The journalist's probing, courageous and timely new book is part of a larger project on how Jews relate to today's Israel.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth builds a snowman on the roof of a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood / Reuters
Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has sought to portray himself as a staunch friend and defender of Israel. But nothing he does seems to be enough to cement the relationship he has tried to establish with the Jewish state. He condemned the Palestinian drive for statehood at the United Nations. Not enough. He awarded Israel $3 billion in military assistance, an all-time high. Not enough. He repeatedly avowed his commitment to Israel's security and well-being. Still not enough. The sticking point has been his effort, in which he invested a great deal of personal prestige, to force Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank as a precondition for engaging in a fresh round of peace talks with the Palestinians. Nothing doing.
Then came Obama's May 2011 suggestion that any peace deal should be based on the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War and include land swaps between Israelis and Palestinians. Although this represented no departure from past U.S. thinking, a livid Netanyahu set out to humiliate the American president and teach him a lesson. He lectured Obama in a televised Oval Office conversation about the precariousness of Israel's security. Then he continued the tutorial by addressing a joint session of Congress and again rebuffing Obama--"Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967." He received twenty-nine standing ovations. Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida even signaled with a raised arm to her colleagues to stand en masse whenever rapturous Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, who had extended the original invitation to the Israeli prime minister as a way of repudiating Obama, rose to applaud a controversial Netanyahu statement. It had the feel of a meeting of the politburo.
It was, by any historical standard, a remarkable turn of events--a prime minister of Israel demonstrating a willingness to humiliate a U.S. president--and demonstrating also his ability to do so with the full-throated complicity of the U.S. Congress. It also raises several pressing questions: How is Netanyahu able to mobilize American politicians so effectively against the Obama administration? What explains the militant chorus of denunciations that greet any presidential nomination viewed as insufficiently pro-Israel? What does it even mean to be pro-Israel these days? And why is the charge of anti-Semitism deployed with increasing abandon in this ongoing diplomatic drama, even against liberal Jews who criticize Israel and urge it to live up to its own ideals?
These questions and many more in the same vein are at the heart of a new book by Peter Beinart, Daily Beast columnist, professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and former editor of the New Republic. The Crisis of Zionism is an anguished and moralistic meditation on the state of Israel. Its significance stems in part from the powerful arguments marshaled by Beinart and in part from his background and political odyssey. Beinart, who describes himself as a Zionist, has long defended Israel, but he began to experience growing doubts about its conduct in the past few years. He got his start in journalism at the New Republic, where he soon became editor at the behest of its owner Martin Peretz (now part owner), known as a defender of Israel and a critic of the Arab world. So in disputing the hard-line pro-Israel view, Beinart is now breaking ranks. He has opened himself up to the charge of being what is known in German as a Nestbeschmutzer--a fouler of his own nest.
This probing, courageous and timely book builds upon Beinart's controversial June 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books, which contended that leading American Jewish organizations, including the venerable Anti-Defamation League (ADL), had become dinosaurs--reflexive defenders of Israel whose willful blindness to the country's palpable moral shortcomings was prompting younger and more liberal Jews to become disaffected or indifferent to it. Now, far from retreating, Beinart amplifies the argument.
In The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart contends that a small coterie of wealthy and conservative elderly Jews has hijacked once-proud Jewish organizations in order to abet Netanyahu's intransigence toward the Palestinians. This complicity is imperiling the liberal Zionist dream of a flourishing Jewish state based upon reconciliation with the Palestinians. Unless Israel detaches itself from the West Bank, it will no longer remain a democracy but become an authoritarian apartheid state ruling over alien subjects. Beinart quotes Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism: "We don't want a Boer state, but a Venice." Beinart, like a growing number of Jewish liberal intellectuals, fears that the former is in sight.
Not everything in Beinart's book is new. He does not sufficiently take into account Israel's own strategic dilemmas, including the threat of terrorism from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Lebanon. He neglects the pivotal part played by neoconservatives in championing Israeli intransigence. Netanyahu can count on a phalanx of neocons to justify his disdain for negotiations with the Palestinians, and it was Douglas J. Feith who helped author the 1996 report "A Clean Break," which laid out a blueprint for abandoning the Oslo accords. Nor does Beinart expound about Iran.
