Reading Beinart and Lerner as Gaza Burns

The Crisis of Zionism
by Peter Beinart
Times Books (March 27, 2012)

Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East
by Michael Lerner
North Atlantic Books (November 22, 2011)


It’s a great time to be an Jewish American activist working for Middle East peace.

I know that sounds strange. Israel is once again devastating Gaza. The Palestinian death toll is rising steadily. Even the more liberal Jewish-American groups like the Reform movement and J Street were at least initially sympathetic to Israel’s attack on Gaza, despite the fact that the attack (no doubt intentionally) destroyed a real chance for peace with Hamas.

Despite talk of a truce, on every front the Israel-Palestine peace process seems dead in the water. There is no indication that the Obama administration, preoccupied with so many other things, will spend precious political capital to try to revive it. Israel’s right-wing leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems set to win another term as prime minister and continue blocking the path to peace.

Well over 70% of American Jews want a two-state solution. Those I talk to generally want Israel to make significant concessions toward a just peace, but all the depressing facts on the ground leave them feeling frustrated, disheartened, and often tempted to give up. They can find nothing to be optimistic about.

That’s usually a function of their time frame. Most arrived at their current position only some time in the 21st century—many in the last four or five years. Before their change of heart, most weren’t even aware of the decades-old Jewish-American peace movement, so they can only compare the situation now with what it was a few years ago when they joined the effort for peace with such high hopes. Naturally they are disheartened.

But for those of us who have been involved in this work for decades, the huge increase in our numbers in recent years is sufficient cause for optimism—not necessarily about Middle East peace, since we know our efforts may come to naught, but about the Jewish American community itself. We spent many years as marginalized voices in the wilderness. Some felt lucky to be merely ignored and not actively vilified. Others preferred to be vilified, because that meant at least someone was paying attention to our (at the time) heretical views.

Now the heresy—Israel should end the occupation and actively pursue a just peace—has entered the mainstream of Jewish life as a common, though still highly debated, view. The mere fact that it is debated in nearly every institutional Jewish setting is an enormous transformation of Jewish life. That’s why I feel so optimistic.

Jews Are Now the Powerful Masters

How and why this transformation happened will be grist for historians’ mills for a long time to come. We’re still too close to its beginnings for historians, or anyone else, to explain it very well. The best we can do is begin to map out the territory.

One way to begin mapping any movement is to look at its landmark books, authored by its most prominent writers. The most obvious landmark in this case is The Crisis of Zionism, by Peter Beinart. When this pillar of the liberal journalistic establishment, a one-time hawk who supported the Iraq War as well as the Israeli occupation of Palestine, declared himself a dove on Israel-Palestine, it was widely hailed as a turning point in Jewish American life.

In Crisis, Beinart makes his own motives perfectly clear: he has a powerful sense of attachment to the Jewish people and a deep desire to see Jewish life flourish in the future, but an equally powerful commitment to the liberal values of Enlightenment humanism, especially democracy, which he believes are the heart of Judaism and, at one time, of Zionism.

Now he sees Israel forsaking Enlightenment humanism in favor of military power legitimated by religious orthodoxy. And he sees the dominant Jewish institutions in the U.S. following Israel blindly down that right-wing path. It’s a path that spells disaster for the Zionist enterprise and serious danger for the future of Judaism in America, he argues.

Beinart’s book made such a splash not only due to the author’s prominence but because he expressed so clearly the views and values of such a rapidly growing portion of the Jewish American community.

For most of his life, Beinart admits, he accepted the dominant view among Jews: Israel is a weak, vulnerable victim forced to defend itself by any means necessary. Now he is convinced that “perpetual victimhood is not a narrative that can answer the two great Jewish challenges of our age: how to sustain Judaism in America … and democracy in Israel.” To meet those challenges, he argues, Jews must develop a new narrative expressing the fact that they are now the powerful masters. 

How did he came to change his mind? He says only: “In recent years, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I have been lowering my defenses” against the ever-present images of Palestinian suffering that left him unmoved for so long. Most of the newcomers to the Jewish American peace movement would say much the same: They’ve been moved by seeing the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians; but why they remained blind for so long and suddenly had their eyes opened, they just can’t say. 

Left Hand of God

As I read The Crisis of Zionism I wondered how another prominent writer on the Jewish American peace scene, Michael Lerner, might have responded to all the excitement raised by Beinart’s book. In his most recent book, 2011’s Embracing Israel/Palestine, Lerner agrees with Beinart that the great stumbling block to peace on the Jewish side is the narrative of perpetual victimhood, but Lerner has been saying that for a long time. His eyes have been open for well over four decades.

So I wondered if Lerner found it amusing that Beinart’s thesis was hailed as if it were some great new breakthrough—or perhaps he found it depressing. But if Lerner was moved by the spiritual values he sees as the heart of Judaism, then his response must have been quite different.

While Beinart’s Judaism is based on the rationalist ideals of modernity, Lerner’s Judaism is essentially a spiritual attitude of love, compassion, and generosity. So I assume he extended the same generosity of spirit to Beinart and all the accolades he received, welcoming him with open arms into the community of peace-seeking Jews that Lerner has written and spoken for—and to some extent created—for so many years.

Yet Beinart and Lerner represent two rather distinct viewpoints spurring the growing Jewish American support for Mideast peace.

The more popular view is Beinart’s, based on a rationalist ethic: There is moral good and evil. When a narrative legitimates evil, it must be abandoned in favor of a new one that moves people to do good (and fits the facts—in this case, the fact of Israel’s security due to its overwhelming power). It’s not surprising to see a political analyst like Beinart become the spokesman for that view.

