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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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.”

Peter Beinart
liz malby
Peter Beinart

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…”

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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