Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism”

Around this time last year, Matt Taibbi included a little snippet in his mailbag that stuck with me, and seems especially relevant when talking about Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism.

Three things I try to avoid talking about publicly: Immigration, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the CMKM Diamond penny-stock case. The instant you open your mouth about any of those things, you’re fucked, almost no matter what you say.

To wit, Beinart, who has faced a fury of criticism from the right and left and center in the last month or so. Daniel Greenfield thinks The Crisis of Zionism is proof of Beinart’s anti-Zionist, leftist Islamist motives. Mark LeVine, a professor at UC-Irvine, criticized Beinart’s “liberal Zionist fantasy,” accusing him of historical ignorance and naivete regarding the imperialist roots of Zionism. And Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic believes Beinart’s idea to boycott goods and services produced in occupied territories (i.e., the settlements) won’t work and, further, “for historical reasons,” is “pretty unpleasant.”

When it comes to writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as with all hugely divisive topics, it’s likely that you won’t please anyone.

Or as Taibbi put it, you’re fucked.

So what is there to say about The Crisis of Zionism? It is something of a mess, its author trying-trying-trying to please everyone, to forge some sort of middle ground in a conflict devoid of moderate voices. Though it does a great job of outlining the current issues plaguing American-Israeli affairs—the tremendous gulf of ideals between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu—it doesn’t go far enough out on any limb, and ultimately proposes a fairly tepid solution to a serious problem.

The main problem with The Crisis of Zionism is that it doesn’t really know where it’s going. It seems that Beinart is only hyper-aware of who he might offend. So at the outset, Beinart makes it clear that he is (a) a Zionist and (b) worried about the future of Israel—the crisis, i.e. the failure of American liberal Jews to defend democracy in the Jewish state. This would be a perfectly fine thesis, were Beinart to support it anywhere in the nine chapters that follow the introduction.

Instead, Beinart writes about the state of affairs in Israeli-Palestinian politics, the American-Israeli relationship, the changing demographics in Israel, Jewish identity, the liberal roots of Theodor Herzl, etc. All of which are worthy topics, and super-relevant to a book about Israel in 2012. But in sum, these issues run counter to Beinart’s very thesis. That is to say, the real crisis of Zionism—or crisis of Israel—is that the country, under Netanyahu, is swinging further and further to the right. As the old-enough-to-remember-Palestinians-as-neighbors folks die off, the young-enough-to-only-remember-Palestinians-as-enemies folks comprise more and more of the electorate, and the two-state solution—or, at the very least, an end to demolishing Arab homes and expanding Israeli settlements—becomes a fantasy.

Beinart ultimately places the onus of saving Israel on the shoulders of American liberal Jews. In his conclusion, he wonders why American Jews—who are, statistically speaking, very liberal—are so secular. Or, beyond that, why they seem to have no relationship with Israel. His solution is for more Jewish children to attend private Jewish schools, having found a relationship between this attendance and a kinship with Israel.

This is a very clear, well-defended idea. Beinart’s statistics are, on the surface, sound. And if more liberal Jews, imbued with American notions of democracy and equality, were to settle Israel or speak out about its transgressions, that could very well spark change.

Further, Beinart proposes a boycott on all goods produced in Israeli settlements. And a language protest meant to draw a distinction between Democratic Israel (what’s inside the green line) and Non-Democratic Israel (what’s outside the green line).

(This idea of a protest/boycott has people quite inflamed. As someone who doesn’t have the perspective of folks like Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, I’ll decline comment on the sensitivity of Jewish people re: boycotts and the like.)

But before this is offered in the conclusion, Beinart explores the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, and the influence wielded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Beinart’s chapter on Netanyahu is brilliant, describing the Prime Minister’s relationship with his father’s (Benzion) radical, anti-Arab ideas, his idolization of the tremendous English bigots Winston Churchill and Richard Meinartzhagen, and his well-known contempt for the two-state solution.

Obama’s foreign policy, meanwhile, has been shackled by an American political landscape that is pro-Israel (or anti-Arab—depends where you’re standing, I guess). And in the current political context, being pro-Israel means pro-Netanyahu, or pro-Likud. Owing in some part to this political reality, Netanyahu has had the leverage to bully Obama, meeting with members of congress (like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor) who promise total allegiance to Israeli policy.

Additionally, anyone who turns on the news in 2012 knows that the chances of war between Israel and Iran get better with each diplomatic pound of the chest.

What I’m saying is that, in sum, these problems—Israel swinging to the right, their most influential ally supporting them no matter what, settlements continuing, etc.—seem too large for a boycott or a long-term devotion to Jewish schooling. Really, I’m not sure what the solution is from an American perspective. For what more can we hope but a dovish party taking control of the Israeli Knesset? As long as Netanyahu is in power, the chances of a softening of Israeli policy re: settlements or the two-state solution are slim to none.

Beinart’s solution is heartfelt, genuine, put forth out of a devotion to the Zionist dream. Given that, his willingness to criticize Israel and Israeli policy is refreshing. His is a balanced worldview. But he seems hyper-aware of the impending backlash in his writing, trying too hard to court those who might disagree, proffering a solution that is inspired, but naive.

Still, Beinart doesn’t deserve the criticism he’s received. When you write about Israel and Palestine, you do so knowing what detractors will say. Their critiques will not focus on your writing, but you. To those on the far right, The Crisis of Zionism shows that Beinart’s a turncoat, an anti-Israeli American leftist. To those on the far left, his book is not only wrong, but demonstrates a tremendous historical ignorance and naivete. He can’t win.

Call it the Taibbi theory—call it whatever. It’s true.

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