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An essential sense of urgency: On Peter Beinart's 'The Crisis of Zionism'

The Crisis of Zionism,” appears to be a book about politics, history and ideology, but in fact it is a research into identity; the identity of a community and the identity of the author. It is a book about the construction, the de-construction and the effort to reconstruct an identity; it sheds light on forgotten historical political facts, while leaving out others; it invents a new narrative, but is by no means false, since such is the nature of all identity projects.

In his groundbreaking work, “Imagined Communities,” Benedict Andersen quotes French author Ernest Renan: “The essence of a nation is that all its individuals should have many things in common, and also that they all should have forgotten many things.” Forgotten them together, he meant. The debate on Israel in the American Jewish community centers around the issues that should be remembered or spoken about, and about the ones that need to be collectively forgotten or ignored, even when they are widely discussed outside the community. Opening up the conversation would shake the identity of many Jews, and challenge the power positions of a leading few. This is the reason for a strange phenomenon: many readers – especially ones less involved in the established community and its affiliated media – find deep meaning in “The Crisis of Zionism,” but the community’s “experts” on Israel greet it with unprecedented anger.

The book is part of a Jewish-American conversation. Palestinians wouldn’t find much meaning in it, and Israelis would only sense the echoes of an older debate, one that died with the Oslo process. But what is Israeli for American Jews, as opposed to the people living in Israel? Most of them don’t visit the country or speak its language. Many feel an attachment to Israel, but more often then not, it seems to be linked more to a mythical Israel, one that reflects their hopes and values, than to the actual country. Their kids might go on Birthright – but it is a program designed to deepen the fantasy and has very little to do with real Israel. It’s a bit like going to the Alamo and Disneyland: A foreign tourist can return home and feel that he “loves America,” but this America has little to do with real life and the real politics of present-day Americans.

All this might not have been such a problem, if there weren’t so many open questions regarding the nature of Israeli identity itself – regarding what this country is or what it should be – and if it wasn’t for the political use of the place Israel holds in Jewish-American identity. It might have not been a problem, if American Jews weren’t liberal. But they happen to be among the most liberal groups in America, and Israel happens to be engaging in the least liberal project there is – the occupation and colonization of the West Bank. Two central elements in the liberal Jewish identity are thus at odds with each other.

“The Crisis of Zionism” is trying to deal with, rather than walk away from, the identity crisis of liberal Zionism. For the most part, it does so more bravely and honestly than any other similar project within the Zionist world.

_______________

The most common way to solve the identity crisis of Jewish-American liberal Zionists – or any other identity crisis, for that matter – is to deny its symptoms.

Whenever another unpleasant story breaks, and a kvetch of discomfort can be heard from Brooklyn to the Bay Area, the Jewish establishment and members of the Jewish media – the manufacturers of ideology – engage in an effort to deconstruct the affair, to rationalize it, to blur it, to “put it in context,” and so on; anything to relieve the pain of their community by blurring the existence of a problem. It is an ungrateful task, which will last as long as the occupation does.

When the effort to rationalize the internal crisis fails, giving up one of the two elements that are at odds becomes the likely answer. It seems that a whole part of the Jewish community is moving away from liberalism, while others are distancing themselves from Israel. In the last few years, I have gotten the undeniable feeling that while the general interest of Americans in the Middle East is growing, the interest of many American Jews in Israel is fading; still others keep their opinions to themselves and avoid talking about Israel in the name of Shlom Bayit.

This is not a real problem for the Israeli leadership or for Israeli interests. Those non-liberals in the community who support Israeli policies are a sufficient  substitute for the masses who walk away, especially when combined with the emerging power of Christian Zionists. The pro-Israeli lobby seems to be doing fine, and Washington remains a pretty hospitable place for Israeli leaders, even right-wing ones. But for those liberals for whom Israel is an essential part of their world, the problem is very real.

