my review of Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism”


I’ve been familiar with Peter Beinart’s writings since he wrote a very important piece in the New York Review of Books a few years ago that noted that younger Jews were becoming less and less concerned about Israel, He argued that this was in large part because Israel was no longer seen as an endangered nobel country, but rather as one that was an occupier that has amassed a very powerful military force insulating the country from any neighboring threats. Beinart also had once supported the Iraq war, but subsequently recanted. Of course, given that he is a well-educated journalist who is also an academic, it seemed curious to me that many of us who are not erudite journalists had no problem figuring out in the run up to the war that this was a really dumb and dangerous thing for the Bush administration to do. But Beinart did seem to hit the nail on the head regarding Israel and its powerful, blind supporters in the US, and if nothing else, he hit a serious nerve in the organized Jewish community.

I was so taken by what Beinart had written in the New York Review of Books that I went ahead and worked to bring him to my local reconstructionist synagogue, and he will be speaking there later this month. So when I learned that he was publishing a book on “The Crisis of Zionism,” I preordered it on Amazon and happily downloaded it to my iPhone’s Kindle reader within hours of it coming out last week.

Interestingly, from the stuff one can see on the Web, on TV and in other media, Beinart is largely being demonized as a “traitor” to the Jewish people, a “self-hating Jew” and probably worse epithets by now. Contrast that with the reaction to Gershon Gorenberg’s recent book that raises alarms about the ongoing settlement enterprise by the Israeli government; nary a bad word or remark, almost as if few even paid attention to Gorenberg’s book. Most likely, as a friend pointed out to me, this is because Gorenberg criticizes Israeli governmental policies. Beinart is taking on the US Jewish establishment, and that apparently hits a raw nerve.

Given all this, is Beinart’s book really a bomb thrown at the organized Jewish community, and is he Noam Chomsky-redux? I’ll cut to the chase: yes and no.

Let’s start with the good. The Crisis of ZIonism is well-written, and contains a lot of material that does question the standard narrative on Israel and criticizes, often vehemently, the large organizations that have come to speak for the US Jewish community, even when many of us within that community is in total conflict with the opinions proffered by those groups that claim to represent us. These include organizations such as AIPAC, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and so on. Beinart recounts, in painful detail, how many within those groups actively worked to derail the Middle East peace process, and even work against our current president when he suggested policies contrary to those of the Netanyahu administration in Israel. Beinart also points out the hypocrisy in criticizing President Obama (to whom Beinart refers as “The First Jewish President”) for verbally opposing settlement activities when previous Republican administrations actually went beyond verbal disagreements and withheld money and arms to Israel when they disagreed with Israeli policy and actions. So yes, Beinart does criticize, and appropriately so, the organized Jewish community.

Now for the bad; he’s no Noam Chomsky. Not even close. I’m not sure why he’s being referred to as an “ultraliberal;” if that’s the case, then many of us must be the second coming of Che Guevara. Beinart came across to me as wanting things both ways; he wants to criticize Israel for its interminable occupation of Palestinians, but also wants to support Israel so that his kinder, gentler pre-Netanyahu Israel can break through. The problem is that that kinder, gentler Zionism never existed. What Peter doesn’t call much attention to is the fact that the occupation started, continued and flourished under secular Labor governments that predated the current religious Zionism endemic within the settler movement. Ben Gurion, Dayan, Meir, Rabin, Peres, all of them secular and none of them did much to end the occupation. If anything, they all promoted it, including Rabin (to be fair, Rabin did eventually provide some reforms that helped Israelis of Palestinian descent, but a Lincoln he wasn’t). Beinart relates how Herzl and other early Zionists wanted to have Israel represent something akin to Vienna rather than the intolerant cruelty it currently represents. What Beinart omits is that in the early Zionist vision, the Arabs would live in peace under a Jewish government, albeit with equal rights but no land of their own. It is also quite true that when Israel was conceived, Jews were being slaughtered in many countries and no one really did give a damn. But it was also true that the early Zionists wanted a Jewish refuge, not necessarily a country where Jews ruled exclusively, and certainly not one in which Jewish law held sway. And for hundreds of years, many rabbis didn’t have any interest in settling in Israel nor did the average religious Jew; Israel was only to come into being through the return of the messiah. The real impetus for a Jewish refuge came out of the real persecution endemic in much of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Beinart correctly points out that the occupation is destroying Israel, and understands that it must end. So he wants to mobilize progressive Jews (or more precisely, “liberal Zionists,” as he terms them) to take action and reclaim his imaginary and elusive “feel-good, tolerant Zionism” to save Israel. But as he pointed out in his accurate New York Review of Books article, many young Jews in the US just don’t find Israel relevant to their daily lives. So Beinart really wants Jews to start caring about Israel and somehow convince Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian land and devise a two-state solution. And to get these young progressive Americans to care about Israel, he feels the answer is to push for increasing enrollment in Jewish day schools (right after he points out that Jewish day schools are costly and tend to have fewer resources than secular schools). And then, to convince Israel to end its occupation, there should be a targeted boycott of goods from the West Bank (or “Zionist BDS, as he calls it, referring to the boycott/divest/sanction movement that targets Israel as a whole), but not of “democratic Israel,” as he terms the area within the Green Line that defines the 1948-1967 borders of Israel. And an element of his Zionist BDS is to instead invest in “democratic Israel,” which he defines as all territory not officially Occupied by Israel.

