Last night, ABC Lateline featured an interview by Emma Alberici of former New Republic editor Peter Beinart. Beinart has been a figure of much controversy lately due to his new book The Crisis of Zionism — an extension of his 2009 essay ‘The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment’ in the New York Review of Books — in which he makes the case that the Jewish community in America is taking an incorrect line on Israel and provides his own perspective on how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict ought to be addressed.
The book provoked a litany of responses from across the political spectrum, with almost every senior figure in the American foreign policy world deriding or distancing themselves from his contribution. As a result, there is a very substantial body of work from which to draw in order to evaluate every point that he makes. In general, most experts agree that Beinart is largely well-intentioned and does genuinely want the best for Israel, however he is at the same time hopelessly naive and heavily encumbered by a lack of serious research on the topic. His views are those of a sheltered American journalist — who has never had much expertise in foreign policy — deciding all of a sudden to jump head-first into one of the most controversial debates on the planet and go toe-to-toe with far more credible analysts.
The most salient criticism of Beinart is his entirely Israel-centric view on the conflict. He has taken a stance denying Palestinians of any agency or accountability, relegating them to bit-players in an Israeli production. To him, solving the conflict is entirely Israel’s prerogative — the Palestinians are passive victims with no say in the process. He does acknowledge that Palestinians have walked away from peace in the past and does condemn the continuing attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas, however he maintains that Israel is accountable for Palestinian decisions and punishing Israel could alter the way that Palestinians act.
One clear example of the problem with Beinart’s writing is his treatment of the Palestinian boy, Khalid Jaber, to whom he dedicates the book. Beinart spoke about Jaber last night:
This was a boy who saw his son – who saw his father taken away by the Israeli police because his father had tried to connect his village up to water pipes that connected to a nearby settlement because Palestinians in the West Bank have much, much less access to water than do Jews. And I aspire for an Israel that will offer the right of citizenship to all of its people, will live alongside a Palestinian state in which these kind of things won’t happen.
Former Jerusalem Post editor Brett Stephens tackled this one, noting that Beinart, based on one Youtube video, has adopted Jaber as a symbol of his entire ideological “awakening”, without doing any meaningful research into who Jaber actually is.
The connection to Beinart is that Beinart’s son also calls him Baba. That’s it. Yet watching the video sparked in Beinart what he describes as a kind of Damascene conversion…
So, you might expect that Beinart would have made the effort to reach out to the Jabers, perhaps even by flying out and meeting them in person. Who is this family in whose name this book is ostensibly written? Are they supporters of peaceful co-existence with Israel or advocates of terrorism? Do they intend to vote for Fatah or Hamas at the next poll? Was Fadel’s arrest as unjustified as Beinart makes it seem? Is it true that Israel deprives Palestinians of their fair share of water rights? Would the Fadels be better off as farmers in a Palestinian state? What was the state of Palestinian agriculture-not to mention education, health, and infrastructure-before 1967?
These are real questions, worth exploring intelligently. The answers might be flattering to Israel. Or they might not be. But you won’t learn a thing about them here. The Jaber family arrives in Beinart’s story on page 1 and exits it on page 3, never to be heard from again. Beinart might think of them (or, perhaps, think he thinks of them) as flesh-and-blood people. But in this book they are merely props in the drama known as Being Peter Beinart, the self-appointed anguished conscience and angry scold of the Jewish state.
As Stephens goes on to explain, this omission is representative of Beinart’s approach to the entire book. Beinart did not feel it necessary to travel to the Middle East to meet with Israelis and Palestinians in order to conduct sufficient research to let people who have devoted their entire lives to the issue know why he is right and they are wrong.
A few months ago I read pretty much the same book by Gershom Gorenberg. But whereas Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel is based on the honest toil of on-the-ground reporting, nothing in The Crisis of Zionism suggests that Beinart ever set foot outside of his study to write this book. “That’s not writing, that’s typing!” Truman Capote supposedly once said of a Jack Kerouac novel. Similarly with Beinart: It isn’t reporting. It’s Googling.
Another important critique of Beinart comes from Jordan Chandler Hirsch, a staff editor at Foreign Affairs magazine. Hirsch explains that another of Beinart’s key tenets discussed on Lateline — the “disenfranchised” American liberal Jews who do not support the mainstream, “illiberal” view on Israel — does not actually exist.
There are, to be sure, other demographers, such as Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College, who agree with Beinart that American Jews are in fact growing more distant from Israel. Yet Cohen, in the very study that Beinart cited in The New York Review of Books, attributes this development not to politics but to intermarriage. Indeed, in a recent appearance before the Knesset, Cohen strongly reiterated his point: “The crime is distance from Israel, and the culprit is intermarriage.” Even though he admitted to agreeing with Beinart’s political agenda, Cohen stated that he refused to use the issue of distancing from Israel “to push that agenda,” because the way to get more Jews to care about Israel “is to strengthen Jewish life in America, not to focus on Israel’s multiple and horrible failings.”
Hirsch then details Beinart’s treatment of Palestinians as two-dimensional and passive characters:
Beinart thus commits the soft bigotry of low expectations, robbing the Palestinians of their own share of responsibility for making peace. And, with only one side of the picture to work with, he has left himself with only part of the frame for understanding the real security situation in the region. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is Beinart’s treatment of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and subsequent attempts to deter Hamas. At the beginning of the book, he attributes disintegrating relations between Israel and Turkey to the Jewish state’s 2008 war in Gaza and subsequent killing of eight Turkish militants while confronting the flotilla. Later, he condemns Israel’s behavior in the Gaza war, devoting nearly a page to detailing the damage that the IDF inflicted and describing Gaza as “a fenced-in, hideously overcrowded, desperately poor slum from which terrorist groups sometimes shell Israel.” Yet after bashing Israeli deterrence in Gaza-blaming it for the majority of Israel’s troubles over the last five years-Beinart is suddenly prepared to endorse it while prescribing policy for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank. In the event of a pullout from the area, he admits, Israel will have to worry about potential rocket fire. But the “best way to combat that threat,” he argues, is, among other methods, “a credible deterrent so that Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran know they will pay a severe price for bloodying the Jewish state.” What does that mean if not that Israel must be prepared to use in the West Bank at least the same amount of force as it deployed in Gaza?
This is a pitfall that Beinart might have avoided if his attention had been fully focused on Israel’s security dilemmas. But he is, instead, more preoccupied with what is going on in the heads of certain young American Jews than with realities on the ground in the Middle East.
… Beinart’s proposal for American Zionism is the very mirror image of the simplistic establishment line that he devotes his whole book to tearing down. In his attempt to offer young Jewish elites a Zionism that allows them to skip the “messy, frightening debate over Israel’s future,” he substitutes the old model of one-dimensional support with a new model of one-dimensional criticism. Having fled right-wing simplicity, Beinart loops directly back to its twin on the left. In doing so, he fails to establish the balance that American Jews so desperately need in their approach to Israel. And he alienates Israelis, who know and live a very different reality from the one he presents. That’s why those who embrace The Crisis of Zionism-especially the young, liberal elites for whom it is intended-risk dooming themselves to irrelevancy.
For those who are interested, here is a small selection of the overwhelming number of critiques that Beinart’s thesis has received in recent weeks:
- Alana Newhouse, Editor-in-Chief of Tablet, makes the case in The Washington Post that Beinart is launching a political campaign for to be the new leader of young, liberal Jews in America.
- Jonathan Rosen, Editorial Director of Nextbook, reviews Beinart’s book for The New York Times.
- David Frum, contributing editor at Newsweek, goes into detail on Beinart’s bizarre theory that punishing Israelis is the answer.