Peter Beinart is searching for a way to engage with Zionism and remain liberal. It is uncharted territory, and most of the people walking it stretch one of the terms, if not both, until they all but lose their meaning. Beinart himself tiptoes around the elephant in the room: the desire to combine particularist nationalism with a liberal democracy. (Could a Jewish state be anything but a state only for Jews? An Algerian in Paris can become French, but a Palestinian cannot be a Jew.) But Beinart does address the occupation, while his critics are busy rationalizing it.

_______________

The best parts of “The Crisis of Zionism” come when Beinart looks the political reality in the eye. One point he makes is particularly important: That speaking about Israeli democracy is all but meaningless with regards to the Palestinian issue, since the Palestinians in the occupied territories don’t participate in the decision-making process concerning their future. In other words (in my words), Israelis could “democratically” choose to continue controlling the West Bank forever and not grant the Palestinians any rights – but the world shouldn’t respect this decision, for democracy is meaningless here.

Many Jews who express concern for Israel in their writing start by demonstrating the toll the occupation takes on Israelis, on the national character or on Israeli democracy. Beinart remembers that the real victims are the Palestinians. He opens his book with the story of a Palestinian farmer who was arrested for stealing water from a nearby settlement. This everyday affair captures something of the essence of the occupation: What’s so evil about it is not the supposedly murderous behavior of IDF soldiers – there are far worse regimes on this planet – but the enormous pressure, the oppression that every single Palestinian under Israeli control feels on a daily basis.

It is no surprise then that this exact choice made Tablet’s Bret Stephens so furious. In his angry review of Beinart’s book, Stephens condemns Beinart for not traveling to the West Bank to check whether the arrested farmer was a Fatah or Hamas voter (I’m serious – it’s in the text). Empathy for the Palestinians becomes taboo in the Jewish establishment. Israeli political interests are everything; one can only “criticize” Israel in the name of Jewish or Israeli interests.

Such was the general tone of every critique of Beinart’s book that I have seen in the Jewish and mainstream media – a repetition of Israeli Foreign Office talking points that somehow found their way from Stand with Us booklets for undergraduate students to the pages of leading publications. As if the never-ending argument over Camp David or the Annapolis summit can be turned into a moral defense of the occupation. Almost two generations after Golda Meir, the Jewish American establishment – more powerful and more self-righteous then ever – still cannot forgive the Palestinians “for what they made us do to them.”

The panic with which the “Crisis of Zionism” was met had nothing to do with the book’s not-so-new political message – that in order to stay a democracy, Israel needs to separate itself immediately from the West Bank – but rather from the thought that Beinart does represent something real, that the Jewish establishment is indeed failing, not in terms of political effectiveness, but on a much deeper level that has to do with the moral values and the self-perception of the people it claims to represent.

_______________

I didn’t find Beinart’s distinction between “good” and “bad” Israel (bad being the one lying east of the Green Line, in the occupied territories) to be satisfying, especially in the way it was linked to the Israeli political system. Though Labor advocated a departure from the West Bank (at times), it was also the force that launched the settlement project, while the Likud had in the past a strong liberal tradition. Prime Minister Menachem Begin built settlements and placed limits on administrative arrests. This doesn’t sit well with the image of a clash between liberal forces and messianic-nationalist ones. The occupation is not the project of one party or another, but an Israeli project. It is not the work of the racist settlers – who were always a tiny minority that all prime ministers could have ignored – but the decision of the entire society. If anything, the power of the settlers is the result of the occupation, not vice versa.

The notion that Israel was a liberal democracy gone awry in the years following 1967 involves some wishful thinking; it is another myth, meant perhaps to satisfy the needs of today’s liberals, both here and in the United States. Israel was never a very liberal place, especially in the American sense of the term. Even before 1967, it had the entire Palestinian population (its own citizens) under military rule. The only “liberal” period in Israeli politics was probably in the mid-90s, around the time of the Rabin government (which itself was also far from liberal). And Rabin, it should be remembered, never enjoyed a majority among the Jewish public.

I found the chapters in “The Crisis of Zionism” dealing with American politics – the Jewish establishment and President Obama’s ideological roots – to be fascinating. The recent confrontation between the administration and Netanyahu’s government is brilliantly told, including some interesting revelations (I wrote about them here).

