Peter Beinart’s Controversial The Crisis of Zionism: Right Diagnosis, Wrong Treatment

Not since 2007, when Stephen Walt and John Mearshimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy hit the shelveshas a Jewish book evoked so much ire and criticism from the American Jewish community as Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. Sharp critiques were published even before the book was released. One could surmise some of these reviews could have been written well before the reviewers had even read the book, due largely to Beinart’s 2010 essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” published in The New York Review of Books which had already made him the heretic of American Jewry’s “I Stand with Israel” community.

Of course, The Israel Lobby and The Crisis of Zionism are quite different. The former, whether you agree with it or not, was written by two respected political scientists and makes a provocative, even incendiary, claim containing many scholarly footnotes. (The unpublished academic paper, available online, upon which the book is based has even more documentation!) Even advocates of The Israel Lobby agree that it is an indictment. Critics call it an academic screed.

The Crisis of Zionism is not a scholarly treatise. It breaks little new ground and most of its research utilizes secondary literature and interviews. While the book is journalistic in both tone and substance, it’s excellent journalism. But it is not an indictment of Israel; at best it’s a lament, a jeremiad of one who yearns to give to his children what he received from his grandmother, a liberal Zionism that served as the humanistic founding of the State of Israel. Who can decry such a dream?

Great vs. Important

So why has this book evoked such animus? It’s not like it’s the only book on this subject written from the left. A number of far more “radical” than books than The Crisis of Zionism have been ignored by comparison: Gershom Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire (2007), Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People (2009), Oren Yiftaehel’s Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine (2006), Baruch Kimmerling’s The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military (2005), and even Gorenberg’s very recent The Unmaking of Israel (2011). 

Is it simply that these books were written by Israelis? Or that the English-speaking critical readership isn’t interested or equipped to take on scholars who actually work in this field. Or, perhaps (as Beinart says explicitly in response to his critics on Tablet), Crisis of Zionism “is not primarily about Israel, but about American Jews and the relationship between the United States and Israel.” The critics, it appears, care far less about Israel than they do about what American Jews think about Israel. If Beinart’s book were an indictment at all it was not of Israel, but of American Jewry. And the anger it evoked tells us more about what the fervent American Jewish pro-Israel critics really care about.

Some years ago I presented an academic paper at an American Academy of Religion conference comparing Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Jewish Reconstructionism, to Baruch Spinoza, the quintessential modern Jewish heretic. A senior scholar stood up after my paper and offered the following criticism: “The difference between Spinoza and Kaplan is that the former was a great thinker while the latter was an important one. The two are not identical.” He was right.

And I would say the same about Crisis. It’s not a great book, but it is an important one. Excluding “The Jewish President,” an informative chapter on President Obama’s liberal Jewish friendships early in his career, much of the book goes over territory familiar to those of us who read widely on this subject or work on this issue, filling in many details. But it is hardly radical. Whether you agree or not with calling the West Bank “undemocratic Israel,” or whether the settlements are the primary impediment to a resolution, to argue that the settlements are undermining Israeli democracy and eating away at the moral core of Israel’s founding ideology is hardly a radical claim. In Israel, it isn’t even a “leftist” claim.

To state that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t really interested in ending the occupation is not a bombshell. It is obvious. Until the final chapter and the conclusion, The Crisis of Zionism is a well-written, passionately argued exposition of the decline of Israel’s humanistic foundations over the past forty years. One can argue with details, out-of-context quotations (show me one writer on this topic who isn’t guilty of that), and premature conclusions; but on an issue this complex and volatile, one can always do that. However, such criticism misses the point. Or, more accurately, perhaps that is precisely what the fervently pro-Israel critics do to evade confronting the real issue. The basic narrative of Crisis is fairly straightforward and I essentially agree with it; my criticism is what Beinart says we should do about it.    

The Settlements ARE the State

An unfortunate weakness of the book is the sentimental desire to retrieve something that was ostensibly lost in the roaring tide of history: the liberal humanistic Zionism from the 1940s through the 1960s, though it may be more a product of our post-countercultural imagination than a historical reality (e.g. Ben-Gurion cared little about the Arabs in Palestine). The Kibbutz movement and the Bund were great experiments but they’re gone and they’re not coming back. I agree that we should strive to reproduce the values they embraced, and salvage the real sense of justice they embodied, but this dimension of Beinart’s lament, the one that mourns the fact that he won’t be able to give his children his beloved Bubby’s Zionism, just isn’t very edifying. Nor is it is very helpful.

In the final chapter and conclusion Beinart offers us a series of suggestions to remedy the rapid decline of liberal Zionism. It falls into three basic categories: First, how can American Jews who agree with Beinart act in light of their convictions? (Here he speaks briefly and courageously about boycotting the settlements.) Second is the problem of assimilation as the core of American Jewish apathy, mainly by intermarriage; and third, Beinart writes about renewing Jewish liberalism through progressive Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish education.

Very real and important issues, to be sure, but it’s just not that simple.        

On the question of boycotts, Beinart suggests what I will call the “half-pregnant” solution that is no solution at all. He is correct to argue that boycotts are a form of nonviolent protest that should be considered very seriously. But his suggestion implies a distinction that I do not think exists. The settlements are not distinct from the state, they are an integral part of it.

