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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But the other problem with his reductive argument is that it leads only to tough questions — ones he does not answer. At the end of the book, Beinart writes that “the central Jewish question of our age” is this: “the question of how to ethically wield Jewish power.” To which I say, yes! Agreed. But he does precious little grappling with what it means for Jews to wield political and military power, what it means to govern and to be forced to choose constantly between the lesser of two evils.

The sole path forward he does offer provides only further indication of his unwillingness to deal with the implications of Jewish power. He suggests that Jewish identity and, subsequently, attitudes toward Israel divide cleanly between two approaches, universalism and tribalism. He even transposes this strict binary onto the tortured relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, and his retelling of their diplomatic duels (an extended piecing together of well-known news accounts) is to make the point that Netanyahu’s tribalistic approach to Zionism prevailed over Obama’s liberal, universalist Jewish leanings.

This choice is a false one. Yes, these two approaches to Zionism exist, but in the abstract sense as two ends of a much more complex spectrum. Not for Beinart, though. He is nostalgic for an idea of Israel that never was and never could be a real place: He presents as his model for the Jewish state the utopia that Theodor Herzl imagined in his novel “Altneuland.” He praises the commitment to pluralism and respect for human rights enshrined in Israel’s declaration of independence, but then sees the rest of Israel’s history as a failure to live up to these ideals, and the current moment as a near abandonment of them. Beinart pines for 1948, when Israel fought for its life and before it got into the messiness of actually running a country and compromising to some extent its founding vision, as all states invariably do.

And as for American Jews, the golden era that Beinart longs for is the half-century between World War I and the Six Day War when Jews helped lead most of the great social justice movements in America, including, of course, the struggle for civil rights. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s prophetic strain of Judaism, which placed a moral commitment at the heart of Jewish identity, provides justifiably proud memories for American Jews. But in his binary worldview Beinart fails to see that another reason Jews during this era poured their energy into civil rights was that they were ashamed to advocate on their own behalf: Universalism was an outlet that avoided the taint of “special pleading” if they spoke up for themselves. Beinart looks with pride to the way the Holocaust was treated in the 1950s, in which its lessons were “universalized”; he then laments that by the 1970s, “American Jewish organizations began hoarding the Holocaust.” What he does not seem to grasp is that one extreme was no better than the other.

Even Heschel, in 1963, was frustrated that he couldn’t motivate American Jews and their establishment to care as much about Soviet Jews as they did about blacks in the South. “We have been guilty more than once of failure to be concerned, of a failure to cry out, and failure may have become our habit,” Heschel reprimanded. Beinart’s hero saw this absence of tribalism as failure.

Tribalism and universalism have, in fact, never been a zero-sum game for Jews, even less so since the birth of Israel. But again, Beinart is not doing the hard work of figuring out how to balance these competing impulses. Powerful political forces in Israel have indeed caused it to drift too far from the country’s founding universalism and high principles, but there are costs and risks in swinging too far to one side or the other. Beinart sees the occupation as a moral blight, and I, among many others, will not argue. Israel will indeed find itself much less morally compromised on the day that the occupation ends. But he also needs to have an answer to how Israel should deal with hostile rocket fire over its borders, with the nuclear threat from Iran and even with the practical problem of how to uproot settlements. These all need responses that reconcile national interest and security with moral imperatives. Saying simply that the occupation must end and pointing to Israel’s declaration of independence is not a sufficient answer.

As for what American Jews should do to try and bring about a more liberal Israel in line with these humanistic values, Beinart has two suggestions. First, he thinks we should invest more in Jewish education so that a population besides the Orthodox knows and cares about Israel. And second, he recommends a boycott of goods produced in the Occupied Territories or, as he prefers we call them, “undemocratic Israel.” Both of these are fine ideas, but the first is prohibitively expensive, as Beinart himself acknowledges, and the second is likely to have absolutely zero effect. In short, they are both thought experiments with minimal realistic effect and they, too, reflect what is so wrongheaded about Beinart’s approach.

He doesn’t seem to have visited the Middle East in his research, or spoken to a single Israeli or Palestinian. The whole book feels like an intellectual exercise, and it’s no surprise that both its analysis and recommendations rest in the realm of abstraction. For those on the American right, Israel has long been more an idea than a place — a theological concept, a good to fight the evil of the surrounding Arabs. Beinart is engaged in the same type of abstraction, but from the left. And that might be the biggest indictment — more wounding than all the lame ad hominem attacks being hurled at him.

Beinart wrote this book, presumably, in order to get American Jews to care more, to bring us closer to what happens in Israel. But he has succeeded only in pushing Israel — the actual living, breathing Jewish state — further away.

Gal Beckerman is the opinion editor of the Forward.


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