That’s his solution: daily Jewish education and a selective boycott of the “undemocratic” part of Israel.

That was the most disappointing aspect of this book for me; he can go just far enough to criticize the organized Jewish community in the US and the Netanyahu government, but can’t accept a boycott movement against Israel as a whole, nor does he seem to accept that since many of the really vehement settlers are orthodox Jews, perhaps Jewish education isn’t a definite recipe for more tolerance of Israel’s Palestinian citizens and (occupied) neighbors. Granted, Beinart does point out many aspects of Jewish teaching that should provoke revulsion at the current occupation. But clearly those important Jewish values are not guaranteed to cause religious Israelis to pull out of the West Bank and stop their control of Gazan life. Beinart very pointedly is against the BDS movement because in his view, it delegitimizes Israel. That seemed strange to me, when he had earlier correctly indicated that the sound-bite that criticizing Israeli policy is “delegitimization” amounts to a canard designed to delegitimize the complaint itself. Most people in the BDS movement are not antisemitic nor do they want to see Israel vanish. Just the opposite; many are Jews like me, who want Israel to be better. Clearly, Beinart wants that very much as well. But he has a fairly simplistic vision: all was good before the occupation and before right-wing governments came into power in Israel, so if a progressive government would just come into power in Israel, that country could go back to being a moral beacon, etc. But Israel has had liberal governments from day one, and under those governments chose to provide orthodox Jewish control over civil affairs such as marriage, and chose to continue and expand its control over Palestinians and their land. Beinart is operating under a very clean duality: liberal Zionism and President Obama = good, right-wing religious Zionism and Netanyahu = bad. But I’m still not clear what liberal Zionism is, exactly, and while I agree with every negative thing Beinart writes on Netanyahu and other right-wingers in Israeli politics, there is no evidence that a subsequent liberal/Labor government in Israel would do much of anything to reverse the occupation. If only it were that easy.

And Beinart’s solution also requires a two-state solution. That would have made sense in the 90′s when the Oslo Accords seemed to move things in that direction. But this is 2012, and without an Israeli retreat from settlements such as Ariel and several other large towns that Israel is loathe to ever give up, it’s unclear how any Palestinian state could comprise anything more than a series of Bantustans on non-adjacent land areas. Ariel, for example, would cut a Palestinian state in two. The entire “can’t we just rewind things back a decade or two” argument within The Crisis of Zionism just seems to be so much fanciful thinking to my mind, even constituting magical thinking. So what about a one-state solution then? Beinart condemns it (as does much of the Jewish establishment he rightfully criticizes), since he views it as the end of a Jewish state, and unworkable (he offers up the images of Belgium and Lebanon as examples of why a one-state solution likely is impossible to work in Israel). Yes, a one-state solution is not a slam-dunk, and is probably impractical. But a two-state solution is dead at this point. It hasn’t been a reality since 1967 nor was it a reality when the UN partitioned Mandate Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections with an internationalized Jerusalem. And let’s say a two-state solution happened tomorrow; would Israelis accept even a demilitarized Palestinian state on two sides containing at least a few radicals who want Palestine to comprise everything within the Green Line? And for that matter, would those religious Zionists accept giving up claims to Judea and Samaria, land that they believe is theirs? Some of these folks still believe Jordan should be part of Israel, based on some phrases from the Old Testament. And what of the settlements? And what of Israelis of Palestinian descent? And what happens to the Palestinian right of return? So yes, a one-state solution may be pie in the sky. But no less so than a two-state solution, and in some ways (S. Africa being a good example, although not a perfect analogy), perhaps a one-state solution would be more appropriate. It would allow everyone living there, Jew, Muslim and Christian, access to their holy sites regardless of whether they sit in what would have been Israel or Palestine. There would be one military, regardless of one’s religion. But what about a Jewish state? Depends what is meant by that. If it means a Jewish homeland, one which is free of persecution, then does it matter who is running the country? A Jewish state doesn’t have to mean having only Jews in primary positions of power. It can mean, however, a democracy where everyone is equal, but allows Jews to live in peace. There is just no more reason for Jews to be the exclusive power holders in a “Jewish state” than there was reason for white Afrikaners to be the exclusive power in a democratic S. Africa. Yes, I may be dreaming given the unlikely probability that a single democratic state would ever arise between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. But just because something might not happen doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t.