Some in that camp will take another step, with Beinart, and argue that the survival of both Judaism and Israel depend on embracing a more moral narrative. Many others, though, don’t share that concern, or at least don’t find it a primary motivation. They simply find that, being Jewish, they cannot tolerate seeing Jews perpetrate such injustice day after day.

A smaller group is moved by the kind of spirituality that Lerner calls “the Left Hand of God.” Because compassion is their highest value, they focus less on rational concepts than on feelings. It’s not surprising that their spokesman, Lerner, is a trained psychologist, as well as a rabbi. 

Political change can’t happen, he argues, until both sides in a conflict listen compassionately to the stories of the other side and recognize that each is living out its own story, acting upon its own version of the truth based on its own experience. From this perspective there are no evil people. There are only people doing the best they can, but too often making tragic mistakes because they see the world only from their own limited perspective.

Lerner extends this compassion to both Israelis and Palestinians who have done terrible violent deeds: They were merely acting out their own most cherished narratives, following the truth as they see it. Lerner’s path to peace begins with “The first step: listening to and embracing the other,” so that each side can learn to see the world through the other’s eyes. Martin Buber, the greatest exponent of Jewish spirituality, called it “experiencing the other side.” Among Jewish Americans, this approach is put into practice most often in dialogue groups and listening circles, where Jews and Palestinians begin for the first time to hear each other.

That first step—really listening to the other—is hard. The second step—acknowledging that one’s own narrative, the narrative cherished by one’s family and community, is not merely mistaken but a source of injustice—is harder.

Even writers as astute as Beinart and Lerner, who have contributed so much to the Jewish American turn toward peace, stumble a bit at that second step. They do us a great service when they focus on the crucial role of the Jewish narrative of victimization, which so many American writers tend to overlook (while Israelis as well as Palestinians routinely see it as the crux of the problem). But in subtle ways both of these authors show themselves not quite able to escape completely from it.

Neither Victims Nor Victimized

Beinart’s most controversial claim is that young Jews in the U.S. are abandoning both Judaism and the “secular tribalism” of Jewish ethnic identity. They have no interest in an Israel-centric community built on a narrative of victimization that is so disconnected from their own experience. His main motive for writing, it seems, is to stem this loss before Judaism disappears entirely from the American scene. In short, his motive is a fear for the survival his people—precisely the kind of fear that has motivated so many Zionists.

And he has another, less obvious, motive. Liberal American Jews, he writes, “must see their own honor as bound up with the honor of the Jewish state.” And the only honorable course is to resist a military occupation built on an illiberal cult of power legitimated by Orthodox religiosity. It’s a matter of self-respect, which too few Jewish Americans have, apparently.

From the beginning of Zionism, lack of self-respect has been a central fear in the movement. The first great Zionist writer, Leo Pinsker, condemned his fellow Jews for lack of self-respect and insisted that the only way they could regain it was to create their own nation.

Today, as Lerner points out, that urge for self-respect has been distorted into the widespread Israeli fear of being a “freier”—a sucker—a fear of appearing weak and overpowered in public. Some psychologists see it as a function of “a particularly strong ego and sense of honor,” as Lerner notes. This fear of losing honor and self-respect may account for much of the Israeli obsession with military power.

But Lerner thinks it’s more “a defense, a protection, and a counter to the shame of being descended from a people who throughout much of the past 1,800 years were victims of abuse, theft, rape, and murder. … We have never completed the psychological work needed to recover from our profound experience of humiliation and suffering.”

Lerner acknowledges that “some Jews today who were not themselves even alive at the time of the Holocaust unconsciously strive to assume the moral legitimacy of being victims [while] mastering the [imagined] danger through aggression and power.” As Beinart argues, the number of American Jews who act out of fantasied oppression is declining. But their political strength remains much greater than their numbers.

Yet curiously Lerner, the professional psychologist, downplays this and the other psychological wellsprings of support for militant Zionism. Instead he focuses time and again on compassion for the very real historical sufferings of the Jews. In his reading, the mainspring of Zionism was the need to “save ourselves from the hatred that would soon spawn the mass murders of Jews in Europe.”

So he insists on the need to listen sympathetically to the Jewish as well as the Palestinian narratives of oppression, and to understand how each side has acted out its narratives, even as he insists on condemning the violence in that acting out on both sides: “We need to put to rest the debate about which side is the righteous victim and which side is the oppressive aggressor,” if there is ever to be peace.

That means taking with utmost seriousness the Israeli fear of being “driven into the sea,” despite the fact that Israel’s military strength makes such a scenario pure fantasy. Lerner would have us take just as seriously the imaginary fears of Jewish Americans who have never personally experienced a day of oppression. And he would have us give all Jewish narratives of victimization, regardless of their basis in fact, just as much credit as the Palestinian narratives that are so obviously based in cruel fact.

Beinart and those who share his views would find it hard to accept such an even-handed approach. From their rationalistic view, it is pellucidly clear who is the oppressor and who the victim. And they might point out that Lerner’s analysis ends up encouraging Jews to identify themselves as victims, even as he deconstructs the narrative of victimization and its baneful effects.

Jews often pride themselves on their tradition of arguing with each other. “Two Jews, three opinions,” as the old joke goes or, as Lerner is fond of saying, “Judaism is the argument about what Judaism is.” As the tide of Jewish Americans calling for Israel to pursue a just peace grows, an open dialogue between what we might call the Beinartians and the Lernerites would be a constructive next step. In that dialogue both sides might discover the subtle ways in which they reinforce the very narratives they identify as the root of the problem. No one ever said the path to peace would be simple.