Rather, he offers a forceful exposition of American apprehensions about Israel's path. His argument is simple but not simplistic. Beinart does not want to debunk Zionism. He wants to rescue it. Written in sorrow rather than anger, his study lucidly explores and dismantles many of the arguments that Israel's defenders on the Right have mounted to explain away its deficiencies, including the myth that American Jews have no right to utter any criticisms about the Jewish state but should blindly support it. His book thus marks a significant evolution in the debate over Israel. Beinart does not dwell upon it, but his own thinking on Israel--and foreign policy more generally--appears to have undergone a marked shift since his time as editor of the New Republic. In those days, Peretz would not tolerate even a hint of criticism of Israel; more recently, he mused in print about the merits of denying American Muslims their First Amendment rights.
This outlook has, more or less, been ascendant in America for some time, particularly among neoconservatives and the Right, where inflammatory statements about an internal threat from sharia law (made by Newt Gingrich, among others) and the war on terror are in vogue. That goes some way toward explaining why Netanyahu was able to defy Obama by marshaling the sentiments of a powerful base of supporters in Congress, many of whom are Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
This is a more recent development. While Democrats traditionally have backed Israel, Republicans traditionally have been more circumspect. It was Harry S Truman who recognized the Jewish state in 1948. Republican presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush--who along with his secretary of state James Baker tried to push Israel to freeze settlements--have sought to be more evenhanded in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But as evangelical Republicans have become an important constituency in the GOP, Israel has begun to win more favor in the Republican Party. This change was reflected in the George W. Bush administration, which viewed Israel as a vital outpost of democracy in the Middle East and an ally that was basically engaged in the very same struggle against terrorism that the United States confronted.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that Obama's course has triggered protests among leading Republicans, including most of the party's presidential candidates. The central reasons are fundraising imperatives and the votes of Christian evangelicals, who overwhelmingly support Israel. Newt Gingrich's campaign was almost single-handedly resuscitated before the South Carolina primary by a $5 million check to Winning Our Future, a "super PAC" that supports his presidential run, from the seventy-eight-year-old casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who admires Gingrich's pro-Israel fervor (including his remark that the Palestinians are an "invented people," which Adelson endorsed during a charity event last December in Israel).
This attempt to transform Israel into a wedge issue has its origins in the neoconservative affiliation with the GOP, which took root in the 1970s, budded during the Reagan administration and flowered under George W. Bush. The late Irving Kristol, often called the godfather of neoconservatism, complained that American Jews did not support the Republican Party and demanded that Jewish intellectuals not only ally themselves with Christian evangelicals but also subordinate themselves to them in an act of "prudence." In his 2009 book Why Are Jews Liberals?, neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz castigated his coreligionists for their naïveté about the perils that Israel faces and wrote that no group is "more passionate in its support of Israel than the conservative Christian community." As a practical measure, in 2010 the Weekly Standard's editor William Kristol founded the Emergency Committee for Israel, an organization designed to serve as a counterweight to the liberal J Street, which obtains funding from financier George Soros and itself seeks to counteract the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The Emergency Committee has run advertisements against several congressional candidates it deems "openly hostile" to the Jewish state.
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Despite their denunciations of liberal Jews as feckless and foolhardy, however, the neocons have failed to produce many votes for the GOP, and this failure is a perennial source of vexation for them. In 2008, Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote. His tally may slip slightly in 2012 but will surely remain well over 70 percent. What's more, neocons have for years attracted much criticism from some liberal Jews for their defense of Israel. In his searing 1982 book Jews Without Mercy: A Lament, author and social critic Earl Shorris declared that the neocons' ruthlessness both at home and abroad meant that they were no longer truly Jews. Publications such as the New York Review of Books have steadily chronicled and criticized the adamantine stance of both the neocons and successive Israeli governments.
