When it comes to Israel, the political is personal: Review of ‘Crisis of Zionism’

The author of a new book describing a crisis in Zionism may not be telling us anything we didn’t already know – but in tracing his own personal journey of his anguished relationship to Israel, Peter Beinart has touched a nerve no one in the American Jewish community can ignore. 

At a recent lecture in New York City about his new book The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart was asked, among other things, what all the fuss  – and specifically the vituperative fuss –  about him and the subject of his writing. Indeed, the month of March was Beinart-madness, as the former-New-Republic-editor-turned-liberal-Zionist-hero conquered the American Jewish blogosphere with a trifecta production comprised of his new Daily Beast blog “Open Zion,” his New York Times oped calling for a boycott of settlements and finally, the launch of his new book. All of which reaffirm and expand on his 2010 New York Review of Books article arguing that the American Jewish establishment has supported Israeli policies at the expense of its own liberal values. Whether respected or ridiculed, liked or dismissed, everyone has an opinion on Beinart.

So what is the big deal? After all, calling out American Jewish leaders for their bull-headedness on Israel is not new or radical; saying the occupation is unjust, damaging to Israel and incongruent with Jewish values is not new or radical; pointing out that Jews are no longer victims but rather quite powerful is not new or radical; even calling for a boycott of settlements is not new or that radical. So what is it?

According to Beinart, it is the firmly ingrained notion in the American Jewish community that “a nice Jewish boy shouldn’t say bad things about Israel.” As simple as that sounds, it is true and in this book, Beinart – who attends an Orthodox synagogue and once advocated for America’s war in Iraq –  certainly says some “bad” things. He unequivocally affirms that Netanyahu and his government have absolutely no intention whatsoever of reaching a two-state solution, thereby holding Israel largely responsible for the non-existence of the peace process. This undermines the backbone of American Jewish support for Israel, since the organized community defends Israel under the assumption that its leadership actually seeks a two-state solution, but just can’t “find” it. In Beinart’s book, Netanyahu isn’t even looking.

He argues that Israel draws its legitimacy from claiming to be at once a Jewish and a democratic, peace-seeking state, and it certainly cannot do that if it continues to deepen an occupation that precludes the establishment of a Palestinian state. As Beinart writes in his book, “Israel’s legitimacy is bound up in its democratic character.” For him, the legitimacy is waning.

The book traces this unraveling of the bond that Beinart sees between Zionism and democracy in both Israeli policies and in the American Jewish community’s relationship to Israel since the Oslo process. He calls America Jewish organizations’ usage of anti-Semitism and victimhood as “moral promiscuity”, before devoting an entire chapter to the question of whether the occupation is Israel’s fault – but does not respond with a resounding yes, so much as highlighting the “ethical responsibilities of power” that come with military control over millions of people and why it is impractical to Israel’s interests.

From the communities he moves his concentration to their leaders – the personalities of Netanyahu and Obama. Beinart presents the Israeli Prime Minister as a “monist” responsible for upholding a violent and intolerant Revisionist form of Zionism that sees a Palestinian state as anathema, and President Obama as the first “Jewish president,” aligned with progressive Jews determined to see a two-state solution. Beinart’s working assumption is simple: the deeper the occupation, the less democratic Zionism is, and the less democratic Zionism is, the less legitimate Israel is, certainly in the eyes of the younger generation of American Jews. This is what leads him to call for a boycott of settlements – but one that is firmly anchored in his love for Israel, defined clearly as a means to securing it as a Jewish and democratic state.

Beinart’s positioning within the pro-Israel debate

For Beinart, there is no inherent conflict between liberalism and Zionism, rather only conflicts caused by bad policies and choices. His entire argument is framed around his personal commitment to the fulfillment of liberal Zionism. This is what makes his positioning so hard to dismiss – certainly for those to the right of him, at which the book seems mostly directed. Beinart airs out Israel’s dirty laundry– but without going anywhere near beyond the pale of what is considered “pro-Israel,” since he insists on the preservation of a Jewish state. While he demonstrates just how disdainful Israel’s actions are to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and a two-state solution, he nonetheless unabashedly endorses one, since he is absolutely committed to the idea that Israel can and should be a homeland and refuge for Jews that simultaneously fosters tolerance and provides equal rights. He sees no contradiction in terms between the two ideas, which frustrates and stumps everyone on the left and the right who does.

Beinart has thus positioned himself perfectly in the center of the “pro-Israel” community, with his combination of tribalism/Zionism and universalim/liberalism. He is openly and genuinely dedicated to Jewish self-determination and nationalism in the Land of Israel, but believes it must be enshrined in democracy and equal rights, as envisioned by the pioneers who wrote Israel’s Declaration of Independence. In this sense Beinart can be seen as a philosemite, holding the Jews on a pedestal and seeing them as a unique and extraordinary people who rose up out of the ashes of the Holocaust and were able to establish a state that granted equal rights to Arabs and insist on freedoms of religion, race and sex. And now that it hasn’t lived up to that, he is deeply disappointed, guilt-ridden and determined to rectify it.

Beinart pines for 1948 Israel, a nascent country fighting for its life, still humble. Indeed, although Beinart identifies himself as an “anti-utopian liberal,” he is in fact a diehard utopian when it comes to Israel, to the point where he’s confusing his dreams and ideals with the state’s reality as a powerful and power-hungry state. He invokes the importance of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, but does not sufficiently explain why Israeli leaders have not been able to live up to those edicts or what will make them do it now. This idealism is most exemplified in his book in the ways in which he refers to the occupation, as something that may become “permanent” and that will eventually “recede” – as if 45 years isn’t enough time to deem something permanent and endemic, and as if something so permanent could simply “recede,” like a hairline.

Beinart’s personal journey 

This idyllic, unabashedly utopian and highly personal conception of the Israel he wishes to see is consistent with his working assumption that Israel is a test of how Jews operate now that they have been enjoying power for the first time in history. It is also representative of the American Jewish organizational relationship to Israel: since the Holocaust and the State of Israel are the two dominant anchors of American Jewish identity, they naturally take on a idealistic, mythical proportions as entities that are physically far away, but should remain close to your heart. Thus, no matter how abhorrent Israeli actions become or how far the place has deviated from (or never even met) the ideal of a Jewish homeland that is a socially just and humane place to be, its role in American Jewish identity remains ever-powerful as the dream for something better.

For engaged Jews in America like Peter Beinart, the inability to dream about a better Israel leads to the inability to have a relationship with Israel at all. And he is certainly not willing to give up on that. He openly states that when his children grow up, and ask him how it is that he inherited a Jewish democratic state from his parents, but failed to pass it on to them, he will be able to say that he stood up and said something, and didn’t just sit around and let it happen. Beinart’s fervent ideological fight for liberal Zionism may be somewhat out of touch with the reality on the ground, as critics from both sides have argued. But what makes it so compelling is that he takes us through his own personal journey and struggle with it.

Beinart’s writing does not shed new light on the situation, but the fact that he is making such waves reflects just how hard it is for American Jews to figure out their identity vis-à-vis Israel – and how, after 64 years trying to figure it out, it continues to be the mainstay of American Jewish discourse. The allure of Beinart is therefore not as much what he is saying, but the fact that he is standing up and saying it loudly and unambiguously. His personal story is the story of so many others in the American Jewish community who have an ambivalent relationship with Israel, and with Judaism that they wish to resolve.