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Too little, too late: On Peter Beinart's 'The Crisis of Zionism'

While Peter Beinart’s latest book is well worth reading, his solutions come far too late and are likely to achieve little.

I’ve recently finished reading Peter Beinart’s controversial book, The Crisis of Zionism; admittedly I read it mostly to understand what the noise was all about. The book took heavy criticism, if by “criticism” you mean “ad hominem attacks,” even before it was published. It was basically attacked by the entire Jewish establishment in the United States.

Why? Because Beinart insists, as he did two years ago, on stopping to treat Israel as a special-needs child whose tantrums must be endured and soothed. He dares speak of the fact that a large part – I dare say a majority – of the Israeli public is racist beyond anything the Jewish American establishment would accept in the United States; that its tolerance towards democracy is very limited; and that soon Israel will have to choose between being a Jewish or a democratic country. It is no longer viable to speak of the two together, particularly not when Israel insists on continuing occupying the Palestinians. He also points out that the two-state solution – excoriated as treason two decades ago, and now seen as the saving mantra of Israel – is on life support.

Beinart blows up the lies American Jews love telling themselves, particularly the most shining of them, that of Ehud “We-offered-them-everything-and-they-chose-war” Barak. He refers to the fact that the occupation generates racism by its very existence:

As painful as it is for Jews to admit that race hatred can take root among a people that has suffered so profoundly from it, the ground truth is this: occupying another people requires racism, and breeds it. It is very difficult to work day after day at a checkpoint, making miserable people bake in the sun, or to blow up a family’s house as they watch, or to cut off water to a village in the Jordan Valley because Palestinians are barred from living in most of that section of the West Bank, and still see the people you are dominating as fully human. (p. 24)

Beinart further rams the hoary argument of American Jewry, according to which an American Jew must not criticize the government of Israel, since he won’t have to live with the consequences:

But for all its emotional currency, the argument that American Jews should not publicly criticize Israeli policy because they don’t live there is incoherent. For one thing, the reticence only applies to one side. If American Jews don’t live in Tel Aviv or Sderot, neither do they live in Ramallah or Gaza City. Yet American Jewish groups constantly demand that Palestinian leaders change their policies, even though American Jews would not endure the consequences of those policy shifts either. In fact, American Jewish leaders have spent recent decades criticizing government policy in a bevy of countries where American Jews do not live, from the former Soviet Union to Syria to Iran. If taken seriously, the claim that American Jews must live in a country in order to publicly criticize its government would eliminate all public moral judgment of policies outside the United States. (p. 50)

One of the most fascinating and scary chapters of the book is the one dealing with Binyamin Netanyahu’s worldview. Beinart terms Netanyahu a monist, i.e. someone who follows the Jabotinskian concept that Zionism is all that matters, and it must not be tempered with morality. Netanyahu wants to crush the Palestinians until they emigrate. He knows he can’t carry out a population transfer, so he concentrates on what was once called “the quiet transfer”: make the lives of Palestinians a living hell until their middle class cracks and runs, which will break the back of the national Palestinian movement; the rest can be then safely kept in Bantustans.

If this is indeed Netanyahu’s true goal – and Beinart presents a persuasive case – then much of what happened in the last three years makes a new sort of sense. Netanyahu speaks of the two-state solution, because it is an effective camouflage for his true plans, which are the permanent occupation of as much of the West Bank as he can hold on to. He is convinced he can break the Palestinians, and he is convinced – and who can blame him? – that by making effective use of Jewish power in the United States, he can stymie any administration’s attempt to force an Israeli retreat.

His book makes for a fascinating reading, but is too late. Peter Beinart IPhoto: Yossi Gurvitz)

His book makes for a fascinating reading, but comes too late. Peter Beinart IPhoto: Yossi Gurvitz)

And yet, when you finish reading the book, and come to his recommendations (American Jews should boycott the settlements, the West Bank ought to be called “undemocratic Israel” – which is bound to piss off Palestinian activists), you find yourself wondering: is that it?