But no criticism has approached the barrage unleashed by Beinart in his new book, which explores today's Israel against the backdrop of the early concepts put forth for the Jewish state in the late nineteenth century. If Herzl, who envisioned the idea of Israel in his 1896 book Der Judenstaat, could see the country today, he would probably be astounded by its technological prowess and dismayed by its political system. Early Zionism was an offshoot of European nationalism, which is why some secular Jewish socialists regarded it with misgivings and even hostility. Herzl himself had a capacious and hopeful view of the future Jewish state, which he limned in his novel Altneuland, or Old New Land. Herzl and his novel form the intellectual scaffolding for Beinart's new book. As Beinart correctly notes, Herzl's work propounds a Jewish state that cherishes liberal ideals. In it, Israel is a model of technological progress. Jews and Arabs are able to work side by side, enjoying the fruits of their labor. In many ways, Israeli president Shimon Peres's vision of a technologically advanced "new Middle East" that subordinates conflict to economic cooperation is rooted in Altneuland. The Israel of the novel promises freedom of speech and religion as well as rabbis that enjoy "no privileged voice in the state." The protagonist, one David Littwak, speaks Arabic and announces that his party does "not ask to what race or religion a man belongs. If he is a man, that is enough for us." The malcontent is one Rabbi Geyer, who is modeled on Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna. Geyer wants to strip non-Jews of the right to vote. Geyer loses the election, and Herzl includes an epilogue in which he beseeches his readers to make the Zionist dream come true. As Beinart puts it:
"Herzl knew that a tolerant, cosmopolitan republic like Venice was not preordained, that Jews were entirely capable of birthing a Boer state. This conflict, between the desire to build a Jewish state premised on liberal democratic principles and the temptation to flout those principles in the name of Jewish security and power, runs throughout the Zionist enterprise."
To some extent, the Israel of Herzl's musings does exist today. The country's Arab citizens can vote and serve in the Knesset. They have more rights than Arabs do in a number of Arab countries. And Israel is a democracy. But only--and this is one of Beinart's major contentions--up to a point.
Beinart emphasizes that the Green Line--the dividing marker between Israel's pre- and post-1967 borders--is steadily being effaced by the growth of settlements. In 1980, only about twelve thousand Jews lived beyond the Green Line; today that number is about three hundred thousand. As Israel establishes new facts on the ground, it becomes increasingly difficult to contemplate the construction of a Palestinian state that is contiguous. The word "contiguity" appears a lot in Beinart's account. The Netanyahu government, he suggests, is working overtime to thwart the existence of any contiguous Palestinian state. In 2010, Netanyahu called Ariel, a settlement that stretches no less than thirteen miles into the West Bank, "the heart of our country." Meanwhile, the country's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, refers to what he terms the "enemy within"--Israeli Arabs--and espouses what is delicately called "population transfer"--either the extrusion of Israeli Arabs by redrawing the map to boot them out of Israel proper or direct expulsion to other Arab states.
The occupation of the West Bank, in other words, is having profoundly corrosive effects upon Israeli democracy. Attachment to liberal institutions is not foreordained. Beinart notes, "In Israel today, it is not only Arab citizens who are routinely described in the language of treason, so are Jews who actively oppose Israel's policies in the West Bank." Yet even with mounting evidence of Israel's woes, says Beinart, the American Jewish establishment has remained quiescent. Why?
One reason is that Netanyahu himself, Beinart says, played a pivotal role in creating it. He attended high school in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, and began his career in 1982 as a political attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washington. He soon became a star on the lecture circuit. According to Beinart, "As a Revisionist with no ties to Zionism's socialist heritage, he was perfectly placed to forge ties to the conservative Jews who were gaining influence in an American Jewish establishment newly freed from its own left-liberal roots." Beinart points out that in Washington and later in New York, where Netanyahu served as Israel's UN ambassador, he grew close to Malcolm Hoenlein, who in 1986 became the top staffer at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He also developed friendships with major right-wing Zionists--including cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder and the real-estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, both of whom went on to chair the conference; with Sheldon Adelson, one of the largest donors to AIPAC and to the more right-leaning Zionist Organization of America; and with Irving Moskowitz, who provides major funding to settler and prosettler groups in Israel and the United States. Thus, when Netanyahu ran for the Knesset in 1988, he was not especially well-known in Israel but already a celebrity among activist Jews in America.
Jewish conservatives, Beinart suggests, became Netanyahu's enablers. They not only helped fund his political aspirations but also sought to subvert Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's signing of the Oslo accords and his requests that the U.S. Congress provide the Palestinian Authority with financial aid. One former AIPAC staffer told Beinart that the board members spent the Rabin years "waiting for Bibi to ascend." Upon his ascension to the prime ministership in 1996, he and his American backers worked overtime to foil Bill Clinton's attempts to promote peace. Instead of creating a unity government with Labor, Netanyahu chose to create one with some of the most retrograde splinter parties, telling Clinton aide Dennis Ross that a true leader never jettisons "his tribe."
