“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.