Beinart’s book is an alarm call, but one that should have been voiced 15 years ago, when Netanyahu first became prime minister. Then it was still relevant. The way it sounds now, as the two-state solution breathes its last breath, and is followed by the recommendation that American Jewry adopt a tactic the Israeli left first used 20 years ago – a settlement boycott – it sounds slightly ridiculous. This game is very much over. If Beinart wants the two-state solution, he needs to call on much more drastic measures: sanctions against Israel and the end of American military support of the country. I sincerely doubt he wants to go there, and I doubt even more there are any listeners for such demands in the United States.

Beinart’s other recommendation – that liberal American Jews, who keep themselves at a distance from anything Israeli with something of disgust, take their part in the debate and not leave it to Orthodox Jews – is also problematic. People choose the issues which interest them. Liberal Jews whose goal is social justice have already given up on Israel, and with good reason. The demand that they should care about Israel is a Zionist demand, and most of them are not Zionists. Furthermore, Beinart himself notes that when such liberals try to publicly sound non-Zionist positions, they become targets for the Jewish establishment. Most of them lack the stamina to withstand such attacks. As the attacks on Beinart himself show, they can hardly be blamed for this.

Read also:
The political is personal: The allure of Peter Beinart 

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    1. Richard Witty

      I applaud Beinart’s approach. (I’m not as enthused about really any boycott.)

      One of Beinart’s points is in the use of language, and the intersection between language and underlying worldview.

      The left, Yossi included, have not yet articulated an alternative suggestion that can take form in language and worldview.

      What we have now stated by dissent is a silhouette approach, a definition of what is by what is not.

      ‘I don’t have anything specific to propose’, ‘but what is there now is not it’.

      I have something to propose. That is the green line as boundary, right of return based on title assertions and birth (not on UNRWA defined refugee status).

      And, applied in practice.

      Specifically, speaking of the land east of the green line as Palestine, not “Israel/Palestine”, not “non-democratic Israel”, not “Judea and Samaria”.

      Put into form by knowing when one is crossing the green line. I would suggest a movement to mark the green line with a green thread.

      (Do you know every time you cross the green line, Yossi?)

      Further, seek a visa from the PA or authorized NGO, to cross the green line, voluntarily enforced, self-discipline.

      Further, paying taxes on meals, purchases analagous to a sales and meals tax, for all purchases east of the green line.

      Further, seeking PA permission to build, or to open businesses east of the green line.

      All voluntary. But done, rather than rationalized away.

      It firms the green line as norm, rather than the ambiguity of likud, and rather than the ambiguity of dissent.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Peter Beinart isn’t really that bright about anything. What did Martin Peretz ever see in him, anyway? (On second thought, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know!) Beinart’s got a talent for consistently getting everything wrong, Israel and otherwise.
      The theory that Israeli racism was caused by the occupation is especially stupid, though. Racist is the default condition of humans. Humans throughout history have always been racist to some extent, occupation or no. Israelis were racist before the 1967 occupation and before the 1948 occupation, and they’ll be racist after one or (God forbid) both occupations end. (Full disclosure: according to some +972 contributors, I’m a racist troll.)

      Reply to Comment
    3. JG

      The assertion was not that the occupation “causes” racism, but that it *breeds* it. But arguing instead that Israelis are natively racist helps the hasbara argument… how?
      I guess the HaifaU noncredited hasbara course can’t graduate its ambassadors fast enough.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Anonymous

      Nothing is ever good enough for some people.