At times, I felt that Beinart is moving between leading the charge on the establishment and re-drawing the borders of the conversation himself. I kept wondering where his journey will end up. Will he become an outsider? Will he be able to be part of a genuine transformation of Jewish politics, or will he end up in his critics’ seat once the old guard is ousted, defending the walls of the Zionist castle and expelling the non-believers? I think it would be unfair to answer those questions now.

_______________

It is an American book, written for American liberals. Yet this also should be said: I believe that the occupation is the greatest moral challenge of my generation. It is extremely hard to express this feeling in a way that would be both true to ones’ values and politically effective. Often, I go to sleep angry and frustrated by what seems like another failure to communicate to others what I know, what I think and what I have seen with my own eyes.

While reading “The Crisis of Zionism” I felt that the author shares this sense of urgency. Currently, this is what matters to me most.

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    1. XYZ

      I have not read Beinart’s book, nor do I intend to, but I read his long article in Newsweek and it is clear the man is absolutely clueless about Israel and the its relations with Israel (it is so sad to see how a once serious news magazine has turned into trash with a multi-page feature about Rita Hayworth with all sorts of sexist pictures and a cover story about a golfer-so it is no wonder they would use such a non-entity as Beinart as an important writer). The whole thing is a rant about how Obama “betrayed” his support for the “peace process” by not coercing Israel enought. There is not a single mention of the Palestinian role in the impasse, no indication of the hours of discussion Obama had with Abbas and how Abbas absolutely refused to respond to Netanyahu’s partial settlement freeze and how he absolutely refused to make ANY gesture indicating he really wants peace with Israel. The whold thing, according to Beinart is Bibi’s fault and Obama’s fault for not imposing a withdrawal on Israel. Beinart is a real ignoramus.

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    2. Jack

      Interstingly and postively is that more and more american jews (who are liberal) no longer are eager to defend Israel, we are beginning to see a shift.

      XYZ,

      You got it all wrong, both Obama and Abbas demand a settlement freeze.
      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2010/09/2010910171112668789.html
      -
      Palestinians and world are ready for peace, Israel is not, choosing the expansionist road.

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    3. Danaa

      Noam, you say, correctly IMO, that the occupation is, in fact, Israel’s project, with the settlers but a symptom rather than a cause. But even you can’t go to the next logical step: if the occupation is effectively sanctioned by the vast majority of Israelis, what does that mean in the near future for the small Israeli left, bound to diminish ever further?

      The reality is that most Israelis are perfectly OK with the Netanyahoo plan of shunting the Palestinians into Batustans, as first Area C is essentially annexed to Israel (easy enough, right? with only 200-300,000 Palestinians remaining there), followed by creeping annexation – accompanied by expelling of most Palestinians – from Area B.

      “The Plan” that most Israelis know about and are OK with, whether they all admit it or not, is to move the Palestinians into the Area A batustans with but a few loyal enclaves remaining here and there. The area A towns will then be walled in and cordoned off in the hope that the Palestinian middle class will see the light and leave a little faster. Each one of the batustans will then be like Gaza – heremetically closed off from its environment, with an impotent PA in nominal charge, but no more in power than Hamas is in Gaza.

      The job of the American Jewish establishment will then be to explain this away as “a necessary evil”. Only question is, with the “2 states” off the table, replaced by an illusory “autonomy” where will Beinarts go? will he wash his hands off Israel altogether or will he keep lamenting the lost 2SS, pretending there’s hope left where there is none?

      More importantly, where will you – and the other writers at +972 go?

      What will you do when the roads into Ramallah from anywhere in Israel are as closed as the roads into Gaza? will you stay in that kind of Israel? will YOU continue to hope against hope? and for how long can the hope be sustained in the face of facts on the ground and all around?

      Just wondering….

      Reply to Comment
    4. caden

      It can’t be easy to be has brilliant and sensitive has Beinart. Maybe one day you Israelis will be worthy of him

      Reply to Comment
    5. Richard Witty

      I’ve enjoyed Beinart’s theses immensely.