Israel is a legislative democracy (its flaws notwithstanding), so its elected officials must be viewed as representing the majority of the population. This may be more complex in a parliamentary democracy but it is still the foundation upon which we call something a democracy. Israelis elected a parliament that supports the settlements. Polls indicate that if elections were held in Israel tomorrow the coalition would be even more rightist. Israeli high school mock elections held in 2009 gave present Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a settler and vocal advocate of the settlement movement, a clear victory as Prime Minister.

Given that, whatever polls say regarding a majority of Israelis’ “willingness” to end the occupation, when they go to ballot box as a collective, they indicate otherwise. American Jews need to take seriously the real likelihood that Israelis (not just Netanyahu) simply do not want to end the occupation for all kinds of reasons. For many American Jews this causes cognitive dissonance—but they may have to deal with it.

While Beinart gestures to his leftist critics that he is aware of the argument that one cannot separate the settlements from the state, he never responds to them. Probably because he can’t. His suggestion that we should boycott the settlements and give that money (and more!) to the state belies the reality that the state funds the settlements, which is why no one I am familiar with ever suggested boycotting the Afrikaner farmers while giving more aid to the South African government.

Keep it Jewish?

At best, a boycott of the settlements (which I personally agree with) makes the American liberal Jew feel good about herself. It makes us feel we are doing something. I do not say this sarcastically. Many of us on the left, especially those of us who feel betrayed by J-Street’s capitulation and lack of political courage, have no course of action aside from giving up altogether. Israelis can join Tayush, an Israeli-Palestinian organization that protects Palestinians against settler violence, or join the protests every Friday in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem. Diaspora Jews can boycott the settlements, which does indeed serve a function for liberal American Jews, just not the one Beinart imagines.             

Second, when Beinart speaks of intermarriage he speaks as if he’s from his grandmother’s generation. Intermarriage is a reality American Jews will have to deal with. It’s not going away nor, I would argue, should it. American Jews intermarry at a rate commensurate with many other minority populations in America (excluding blacks and Latinos), so is Beinart suggesting ethnic groups should only marry one another? Or is he saying that intermarriage between a Polish Catholic and a Korean Presbyterian is fine but that Jews should only marry other Jews? It may be that the intermarried Jew cares less about Israel, but rectifying this reality by making an exceptionalist claim about the Jews, making them “anomalous” (a label with ominous anti-Semitic coattails) is not the answer.       

I teach Jewish Studies at a university and also serve as a rabbi, so Jewish education is not foreign to me. But the case Beinart makes for more Jewish education should make those on the left a little uncomfortable. In addition to calling for more Jews to send their children to Jewish day schools to become Jewishly literate and educated in liberal ideas, he has, given the rising tuition costs, advocated the use of government funding to achieve these goals, which is problematic for the same reasons articulated in opposition to similar conservative Christian efforts. But let’s set this aside.

Having sent three children through a Jewish school system in Boston (modern Orthodox, Conservative, and non-denominational) I can personally attest that one of the real deficiencies in the otherwise laudable effort to make young Jews literate in the tradition is that they grow up interacting almost exclusively with Jews, have only Jewish friends, and know about the world around them primarily through a Jewish lens. You can have all the classes you want in global community, tolerance, liberalism, etc., but when it’s a classroom of Jews being taught by a Jew using mostly Jewish resources (and on vacation many of these children go to… Jewish summer camps!), that message may not resonate very far, whatever the noble intensions.

My son, now 28, recently told me he didn’t have a non-Jewish friend until he was in 12th grade when he first attended a public high school. Non-Jews were simply the “other.” An academic colleague, who grew up in a non-religious but traditional home and went to a progressive Jewish school in a major North American city, believes he was 16 before any non-Jew ever entered his house (apart from “the help”). It’s true that this problem of social isolation can, and should, be supplemented by extracurricular activities and parental guidance, but the point remains: Jewish schools, like all parochial schools, limit its students’ exposure to the larger world.

I do not say this judgmentally. It’s a difficult choice many parents have to make, and one can respect that. I’m merely pointing out that Beinart’s strong advocacy of sending one’s children to schools where everyone is the same in order to teach them how to be generous to those who are different requires a bit more scrutiny. Would he advocate a society where all ethnic groups only went to school with their own? This is the case in Israel and it has contributed to the creation of a society filled with alienation and hatred on both sides, precisely the kind of society Beinart rightly criticizes in the book.

Jewish education is certainly valuable, but Beinart’s suggestion here is not only naïve, it’s detrimental to his stated goals; sequestering young Jews so that they only learn with one another, marry one another and have children who will do the same is hardly the way to create a liberal humanistic society that can offer a viable alternative to the problems contemporary Jews face.       

These are topics for continued conversation. For now, I hope The Crisis in Zionism is read, discussed, and debated widely on its depiction of the conflict and on the substance of its solutions. Peter Beinart should be commended for a valiant and courageous project, continuing to do what he and many of us have been doing for the past twenty years. While I find his conclusions in need of revision and further thought, we are on the same team.