Peter Beinart, Reviled and Revisited
A few months ago I reviewed Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, a passionate polemic arguing that Israel as a democracy is doomed if it doesn’t relinquish the West Bank settlements and allow the Palestinians to build a real state. The book’s arguments were hardly new but very well constructed, and I thought Beinart’s Jewishness would shield him from some of the vitriol directed at professors Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer — whose perspective on Israel is virtually identical to Beinart’s. I was partially correct about that — Beinart, at least, hasn’t been smeared as an anti-Semite.
But his book has been more coolly received by the liberal Jewish establishment than I thought — there’s been a kind of wagon-circling. Liberal establishment organs gave the book almost exclusively to hostile reviewers. But perhaps editors recognized where acute sentiment in the American Jewish community actually lies: it is far more “Israel may be wrong, but we support Israel right or wrong” than Beinart realized. His book was premised on the idea that if American Jews only understood that Netanyahu and previous Israeli leaders were not especially committed to a fair settlement of the Palestinian problem, and that Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza violated all conceivable definitions of their own liberal values, they would rise up and protest– and and push forceful American efforts to bring about a two state solution. But Beinart seems to have been wrong about this (as I was wrong too, in anticipating a warmer reception for the book than it has actually received).
A lot of this is implicit and some of it spelled out in Jason Zengerle’s lengthy New York magazine piece on the pushback against Peter Beinart. The piece is informative, and revealing in ways that the author perhaps did not intend. Zengerle interviews only Jews about the book — and thus reinforces the idea seems that American discussion about Israel should be a Jews-only affair. Challenged on this on twitter by Max Blumenthal, Zengerle replied that it was legitimate to only interview Jews, because Beinart addressed his book to a Jewish audience.
Though Blumenthal’s retort was the morally the right one, Zengerle’s response was effective. Beinart, in effect, asked for it. He addressed his book to a Jewish audience, essentially privileging Jewish perspectives over all others. The reception it has received is a fairly clear sign that such a perspective is insufficient. The majority of American Jews will reject muscular criticism of Israeli policy, even it comes from a very inside the Jewish community perspective, even it comes from someone with a deep emotional attachment to Israel.
The logical next step is to expand the discussion by recognizing that Israel’s actions are a matter of concern not only to Jews, but also of course to Palestinians and indeed to all Americans. All citizens of this country are profoundly implicated in Israel’s policies: Washington is the only defender of Israel in international organizations; Israel is our principle foreign aid recipient. Poll after poll has indicated that our Israel policy is the chief source of resentment against the United States in the Arab world. Israeli leaders have tried to goad the United States into starting wars against Israel’s regional rivals, first against Iraq, and now against Iran. The time when debate over the morality and strategy of American policy towards Israel and Middle East should be so narrowly constructed cannot pass quickly enough.