Beinart traces Netanyahu's own tribal passions back to his father, Benzion. Benzion Netanyahu was an acolyte of the right-wing revisionist Vladimir Jabotinsky, who believed that any idea of an accommodation with the Palestinians was delusional. Beinart goes back to some of the editorials that Benzion wrote for a revisionist newspaper in New York called Zionews. "The prowess of Jewish youth in Palestine should serve as a warning that the blood of the old warrior race is still alive in the Jewish people," one of his editorials read. In 2009, at the age of ninety-nine, he remained just as truculent, stating that Israel should retake the Gaza Strip: "We should conquer any disputed territory in the land of Israel. . . . You don't return land." Beinart adds, "Unsurprisingly, racism pervades Benzion Netanyahu's writing." His model for Israel is the Ottoman Empire, which hanged Arabs in town squares for even minor infractions. Netanyahu fils has dismissed talk of his father's influence upon him as "psychobabble." The evidence suggests otherwise. Numerous Netanyahu advisers have testified to his father's Vulcan mind lock. In January 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly identified the New York Times and the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz as Israel's two greatest threats. And Netanyahu himself has suggested that Arabs are savages; Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Netanyahu referred to him in 2009 as a "wild beast of a man."
If Beinart sees Netanyahu's skill at wooing America's conservative Jews as one factor in the corruption of the Jewish establishment, he singles out its embrace of victimhood as another. In his book Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, historian David Biale pointed out that the notion that Jews have always been victims is something of a consoling myth. During the Holocaust, of course, Jews were victims of the Nazi regime, which sought nothing less than the utter destruction of European Jewry. But beginning in the 1970s, a preoccupation with the Holocaust supplanted a wider understanding of Judaism and Israel. Beinart says, "In its embrace of victimhood as a strategy for dealing with gentiles and younger Jews, the American Jewish establishment was turning away from the universalism that had defined it for a half-century." As a new emphasis on victimhood arose, American Jews began to distance themselves from the organizations that purported to represent them. Even though most American Jews are liberal and want to halt settlement growth, the pool of donors to Jewish causes has shriveled to a point where an emboldened minority espouses conservative sentiments. "Far more than in the past," Beinart warns, "a small number of large donors now sustain American Jewish groups, and far more than in the past, they set the agenda." The main interest of these organizations, he says, is in fundraising rather than pointing to shortcomings in Israel that might upset their donors. He singles out for particular criticism Hoenlein of the Presidents' Conference; Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL; Howard Kohr of AIPAC; and David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "All have built their careers on stories of Jewish victimhood and survival. None accept that we live in a new era in Jewish history in which our challenges stem less from weakness than from power." The contrast, Beinart writes, with such American Jewish leaders as Louis Brandeis and Stephen Wise, who saw Israel's creation as a pathway to achieving Herzlian liberal ideals, could hardly be starker.
The true liberal friend of Israel, Beinart argues, is none other than Barack Obama. In a highly intriguing chapter, Beinart suggests that Obama is the antithesis of Netanyahu. It is Obama who was profoundly shaped by his liberal Jewish mentors in Chicago, among them Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, himself a protégé of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel played a distinctive role during the civil-rights movement, scolding Jews for not doing more to forward liberal causes. His disciple, Wolf, condemned American Jews for emphasizing victimhood, observing that in "Jewish school or synagogue . . . one does not now learn about God or the Midrash or Zionism nearly as carefully as one learns about the Holocaust." He decried the readiness of Jewish leaders to employ the Holocaust to depict Israel as besieged by anti-Semites. What does this have to do with Obama? Beinart's answer: "Quite a bit." He notes that Obama's mentors were Jews and that he was embedded in a Chicago Jewish community that was profoundly estranged from the "see-no-evil Zionism of the American Jewish establishment." One such mentor was Judge Abner Mikva, who signed a public statement in 2010 that read: "We abhor the continuing occupation that has persisted for far too long; it cannot and should not be sustained."
No matter how much he soaked up this worldview, Obama's determined efforts to revive the peace process went nowhere. Beinart offers a close reconstruction of what he calls the administration's humbling. He writes that the clash in May 2011 over the 1967 Green Line was the last time Obama endorsed liberal Zionism. Newspaper articles were circulating with the message that Jewish donors would refuse to support him. Yet Beinart notes that a September 2011 Gallup poll found that Jewish support for Obama had not significantly eroded. But perhaps Obama, in largely abandoning the attempt to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, was simply acceding to reality. The ability of America to push the Netanyahu government to alter its policies was virtually nonexistent, particularly given the emergence of an anti-Obama Republican House in 2010.