      Reply to Comment
    5. A good and thoughtful book review. Certainly (apart from his dreadfully too-little-too-late prescription for USA Jewish action) it is a correct denunciation of the state of play in official (and moneyed) USA Judaism.
      As for Jews becoming involved, the right thing for them to do is to adopt (or re-adopt) universal human rights and international law as goals, to denounce Israel as a lawless war criminal, and to call for international pressure (especially from the USA) on Israel until it removes the settlers and the wall and ends the siege and — continuing — until it ends the post-end-of-settlements military occupation with a peace treaty along the green line.
      The mistake is for American Jews to remain indifferent to Palestinian needs. Americans need the “cover” or “permission” or “modeling” of American Jews to lead the way in calling for these things, and for American Jews to do nothing (or to do Beinart’s next-to-nothing) is to abdicate a sort of responsibility — the general responsibility of mankind to make the world a better place — sometimes called Tikun Olam.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Dawn

      Noam your line “..make the lives of Palestinians a living hell until their middle class cracks and runs,..” somehow rings true for what is happening to a lot of the intellectual middle class and elite in Israel too (admitting that I stretch the definition of living hell to the political and economical climate).
      I wonder if that is also Bibis intention..

      Reply to Comment
    7. caden

      Good to know what mondoweiss wants American Jews to do pabelmont. It’s like taking advice from hamas and hezbollah. Which come to think of it is actually less anti-semitic then Phil Weiss and his crew

      Reply to Comment
    8. aristeides

      Dawn – I doubt it. Bibi’s intention is to concentrate the world’s Jews within his borders, under his thumb, to make them a better target for any enemy that plans to exterminate them.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Writlarge

      This game is almost over and Bibi is winning it since no one is actually going to stop him. It seems that Netanyahu is the only one with a practical plan of action.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Susan

      What evidence do you have that liberals are not Zionists? Most American Jewish liberals are Zionists. They just don’t support Netanyahu. There are some Jews on the far left who are not Zionists, but they are a minority.

      Reply to Comment
    11. annie

      pabelmont “the general responsibility of mankind to make the world a better place — sometimes called Tikun Olam.”

      canden “It’s like taking advice from hamas and hezbollah.”


      Reply to Comment
    12. caden

      Come on Annie, I see what you write, you want Israel gone. And the Jews history.

      Reply to Comment
    13. phlegmatico

      >> the Israeli public is racist beyond anything the Jewish American establishment would accept in the United States

      The Jewish American establishment doesn’t decide anything about what any Jew does or says. Not one iota of control. So what’s this “acceptance” charade?

      >> The demand that they should care about Israel is a Zionist demand, and most of them are not Zionists

      Good riddance. They are useless to the Hebrew nation. Better a rising generation of native-born, Hebrew-mother-tongue Notzrim & Muslamim. Wait…. we have that already!!

      Let the American Jews discuss political strategy with Al Sharpton & other Americanish-speakers.

      Reply to Comment
    14. phlegmatico

      >> have something to propose [voluntary observance of the Green Line as a border].

      Another manifestation of “y’all better do what I propose, or I’ll hold my breath till I die, then you’ll be sorry!!

      But you’re wrong…. we won’t be sorry, we won’t build a monument for you, we won’t teach our kindergarden children that you even ever lived.

      Reply to Comment
    15. caden

      You have to understand two things about a guy like Beinart. First, he thinks that the whole thing is in Israels hands. That if Israel onyl does this, that, and the other thing, then this whole thing can be wound up by next Tuesday. And second, that Jews in Israel are a bunch of idiots who don’t really understand the middle east.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Whether you say, metaphorically, that the post-1967 occupation “breeds” racism or that it literally “causes” racism seems irrelevant here. No doubt the occupation is one cause both of racism and of anti-racism among Israelis. What’s the net effect, and how significant is it compared to other causes and to the racism baseline of 1967? Does Beinart provide evidence to answer that? How could he, or anyone? I’m skeptical.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Anonymous

      “Liberal Jews whose goal is social justice have already given up on Israel, and with good reason. ”

      Advising Liberal Jews to give up on Israel may be the greatest moment of weakness for this article. I spend more time hoping that Liberal Jews will learn and strive to invest in a democratic future for Israel.

      Reply to Comment