Debated Book Illuminates Essential Truth

Peter Beinart's 'Crisis' Sheds Light on Power and Victimhood

By Leonard Fein

Published May 06, 2012, issue of May 11, 2012.
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I have many quibbles with Peter Beinart’s new bombshell book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” and, here and there, some substantive disagreements. But quibbles and disagreements alike pale in the bright true light Beinart casts on Zionism’s current condition — and ours. Nowhere does that light illuminate more than in a paragraph very near the end of the book, addressed to Jews of the left who have given up on Israel:

Peter Beinart
liz malby
Peter Beinart

“It is not enough to care about Haiti and Darfur and New Orleans. Acting ethically in an age of Jewish power means confronting not only the suffering that gentiles endure but the suffering that Jews cause. For Jews who espouse liberal principles, indifference to whether the Jewish state remains a democracy constitutes as deep a betrayal of the bonds of peoplehood as indifference to whether there remains a Jewish state at all. Israel cannot be tucked away in the attic, left to degrade, while progressive, committed Jews live their religious and ethical ideals in the United States. A disfigured Jewish state will haunt not only American Zionism but American Judaism. And the American Jews who try to avert their eyes will be judged harshly by history, no matter how laudable their soup kitchens and no matter how spirited their prayer.”

Elsewhere, Beinart deals with those Jews who find it impossible to think — or to acknowledge — that there is “suffering that Jews cause.” Here, he is addressing a different segment of our community, and here he gives lie — a strong word, but, I fear, entirely accurate — to Daniel Gordis’s accusation (in The Jerusalem Post of April 22) that Beinart is so committed to universalism that he dismisses all tribal imperatives. Gordis wants us to believe that “Beinart’s problem, most fundamentally, is that the American liberalism with which he is so infatuated does not comfortably have a place for Jewish ethnic nationalism.” But if the paragraph I have cited here is taken seriously, it is no more and no less than a call to what we might term an “enlightened tribalism.”

Perhaps Gordis is stuck in a benighted tribalism that would discourage Jews from caring about Haiti, Darfur and New Orleans, that would toss overboard the ethical ambitions of a people that finds merit in serving in soup kitchens — and also, and not at all incidentally, in caring passionately for the welfare of the Jewish state. And that is, of course, the point: The Jews are a people particular (read: tribal) in structure and universal (read: liberal) in ideology. Beinart reflects that dualism, with all its tensions and miscalculations; Gordis and other critics of Beinart appear to have read the book with a decisively parochial chip on their shoulder.

(Time out for quibbles: Most of mine arise from Beinart’s recapitulation of history. He tells of many events in which I was involved, to which I was a close witness or that I simply know about from decades of engagement. And too often, he gets things not quite right. Yet that’s pretty much inevitable, what with the Rashomon effect and the vagaries of memory.)

Beinart devotes much attention to the ungainly ways in which Jewish leaders deal with the fact that we are these days, in America and in Israel, an empowered people. But power is for us a new experience, and we are only beginning to figure it out. Nor has the fact of it displaced the more classic Jewish theme, the theme of victimhood. “In the 1970s,” Beinart tells us, “victimhood, especially as a strategy for defending Israel, supplanted liberalism as the defining ideology of American Jewish life.” I would here go further than Beinart: Victimhood is less a “defining ideology” than an embedded psychic state. Its source is the Jewish experience, as taught, preached and, as Beinart repeatedly and quite accurately documents, as manipulated by a variety of major Jewish organizations. Those organizations and their leaders are convinced that Jewish identity and Jewish solidarity are best promoted by portraying the Jews as everywhere and forever imperiled.

How do we handle the dissonance between power and victimhood? We live with both, knowing that everything — yes, I mean everything — depends on our ability to maintain our balance. Balanced, we can distinguish between enemy and ally; balanced, we can distinguish between threat and opportunity; balanced, we can distinguish between torture and interrogation, between extremism and conviction, between the Self and the Other — that is, between the tribal and the universal, between being for ourselves and being only for ourselves.

Beinart, Gordis and I, I am confident, are in agreement on one defining proposition: Israel is the most consequential undertaking of the Jewish people in our time. It is no surprise that among people who share that conviction, there are often sharp disagreements regarding how the undertaking may best be advanced. So we wrestle — with each other, with ourselves.

The Crisis of Zionism is a must read and a must wrestle.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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