One positive thing you can say about Peter Beinart’s critics is that none of them has smacked him in the face with a rifle butt. Not yet, anyway. That might not be far off, though, judging by the overall tone of the published reactions to his new book, “The Crisis of Zionism.”
I was going to say “published reviews,” but that would have been misleading. Much of what’s been said about the book in the nation’s leading journals hasn’t been reasoned critique or analysis so much as vituperation. Something about this book has caused The New York Times, The Washington Post and some other normally high-minded publications to come unhinged. More precisely, to assign the book to reviewers who proceed, one by one, to come unglued.
What’s got them so agitated? It isn’t the book itself. “The Crisis of Zionism” is a relatively slight volume, expanding on Beinart’s 2010 New York Review of Books essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” His basic thesis is that Israel’s West Bank occupation is eroding the country’s founding democratic values and alienating a younger generation of American Jews — and that the American Jewish community’s leaders and lobbyists respond with knee-jerk apologetics instead of fighting for their avowed liberal ideals. It’s been said before, but Beinart, an ex-New Republic editor and repentant Iraq War hawk, has brought a certain celebrity cachet.
The reviews, meanwhile, consist largely of, well, knee-jerk apologetics. They all seem to intone the shopworn catechism that absolves Israel of any responsibility for its own difficulties: that Israelis want to end the occupation, but it’s too risky; that criticizing settlements is a red herring, because they aren’t the real nub of the conflict; that the Palestinians’ misfortunes are due to their own behavior, not Israel’s; that it’s dangerously naive to believe that Israel got through six decades of war without ever dirtying its hands. (Funny: That’s what most of us were taught to believe.)
The litany is remarkably unremarkable. It offers little more than fatuities trotted out as though they were settled facts rather than what they are: points of argument in a fierce trans-Atlantic debate. Nor do the reviewers bother to acknowledge that Beinart’s book actually considers most of their objections and answers them, agree or not. No, their goal is to show that they know what’s going on and Beinart doesn’t because he’s — well, that’s where the reviewers get creative. How many ways can they insult him?
Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens, writing in Tablet magazine (reprinted on the WSJ website) says Beinart is “singularly intent on scolding Israel, like an angry ex who has lost all grip on the proportions of the original dispute,” a lazy reporter whose work is “hysteria-fueled,” “an act of moral solipsism,” “another squeaky note in the blasting chorus that is modern-day Israel bashing.” Tablet’s own editor, Alana Newhouse, claims in The Washington Post, that Beinart is actually running for “the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews” while leading his putative flock in “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…”