      In contrast to the oft-stated formula that “liberal” and “Zionism” are oxymorons, I think they are descriptive of the tension inherent in EVERY national state (including France).

      That is a society of dual characteristics. Noone would deny that Moscow is a Russian city (meaning that it is also not Greek, or British), or even that New York is an American city (meaning that it is also not Greek or British either).

      For Israel to remain a nation of dual characteristics – Jewish AND democratic, both have to be loved and emphasized. If some deemphasize one or the other, others must speak to retain the balance.

      I like that you referred to cultural reformation, collective identity reformation.

      Noam shares here a common Israeli dismissal of American Jewish opinion as naive and fantastic, with likud, with Israel Beitanhu, as if he has a realistic picture of what American life is like (even if he’s lived in the US).

      I get that he doesn’t have the same sentimental loyalty to the US as many American Jews have towards Israel.

      The conspicuous generation gap on Israel is NOT new in the slightest. Growing up in suburban liberal Jewish New York, we regarded Israel as our parents’ sentimental fixation. We were independent, more concerned with the victims in Vietnam than the Jewish victims in Israel, or the Palestinian victims in West Bank, Gaza, elsewhere.

      Every perspective, every assertive commenter, vainly thinks that they know truth, and that other perspectives are naive, irrelevant, anachronistic.

      The identity questions are critical, but anti-nationalist views dissolve in the winds of time (as Khoumeni spoke of Israel dissolving in the winds of time, that Ahmenidijad quoted).

      But, the fact is the oppossite of what anti-nationalist views intend. That is that in the absence of confident and permeating democratic sentiment that can be relied on physically, it is nationalist views that are the optimal survival mutual aid path.

      The remedy for nationalist fetish is acceptance of nation to the extent that democratic values permeate, not the attempt to purge the nationalist so that there is no body that comfortably accomodates both.

      Reply to Comment
    6. cortez

      “In contrast to the oft-stated formula that “liberal” and “Zionism” are oxymorons, I think they are descriptive of the tension inherent in EVERY national state (including France).
      That is a society of dual characteristics. Noone would deny that Moscow is a Russian city (meaning that it is also not Greek, or British), or even that New York is an American city (meaning that it is also not Greek or British either).”
      .
      These examples don’t fit. No one cares that Moscow is a Russian city. Moscow wasn’t inhabited by indigenous people who were then kicked out on the basis of their religion-ethnicity. In addition, historically speaking, Russian culture tends towards export colonialism where everyone is Russian (by force or assimilation). This isn’t necessarily a good thing but its clearly much better then the type of absurd nationalism that exist in Israel. Similarly, in the U.S., being American is something accessible to everyone in theory and in practice for native americans, african-americans, italian-americans, german-americans, polish-jewish-american and the list goes on. Even in Iran and Turkey minority groups are encouraged (despite their legitimate right or exist such efforts) and welcomed into the larger national culture.
      .
      Israel on the other hand…since Day 1 has never thought about extending the Zionist identity to Palestinians or any non-Jewish inhabitant.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Kolumn9

      Cortez, you have no idea what you are talking about when discussing Russian nationalism. It isn’t even remotely as open as you think. One can be a Chechen citizen of Russia or a Jewish citizen of Russia (both considered ethnicities in Russia), but one can never be a ‘Russian’ (russky). It is an ethnicity. Accordingly, Moscow, according to Putin belongs to ethnic Russians and all others are expected to behave like guests.
      .

      They even have two different official terms for what you call ‘Russian’ – Russky and Rosiyanin. One is an ethnic Russian and the other is a citizen of Russia. The later concept is a recent invention and is of questionable popularity among the ethnic groups of Russia.
      .

      If you compare Zionism to Russian nationalism you will find very few differences.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Richard Witty

      I would go so far as to say that the dynamic balance (tension, like all homeostasis) of being both national and democratic is inherent in EVERY nation.

      That is that there are many distinctive characteristic flavors to nationalism, but they all are valid only with consent of the governed.

