Book review: ‘The Crisis of Zionism,’ by Peter Beinart

March 30, 2012

Many books have been written on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle — by reporters, elected officials, diplomats, novelists, poets, human rights workers, Nobel laureates and ordinary citizens. But Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism” stands out not least for the avalanche of attention it has received even before publication. It is also unusual because it offers little in the way of personal reporting on the Israelis or the Palestinians themselves. Instead, Beinart’s book is mainly about the response to this searing and seemingly intractable conflict among American Jews, who, though living far from the dusty battlegrounds, are nonetheless regarded as the linchpin by certain people on both ends of the political spectrum.

Beinart frames his book as a passionate polemic on the fatal threat that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank poses to that country’s liberal democratic ideals. The object of his jeremiad is not Israeli rightists or Palestinian terror groups but the American Jewish establishment — presented here as a monolithic cartel of powerful groups and individuals who Beinart tells us have closed their eyes to the disintegration of Israel’s higher ideals while lobbying Congress and the administration for whatever their benighted Middle Eastern brethren desire.

Beinart, once nearly a card-carrying member of this group, has come to abhor it. Israel, he argues, must find a way to be a homeland for one particular minority group — Jews — and still adhere to the strict imperatives of American-style liberal democracy. “Today, it is failing,” he writes, “and American Jews are helping it fail.”

“The Crisis of Zionism” is most interesting when seen for what it is, at least in part: a political stump speech for an attractive young candidate who is seeking the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews. In the pre-publication run-up, Beinart has been doing quite well, having gained the enthusiastic endorsement of certain sectors of the American Jewish community as well as former president Bill Clinton (who blurbed the book) and Jeremy Ben-Ami, leader of the self-defined liberal pro-Israel organization J Street.

Beinart has many points in his favor: He is young but seasoned, he edited the New Republic, he is active in his Orthodox synagogue. It is easy to see why many younger Jews might prefer to see him featured on CNN as a Jewish spokesman in place of the balding men in suits or enraged Israeli consular officials who are often, by whatever baffling process, chosen to fill that role.


"The Crisis of Zionism" by Peter Beinart (Times Books/Henry Holt)

But after reading his book, I am sorry to say that I will not be pulling the lever for Beinart. This is may be surprising, since I heartily endorse many of his talking points about the moral and political corruption that the occupation has engendered — a position that, in fact, places us both among the vast majority of American Jews. Yet I cannot subscribe to the book’s fundamental thrust, which suggests something disappointingly problematic about Beinart’s campaign.

“The Crisis of Zionism” is, in part, a history of a specific current of American Jewish life: the small, liberal Zionist groups that have, for decades, opposed the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Beinart tells this tale in a lively, character-driven narrative that underscores the moral and political urgency of the issues. He then uses this history as a foundation for eloquent denunciations of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, highlighting the mistakes and general misguidedness of some very powerful Jewish groups and ruing the dissolution of Israel’s once-noble cause.

In between, he devotes an extended section to a defense of President Obama against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a chapter titled “The Jewish President,” Beinart presents Obama as the good Jew (he learned about certain Jewish notions of social justice from an activist Reform rabbi in Chicago) and Netanyahu as the bad Jew. This device allows Beinart to attach Jewishness to the leader most aligned with him politically, reimagining Obama in a way that’s bound to tickle some liberal American Jews.

But think hard about this: The impulse to involuntarily convert the president into a Jew is sweet but disturbingly tribalist, not to mention ultimately disrespectful of the background Obama does have. The president is not a Jew, just as Clinton was not our first black president.

So why assert it? Because Beinart has identified Obama, who garnered overwhelming Jewish support in the last election and will probably do so in the next, as his best chance for disconnecting American Jews from the current Israeli administration. But this raises a question: If American Jews, even older ones who fill the leadership ranks of Jewish organizations, are in fact quite liberal and capable of holding nuanced political positions about two separate countries, why is Beinart presenting them as a group of single-minded partisans?

