this book became a lodestar for American Jews and non-Jews alike who are finding Israel’s policies increasingly difficult to defend.
Beinart throughout blends themes of Judaism and Zionism: Israel and the attitudes of American Jews toward it are each the product of Jewish ideas, often contradictory ones. While this is in many ways obvious, it violates a quite useful, usually unspoken liberal taboo: the idea that Israel is a foreign state, it does not speak for American Jews. One can see the utility of this formulation for almost everyone. When radical anti-Zionists like the ex-Israeli Gilad Atzmon emphasize the inseparability of Israel from Jewishness, they make a lot of people uncomfortable. Beinart is neither anti-Zionist nor radical, but he is playing on the same field: for him the debate about Israel is not simply between competing political choices but about competing moral attitudes within Judaism.
While Jews have experienced an astonishing ascent in America in the past 70 or so years, this rise has not, he argues, changed attitudes at the top of major Jewish organizations. There Jews are still eternal victims, the targets of primordial anti-Semitism. Jewish strength might be reveled in privately, but it is never publicly acknowledged, much less discussed. Soul-searching over how power can be used responsibly is more or less non-existent. The leading organizations are beholden to a relatively small number of rich elderly donors, Palm Beach retirees who write checks based on appeals about “Iran, anti-Semitism, and something bad someone said about Israel.” Anyone who criticizes Israel can be smeared as an anti-Semite.
Interestingly, Beinart points out that many Jews know such charges are more often than not ridiculous but rationalize them anyway. “Jews assume that gentiles, because they are powerful, can take it, and that Jews, because of our history of persecution, can play fast and loose in the Israeli government’s defense.”
The Palm Beach retirees will pass on. But Orthodox Jews will increasingly move to the forefront of Jewish organizational life, and Beinart provides ample grounds for pessimism here: modern Orthodoxy is diverse and many-layered, but leading Orthodox institutions promote attitudes that are insular or simply racist—“the soul of the Jew and the non-Jew are made of different material,” says Yeshiva University’s Hershel Schecter, an influential Orthodox rabbi. So there is every possibility that Jewish organizational life in America will move in lockstep with an increasingly right-wing Israel. Beinart notes with alarm that Israeli high-school students are far more intolerant than their elders. Occupation—the practice of it, the justification of it—breeds racism.
The principal political beneficiary of such trends is Netanyahu, Israel’s most powerful figure. Netanyahu grew up in the shadow of Vladimir Jabotinsky; his father Benzion was a close associate of the charismatic founder of Revisionist (right-wing) Zionism. Jabotinsky believed that Zionism must purge Jews of their “childish humanism” and the justice-seeking Judaism of the prophets and toughen them for struggle against the Arabs. Compromise with the Palestinians was unthinkable. As late as 2009, Netanyahu’s father told an interviewer that the Arabs ought to be encouraged to flee their land by denying them food, electricity, and access to education. His son’s primary political goal has been the prevention of a Palestinian state.
While some right-wing Israelis pine openly for ethnic cleansing of the West Bank, Netanyahu’s more limited vision is to sequester the remaining Palestinians in four disconnected cantons bisected by Israeli roads and checkpoints and deprived of any agricultural areas, a bantustan plan for 40 percent of the territory. The settlers would keep the rest. When he first came to office in 1996 he exploited a loophole for military bases in the Oslo Accords and declared the entire Jordan River Valley a “military zone.”
As a young man Barack Obama had been influenced by several of Chicago’s leading liberal Zionists, but as a presidential candidate he began to defer to the Jewish establishment. Even so, he retained his commitment to a two-state solution. (As Beinart relates, after Obama’s election a worried Netanyahu tried to open a secret channel to White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, an effort that was rebuffed.) But Obama found he could not prod Tel Aviv into serious negotiations without facing massive political retaliation from the Israel lobby. In 2010 he asked Israel to stop building settlements on territory that would become part of a Palestinian state, if there were to be such a state, but he was forced to retreat.