So ultimately, for all of Beinart’s valid criticisms of an organized Jewish community in the US that is woefully out of touch with its more progressive constituents, as well as his revulsion at the occupation and the Netanyahu government in Israel, his solutions fall flat and his vision is ultimately surprisingly and disappointingly naive. He ignores the discrimination inherent in even the early conceptions of ZIonism that involved a return to Israel (and that assumed an acquiescence on the part of the Palestinian population indigenous to that area). He pushes for a selective “Zionist BDS” that only targets the West Bank, which is neither practical nor useful, while condemning a wider and potentially more powerful BDS movement against Israel as a whole (consistent with this, Beinart recently praised the failure of a NYC food coop to put forward a boycott of Israeli goods). The truth is that the occupied territories and Israel are intimately linked.

Beinart wants to hold on to a two-state solution and condemns a one-state vision, while hoping to enlist young progressive Jews in the effort towards propping up Israel and undoing the settlement enterprise. Beinart opines that those young Jews would be more committed to activism on behalf of a two-state solution were they going to Jewish day schools every day (disclaimer: my wife and I sent both of our children to Quaker schools for part of their education, and they currently attend secular public schools, as did both of us when we were that age). None of this makes a whole lot of sense to me, much as I understand where he is coming from. There is little or no mention of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace that are currently working to end the occupation but that also support BDS efforts. There isn’t even a whole lot of mention of Palestinians, period, except for a few prominent names like Saeb Erekat and Yasir Arafat.

I have no question that Beinart sympathizes with the Palestinians. But he feels very strongly (not surprising given his modern Orthodox adherence) that there is a religious, biblical and historical right for Jews to inhabit and run Israel, and that would be destroyed by any Palestinian right of return and/or a one-state solution. While Israel exists and is not going away, the religious dogma or historical justifications for Jewish control of Israel are thin. Why wouldn’t the Ba’hai or other religious minorities that are persecuted not then also deserve their own states, for example?

It is also very understandable that Beinart cannot support the current Netanyahu government. But while Netanyahu and his administration are certainly suboptimal, it’s not like a Peres government or a Barak government led to an end to the occupation and equal rights for Israelis of Palestinian descent. Beinart feels there is a democratic Israel within the Green Line and an undemocratic one in the occupied territories. Truth is, while Israel is ostensibly a democracy, it has been drifting away from democracy for some time, even before the current Netanyahu government. There is gross discrimination against Israelis of Palestinian ancestry; Beinart makes that very clear in is book. Yet he seems to feel that bad as that is, at least that group has citizenship; Palestinian within the territories lack citizenship and are governed by military rule while settlers are governed by Israeli rule. But consider that Black Americans had citizenship in the US for years but were horribly persecuted and discriminated against for much of the 20th century. We were a democracy then, too. There is no place for the systematic discrimination against non-Jewish Israelis who also identify with Palestinian Arabs. There is thus something wrong when it’s fair to boycott “undemocratic Israel” (ie, the Occupied Territories) yet unfair to boycott a “democratic Israel” that is becoming less democratic, discriminates against 20% of its population and gives material, legal and financial support to the occupation enterprise. It’s not like everything within the Green Line is good and the occupation beyond it is bad; both are intimately linked, and the occupation could not exist were it not for everyone and everything within the Green Line. Beinart also feels that East Jerusalem is less discriminatory than the occupied territories, as Palestinians are eligible to apply for citizenship within East Jerusalem. But that really doesn’t make Israel particularly democratic in practice, nor does it mean that Israel proper deserves support while boycotting settlement goods.

On a more mundane note, this is also a short book. I was surprised to have finished it with my Kindle Reader indicating that I was around 47% through the book, meaning that over 50% of the book consists of endnotes, references and acknowledgements. I literally finished the book in three days.

The Crisis of Zionism was a worthwhile book to have read. It provides a good deal of interesting detail about selected US Jewish organizations, the hidden dealings between US administrations and Israel over the years, and takes Israel and the US Jewish establishment to task for supporting the occupation and undermining more liberal American presidents. But I was ultimately very disappointed by the “solutions” presented by Beinart, his holding to the idea that there is a better, kinder Israel just waiting to be freed by the efforts of young progressive Jews if they only attended heder every day, and his condemnation of BDS and a one-state solution as inimical to a Jewish state and even (in the case of BDS), fundamentally antisemitic.