      Israel is a special case (nowhere near unique, nowhere near unique in the middle east), in participating in an occupation, and in denying occupied civilians some basis civil rights.

      And, that needs to change, as Peter Beinart aptly describes.

      To change it needs a path to. The recent softball/fawning Assange interview with Nasrallah indicates to Israelis that there is not a path to change, as Nasrallah declared that Israel was born in crime and can never be accepted, ever.

      In contrast, my and hopefully most others view, is that Israel was formed in a survival struggle essentially, and has to reconcile with those that are willing to reconcile with it.

      Nasrallah articulated the view that now three generations of Jewish Israelis are still interlopers, even though they have been born and established multi-generational homes in Israel, while those same three generations of descendents from Palestinians that have resided in Lebanon for that time, are somehow not Lebanese (with no civil rights). Those that have never seen their former family’s homes in Haifa for example are entitled to Haifa.

      And, that is the logic of war. When likud says the land is only Israel, it is the logic of war. When Hezbollah, or Palestinian solidarity state the land is only Palestine, that is the logic of war.

      As war is the MOST totalitarian of settings, any that adopt those exclusive ideologies cannot reasonably call themselves advocates of democracy.

      They’ve both crossed the fascist red line, exclusivity.

      What is needed are paths, and based on willingness to accept the other.

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    9. Thanks, Noam. So many writers – both mainstream, right AND left haven’t had the intellectual prowess to have this META-CONVERSATION about Beinart’s book. I daresay all humans, when thinking they’re writing about politics, literature, or anything else, are also writing about identity (only a small portion realize they’re doing this and put it into their writing).

      Now to Israel – where do you think we Israelis (I’m a relatively recent oleh) can become more aware of our identity construction? This place seems incredibly UNaware of that dimension, maybe because of the high levels of fear, violence, and other wounds – that serve to dull self-awareness and hasten “frozen” thinking. Life becomes an emergency here, and we all – left, right, center – seem to be using up most of our energies “defending” against whoever our opponent is.

      Please continue to write on these issues. And if you have any idea about where a real Israeli leader is hidden, one who can catalyze Israeli identity transformation, it’s time for that person!

      Reply to Comment
    10. Jack

      Harvey Stein,
      The biggest problem is probably the media indoctrination and the siege mentality.

      Reply to Comment
    11. @Harvey Stein – I know it sounds strange, but since political reality creates ideology (and not the other way around), the way to change Israeli identity is to end the occupation and discrimination.

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    12. @Jack – I think you’re right, although I have to say that “siege mentality” is a bit reductive. As a Jew who has paid some attention to Jewish/Israeli psychosocial behavior, I think that unfortunately it goes a littledeeper than “mentality”. I think media indoctrination is pretty universal though, used to control populations almost globally these days.

      @Noam – I’m not sure I agree. After studying and practicing various forms of buddhism, and also witnessing/studying various changes of identity (from Malcolm X, to various Palestinian friends who spent years in prison), it seems to me that one way to become aware of identity construction is to remove oneself from the “world” for a while. Also, in a small, tightly “familial” country like Israel, I think a leader (whether a coward like Bibi, or a hero like Rabin) can very easily sway a large percentage of the population.

      Whether the occupation creates ideology, or ideology creates the occupation, identity is habitually reinforced countless times a day. The problem is to break the habits. It can happen in many way (including some kind of big shock), but unfortunately I don’t think we can simply “end the occupation.”

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    13. That’s the best and clearest statement I’ve seen of that strange (to me) view that American Jews have of Israel.

      Well put.

      I find it especially infuriating they seem prepared to have my friends and family stake the claim for the American Jews, until the last drop of my friends’ and family’s blood – they seem to care nothing for the ACTUAL people holding the place for them in Israel, nor for the people in Palestine being dispossessed – it’s is as though many American Jews want to hold the current situation in stasis out of a selfish desire to have a back-up place to live.
      And for this, they’re prepared to sacrifice everything other people have and are.