The answer is that it allows Beinart to elevate himself as the standard-bearer of all good liberal citizens of America — Jewish or not — who want to think of Israel as a decent place but who can’t stomach the conflict with the Palestinians and who of course don’t want anyone to think they are anti-Semites, as indeed the vast majority of them are not.

That’s fine. Beinart’s obvious politicking makes him neither better nor worse than his fellow claimants — every politician is ambitious for the job he seeks. The problem is his basic argument. In the end, his book is largely a restatement of Zionist dovishness, one ironically drained of its potential power in part by a glaring absence. From this book you would think that Palestinians are just the passive and helpless victims of Israeli sadism, with no historical agency; no politics, diplomacy or violence of their own; and no responsibility for the miserable impasse of the conflict.

Beinart’s view is basically this: Israel must save the Palestinians, and American Jews must save Israel. By saving the Palestinians, Israel will save itself, and by saving Israel, American Jews will save themselves. “Liberal American Jews must feel a special commitment to Israel’s ethical character because they feel a special commitment to being Jewish,” Beinart writes. “They must see their own honor as bound up with the honor of the Jewish state.”

But American Jewish life does not stand or fall with Netanyahu, and the relationship of young Jews to Zionism, like their relationship to traditional affiliations of all sorts, takes many shapes and has many causes.

Should American Jews take stands on Israel’s future? Of course. But whatever the reality of Jewish power in America, it’s fantasy to imagine that American Jews can pressure Israel into making any significant movements its leaders do not want to make. “For those of us who aspire to raise our children as both Zionists and liberals . . . the impending collapse” of Israel as a liberal and Jewish democracy is “a tragedy of incalculable proportions,” Beinart writes. “We must resist it with every fiber of our being.” However frustrating this is to accept, Israel is its own country, with its own voters — and we are not among them.

Still, Beinart’s voice is heard far and wide. He publishes much-discussed newspaper op-eds, his book will be widely reviewed, and his speaking tour will undoubtedly take him to many Jewish community centers and synagogues. Those who don’t get to see him in the flesh can click on his new blog devoted entirely to this topic on the Daily Beast.

And yet for his most passionate followers, the attention will not be enough until Beinart’s views are read and wholly accepted by every self-identified liberal. Late last month, Andrew Sullivan — a blogger with an enormous following — was presenting Beinart as an unheeded prophet speaking truth to a monolithic, repressive Jewish power center: “Repeat after me what the greater Israel lobby and its acolytes will be chanting for the next few weeks: Ignore. Peter. Beinart.”

While his book is based almost entirely on newspaper clippings and other second-hand sources, Beinart and his supporters must be credited with some real creativity. They have introduced their own repressive litmus test, this one to determine who can be considered both a liberal American and a Zionist: If you disagree with the current Israeli administration but don’t regard it as a font of evil and corruption, you are blind, deaf and dumb. “Acting ethically in an age of Jewish power,” Beinart writes, “means confronting not only the suffering that gentiles endure but the suffering that Jews cause” —which he follows with a set of very specific prescriptions, including a controversial partial boycott of goods made in what Beinart calls “nondemocratic Israel.”

And so against what they see as the self-satisfied and delusional monolith of the American Jewish establishment, Beinart and his supporters are now erecting their own self-satisfied and delusional monolith, calculated to appeal to disillusioned Jewish summer camp alumni, NPR listeners and other beautiful souls who want the Holy Land to be a better place but do not have the time or ability to study the issues, learn the languages or talk to the people on both sides whose hearts have been broken over and over again by prophets making phony promises.

Here is what those people know: Peace will be made only by Israelis and Palestinians together, and when it comes, the American Jewish community will support it, as it has every effort toward peace in the past. American Jews will not save Israel, and Peter Beinart will not save American Jews. With “The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart has indeed transformed himself into a spokesman for some. But in the process, he has ruined his chance to be a leader for many.

bookworld@washpost.com

Alana Newhouse is editor in chief of Tablet, an online Jewish news magazine.

THE CRISIS OF ZIONISM

By Peter Beinart

Times. 289 pp. $26

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