Peter Beinart's Big Zionist Experiment

Much-Anticipated Book Does Little To Advance Debate

Mind Games: Peter Beinart tries to square Abraham Heschel, Theodor Herzl, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama.
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Mind Games: Peter Beinart tries to square Abraham Heschel, Theodor Herzl, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama.

By Gal Beckerman

Published March 29, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
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The Crisis of Zionism
By Peter Beinart
Times Books, 304 pages, $26

It’s not often that the publication of a book is preceded by months of debate about its central argument. But that has been the fate of Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism,” for which defenses and denunciations stretch back to 2010. It was then that Beinart published an article in The New York Review of Books setting out his thesis and launching himself as a high-profile Zionist critic of Israel. Over the past few weeks, you would have needed blinders and earplugs, or at least the ability to tune out Twitter and the websites that make up the shtetlsphere, in order to have an independent response to his ideas about American Jews and their apparent complicity in Israel’s downward spiral. But rather than react to a Jeffrey Goldberg blog post that answered an Andrew Sullivan Tweet about some article in defense of Beinart’s op-ed, I’d like to just look at the book.

Beinart offers, essentially, an argument in the form of an extended psychological profile. He thinks Jews have not adjusted well to the vertiginous rise in fortune they have experienced over the course of the 20th century. The perpetual victims have become corrupted by the sudden experience of power — mostly because of their inability to move beyond seeing themselves as victims. For Beinart, the preponderance of Israelis and those Jews running the American Jewish establishment (his catch-all for that minority within a minority with enough money to buy influence) fit the classic psychology of the abused child who tragically grows up to become the abuser.

Have we heard this before? Absolutely. Beinart presents it as a revelation, but it’s hardly a new notion that terrible things can be justified when it is “always 1939.” This, however, is the main insight from which he spools out the rest of his case. He writes with the blind enthusiasm of a new convert, thrilled to point out, for example, his disgust with a photo of Israeli F-15s flying over Auschwitz that hangs in the office of Malcolm Hoenlein, who runs the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein, Beinart writes, “has decorated his conference room not with the image of the reality he helps perpetuate, but with the image of the fantasy he superimposes on that reality.”

That “reality” is the occupation and the daily harm it causes to Palestinians and, consequently, to the future of democracy in Israel. This is Beinart’s argument: Jewish politics can be reduced to pathology. Just because it isn’t groundbreaking doesn’t make it untrue. And personally, I agree with the obvious takeaway that “because we don’t talk much about Jewish power, we rarely grapple with the potential for its abuse. Instead we tell ourselves that we are still history’s victims whose primary responsibility is to survive.”

But it’s the excessive simplicity of this formulation that points to the book’s many problems. When Beinart begins to tell his version of how the conflict came about and how Israelis and Americans are shaping it today, it becomes obvious that Jewish psychology is not really an adequate explanation.

For one thing, Beinart removes all agency from Israel’s adversaries. Time and again, he makes the point that if only Israel ended the occupation, everything would resolve itself. Sometimes this forces him to simply ignore reality. In his telling, Israel’s relations with Turkey went sour over the past three years only because of Israeli actions (that is, Operation Cast Lead and the disastrous raid on the flotilla headed for Gaza). He makes no mention of the fact that Turkey’s leaders had their own political and strategic reasons for turning on Israel and that the populism sweeping the region often exploits anti-Israel feeling (which exists, a least in part, regardless of what Israel does) to unify and consolidate power.

Another example is Beinart’s assumption that if the occupation ends, Israeli Arabs will feel more contented living in a state with an anthem and a flag that don’t represent them. They would be able to take solace, he writes, in neighboring Palestine, “a country that expressed their special character as a people, even if they chose not to live there.” It’s not clear why Beinart thinks Israeli Arabs would instantaneously abandon the dream of a greater Palestine when many Jews have failed to do so even after having their Zionism fulfilled on part of the land for 60 years. To grapple, however, with Palestinian motivation would be to acknowledge that some things are out of Israel’s control.


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