      I find that attitude abhorrent.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Richard Witty

      “but since political reality creates ideology (and not the other way around)”

      Noam,
      I find that to be a ludicrous and powerless formula.

      Powerless for the inevitable passivity to political form (Marx at least described the passivity relative to economic relations – owners/workers).

      If consciousness is not the driver, then no movement is ever possible, only the status quo.

      I can’t imagine that you believe that.

      Maybe I’m misunderstanding you.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Richard Witty

      On American Jews’ role. Being only an American Jew, and not an Israeli, I find the dismissal of American Jewish opinion to be insulting.

      American Jewish opinion is diverse. The only criticism that I can believe is that diversity adopts a stranger’s selective mythology, rather than an intimate’s selective mythology.

      Reply to Comment
    16. caden

      Dena, I’m not asking you to do anything. And I can’t think of anybody who loves the current situation. So, let me ask you this. If you were in Netanyahu’s seat what would you do.

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    17. @Caden, you’re making some unwarranted assumptions about me. Stop that.

      As to what a democratically elected person can do in Israel at this point? Good question. How about building a coalition that includes the Arab parties & Knesset members (replacing the Jewish nationalists) and working to dismantle the organized racism at ever level? Opening up positions of power and decision-making to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship?
      Putting in place the Likud program to declare the occupied territories as part of Israel (applying Israeli law) AND HOLDING ELECTIONS THAT INCLUDE THE FULL POPULATION controlled by Israel, not just the ones in the ’48 territories?
      Oh, and lifting the race-based misallocation of water and the race-based road restrictions. That would be good, too.

      It would be a start, and requires no powers N’hu doesn’t yet have.

      Reply to Comment
    18. @RICHARD WITTY: I don’t advocate passive approach – just that trying to “convince” won’t work. but there is more to politics than this.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Richard Witty

      Noam,
      Collective consciousness is the means by which change in interpersonal relations, change in elections, change in policies, change in political form come about.

      Its what forms will, both individual and collective will.

      And, therefore it is the fundamental area that dissent needs to focus, to change hearts and minds.

      “just that trying to “convince” won’t work”. You don’t know that. That is your fear. You can predict the future? You can justify boycotting from your best effort to persuade?

      Reply to Comment
    20. Cvale

      I find it interesting too, that there was much opposition from ZIonists in general ( very broad term I know) to the founding of an Israeli State as far back as days of founding father Thedor Herzel and his manifesto “Der Judenstatt” at the turn of the 20th century. Post WWII Rebbi Teitelbaum likened an Israeli State to that of an act of Satan himself. Many an orthodox Jew, including Hasidic’s were in deep opposition to an Israeli State. No doubt the carnage of WWII strengthened those in favor of an established state and in light of those horrific events much of the opposition either slinked away quietly or acquiesced to what they saw as the inevitable.
      Sadly for most of us in the West, we rarely hear of Israeli opposition to settlement activity, the news of which is effectively squelched by the minions of Hasbaran adherents who for the most part have seen unprecedented success in espousing the view that Israel is ALWAYS the victim and never the victimizer.
      I am more than pleased that we have sites like ” 972mag” to at least present the alternative viewpoint and help me realize that the Israel political dynamic is not monolithic in thought or deed !

      Reply to Comment
    21. Mareli

      I have just finished reading Beinart’s book and find that his concerns mirror those of many of my Jewish friends, all of whom are liberal in their politics. Some of them say that their relatives who live in Israel have been at sword’s points regarding the settlements if they are still communicating at all. The occupation has been worse for Israel in some ways than it has been for the Palestinians in that it has done spiritual damage to the people, particularly the young. I do not support Beinart’s call for government support of religious schools because I believe the US constitution forbids that, and I do not like the “creeping religious support” by government of religious schools that the courts have, I believe wrongfully, allowed in recent rulings. Religious education should be provided by the family and the religious community, not by the government. The problem of Jewish education in the US that Beinart addresses would not be solved by government aid; it could even aggravate the problem since politics would likely become involved, and that is a sticky business.

      Reply to Comment
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