Can Peter Beinart Save Liberal Zionism?

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.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Global

Just In