Still, as Beinart sees it, a struggle for Jewish democracy has emerged. After pasting Jewish organizations, Beinart goes on to argue that younger American Jews are simply becoming indifferent to Israel's fate. But perhaps some of them will become more attached to Israel as they grow older. What's more, American influence on Israel may have passed its meridian. No doubt Israel relies on America for financial support. But questioning that support has become taboo. And demographic and political trends inside Israel suggest that country will continue to move to the Right. Thus, even if Netanyahu or a future prime minister wanted to adopt Obama's political agenda, he couldn't do so without committing political suicide. The Israeli Left lost much of its political credibility after the collapse of the Oslo accords and the second Palestinian intifada, which was triggered when Ariel Sharon took a stroll through the Temple Mount in September 2000.
But Beinart clings to the hope that the old-time Zionist faith can be revived. He proposes a rather complicated scheme in which America should recognize that there are two Israels. The first is democratic Israel. The second is the West Bank--nondemocratic Israel. He proposes a boycott of the West Bank and argues that the government should exempt settler goods from its free-trade deal with Israel and end tax-deductible gifts to charities that fund settlements. "Every time any American newspaper calls Israel a democracy," he says, "we should urge that it include the caveat: only within the green line."
This is cutting things rather finely. How, for example, could anyone discriminate between goods produced in the occupied territories and Israel proper? More fervent critics of Israel will say that his complicated scheme is merely an effort to salve his conscience; supporters will say that he is contributing to Israel's delegitimization. There is a whiff of the crusader (also present in Beinart's first book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again) in his insistence that Israel can be made to follow a more righteous path if enough good will and effort can be applied by American Jews upon Israel. It's a noble aspiration. But it is not necessarily a realistic one. On the broader question of whether the old-time Zionism that once permeated American Jewish organizations can be revived, it is impossible to reach a definitive answer, just as it is on the question of whether younger American Jews really are--or will remain--as disenchanted with Israel as Beinart suggests. In any case, there was a good deal of naïveté also in the older version of Zionism and its faith in prospects for an amicable agreement with the Palestinians over the issue of territory. It was the Arab states, after all, that rejected the 1947 United Nations partition plan, which would have granted the Palestinians far more land than is contemplated in any current agreement. The deep hostility to Israel and anti-Semitism endemic to Arab societies prompted them to attempt to wipe out Israel for decades rather than reach a settlement. Now they are confronted with a far more powerful country than they could ever have imagined.
If Beinart is longer on diagnosis than he is on solutions, he is not the first observer to be confounded by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has eviscerated many canards that pass for profundity about Israel--that to criticize it is tantamount to anti-Semitism and that Israel faces a new 1939. And the truth may be that there isn't that much America can do to attenuate the hostilities. Each party in the conflict, as the historian Walter Laqueur once observed to me, has not yet experienced enough pain to want to terminate it. Anyway, it may already be too late for Israel to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Perhaps a single state will eventually emerge if Israel keeps up its settlement expansion. Then Israel will continue down the road to becoming a pariah state, one that justifies its self-inflicted isolation in order to impose even more drastic measures on the Palestinians, thereby creating an unvirtuous cycle of events.
Beinart would like to head off such an inglorious prospect. Certainly his book will stimulate debate about America's relationship with Israel, and this is a good thing. For too long a kind of omertà has prevailed when it comes to discussing Israel in America. But it is difficult to assess what effect this debate will have upon Israel itself. Beinart probably overestimates the power of American Jews to help determine Israel's future. Israel is responsible for itself. A solution, if one is forthcoming, will be hammered out between the Palestinians and Israelis. It will not be made in America.
Still, Beinart's main point stands. There is no plausible reason to swaddle admiration for Israel in comforting illusions and fables about the course it is following. The longer Israel occupies the West Bank, the more it fuels the very terrorist forces that plague it and America. That occupation also means that, to a large extent, the nimbus of a progressive, liberal Israel is fading away. It is being replaced with a nightmarish vision of a state based on a modern form of colonial rule over a hostile people. This inconvenient truth is bad for the Palestinians, bad for Israeli democracy and bad for America. It has been ignored and suppressed and denied for decades. No longer. Beinart's eloquent book ensures that it has now been fully exposed.