What Stirred Hornet’s Nest?

Peter Beinart's Book Makes Fairly Simple Argument

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 22, 2012, issue of April 27, 2012.
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Jonathan Rosen of Nextbook, writing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, is more subtle. He grabs an unfortunate quote from Beinart’s grandmother, lamenting the Jews’ endless wanderings, and crafts it into a devastating opening: “‘The Jews are like rats,’ Peter Beinart’s grandmother told him when he was a boy. ‘We leave the sinking ship.’” Further on he quotes Beinart calling for “a new American Jewish story” and continues: “The wish for a new testament is old in Judaism, though some would say that Beinart’s attempt to separate Judaism’s sinful body from its liberal soul — the better to save it — is an antiquated act.” In other words, Beinart is Paul of Tarsus, ancient nemesis of faithful Jews. No, wait — he’s Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor.

For seriously unhinged, though, nobody beats Rabbi Daniel Gordis, writing in The Jerusalem Post. He calls Beinart’s book an “Israel-bashing fest,” claims Beinart “actually detests Israel,” then says Beinart’s “problem isn’t really with Israel. It’s with Judaism.” American liberalism, with which Beinart “is so infatuated,” doesn’t have room for “Jewish ethnic nationalism.” Working up a lather, Gordis says he doesn’t know “which kiddush Beinart recited on the first night of Passover” (it shouldn’t be a mystery — Beinart, unlike Gordis, is Orthodox), what’s in Beinart’s Haggadah or whether he’s familiar with the Torah blessings. His point is that all these texts declare the Jews’ tribal separateness and rage against “the nations,” mandating a xenophobic rancor that Beinart somehow lacks. Gordis even quotes approvingly “the Talmud’s claim that ‘converts are as burdensome to [the people of] Israel as leprosy.’” Pour out thy wrath, indeed.

There’s a certain irony operating here. One of Beinart’s key goals is to question the narrow parameters that communal leaders attempt to impose, with some success, on American Jewish discussion of Israel. The trouble is, those narrow parameters also preclude questioning the narrow parameters. Pushback was inevitable.

But that doesn’t explain the attacks’ venomous, ad hominem intensity. For that we must look to the general mood of panicked rage sweeping some segments of Israeli and American Jewry: the McCarthyite attacks in Israel on human rights organizations and the New Israel Fund, the attempts to keep J-Street speakers out of synagogues and to defund or shut down Israeli film festivals screening the wrong Israeli films. The legal threats against campus Arab student groups. The hounding of M.J. Rosenberg. It’s hard to remember such a dark mood of repression since the days of the enemies’ lists circulating in the community in the early 1980s.

Back then, Israel was giving back Sinai and the PLO was between bombings, quietly building its base in Lebanon. And today? It’s been five years since the last Palestinian suicide attack. They’re building a state from within and adopting nonviolent protest. Is the right panicking because the noose is tightening? It sounds crazy. I’m just saying.

As for explaining the participation of The New York Times and The Washington Post in this anger-fest, I’m stumped.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at Goldberg@forward.com


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