A year later, when Obama stated that the 1967 borders should be the starting point for renewed two-state negotiations—an American position for more than a generation—Netanyahu delivered what Beinart describes as “one of the most extraordinary humiliations of a president by a foreign leader in American history.” Fresh from speaking at AIPAC’s annual conference, Netanyahu replied that there was no chance of Israel withdrawing to “indefensible lines.” Then Netanyahu went before a joint session of Congress. Each member of Congress had a single gallery pass to give out, and most gave theirs to their largest AIPAC donor. With the hall packed with supporters, Netanyahu received one thundering ovation after another. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who as head of the Democratic National Committee plays a key role in party fundraising, used arm motions to signal to her colleagues when to stand and applaud, and they rose and clapped at Netanyahu’s most controversial statements.
Concluding from this that America was unlikely to help, the Palestinian Authority tried to secure United Nations backing for a state within the 1967 borders. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas claimed before the General Assembly that he wanted not to delegitimize Israel but to coexist with it. Though this vision of a two-state settlement was more or less identical to his own, Obama ordered the State Department into a full-court press to thwart the Palestinian initiative. One State Department official, after lobbying 150 foreign diplomats against the Palestinian effort, told Beinart, “sometimes I feel I work for the Israeli government.” The liberal Zionist American president had been brought to heel.
Beinart’s detailed history of these episodes is the best reported and most incisive one in print. It should put to rest any notion that Israel’s current government has the slightest interest in allowing the Palestinians a state or that Obama can be counted on to move Israel towards fruitful negotiations.
The author probably has sufficient establishment ties to ensure his book a fair hearing. For months now Likud-camp Zionists have worried that Beinart has aimed a Walt and Mearsheimer-sized bombshell in their direction. In contrast to the two professors, Beinart, who is Jewish, may avoid having his arguments falsely represented and being smeared as having authored an anti-Semitic book.
Formidable as it is, however, The Crisis of Zionism is not without flaws. It may not be clear exactly at what point the relentless settlement project that all Israeli governments have encouraged will render the two-state solution a political impossibility. But if that point has already been reached, or is about to be, a plea for a democratic Jewish state, no matter how persuasive, is simply no longer relevant. One can understand Beinart’s reluctance to address this question, which could only complicate his argument, while nonetheless wishing he had tried.
The Crisis of Zionism also has a problem of agency. Though few writers are more clear-eyed about the hurdles American Jews face in changing the way their community relates to Israel, Beinart nonetheless writes as if they are the sole audience that matters for a serious argument about Zionism. Perhaps that is simply realism: it can seem that, apart from the Christian Zionists shepherded to support Netanyahu’s agenda, the Mideast opinions of American gentiles simply do not count.
But can such a circumstance endure? America’s engagement with the Middle East once centered on the construction of schools and universities, an outgrowth of the Protestant missionary presence in the region. The first generation of Western-educated Arabs often studied in such schools, so the American presence in the region was associated with science, the education of girls and women, a modernity untainted by colonialism—in short, a genuine program of liberation. A century later, the centerpiece is Israel, and America is best known in the region through such events as its anti-Palestinian vetoes in the Security Council, the fracturing of Iraq by war, and an entire Congress standing to applaud oppressive Israeli policies. One can trace this transformation to many sources, perhaps none more decisive than the slow, silent abdication of the Protestant establishment from its positions of power and responsibility.
Yet this landscape too is beginning to shift, and it has the potential to change more rapidly than Beinart acknowledges. Just as “the question of Palestine” resonates far beyond the borders of the Palestine Mandate, so in American politics its significance has begun to be felt beyond the confines of American Jewish opinion. If American Jews are to help forge a democratic and non-racist Israel, they are unlikely to succeed without allies. It would not be without irony were such allies to be found, among other venues, among the politically active Muslim students in the American universities and those mainline Protestants who are now, finally, finding their voice to say “Enough!” to America’s unconditional support for Israel.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.