Only because I know you’re not sick of all this Peter Beinart business yet (I’m sorry), I just felt the need to point out that Hussein Ibish — defending Beinart against Wall Street Journal editor Brett Stephens — seems to have completely missed the point of what Stephens was saying.
Sometimes crude binaries can be instructive, and it’s possible to distinguish two different types of people: those who seek out generous and universalist empathy with others, and those who prefer the warm cocoon of tribal solidarity.
In his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart very much places himself in the first category, while in his review of it for Tablet, Bret Stephens, unfortunately, demonstrates that he squarely belongs in the second. Stephens’ angry, mean-spirited tirade against Beinart begins with a frank display of this mentality. He opens his lengthy denunciation of Beinart by angrily condemning him for daring to imagine that a young Palestinian boy called Khaled Jaber “could have been my son.”
Beinart writes that the evolution of his views on Israel and its occupation was kick-started by watching a video of the child crying out in horror as his father was being hauled away by Israeli occupation forces for “stealing water.” Beinart’s innate decency and humanity were, for whatever reason, deeply touched by this highly affecting scene…
But Stephens is having none of it. How, he asks indignantly, could “someone named Khaled Jaber…have been Beinart’s son?” The answers are so simple and fundamental that they are embarrassing to posit. He could be his son because all people are brothers and sisters, and we all can and should identify with each other across ethnic, racial, religious and cultural divides. Beinart can do this. Stevens, apparently, can’t, and indeed is offended when others do. He demands to know “Are they [the Jabers] supporters of peaceful co-existence with Israel or advocates of terrorism?” With these and other litmus tests, Stephens posits that Beinart’s expression of human fellowship is in fact a failure of journalistic integrity. It’s true that Beinart never stopped to ask if these are “good Arabs” or “bad Arabs,” but simply identified with a child suffering from the abuses of an occupation.
Sounds horrible, no? Sounds like Stephens has been criticising Beinart for simply showing empathy for the other side; like Stephens’ “tribalism” makes him completely against any Western Jews having any kind of sympathy for the plight of Palestinians. What an asshole!
Now let’s see what Stephens actually wrote:
Sorry if I just can’t get past hello, but this curious little intro tells us something about the methods—factually cavalier and emotionally contrived—of the whole book. Here’s the story: Khaled Jaber is a young Palestinian boy whose father, Fadel, was arrested by Israelis in 2010 for stealing water after being repeatedly denied access to pipes serving a nearby settlement. The arrest—and Khaled’s frantic efforts to reach his “Baba” as he’s being hauled away—were caught on a video and later reported in the Israeli press.
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.
Hmmm… seems to me that Stephens may have been taken a little out of context. One could almost say that Ibish has cherry-picked Stephens’ words in a malicious attempt at character assassination without engaging whatsoever in the very valid criticisms that Stephens is making of Beinart’s missive. Almost.
What Stephens was getting at, I believe, is that Beinart attributes his entire raison d’etre since 2010 to Jabar, yet he has never made any effort at all to meet with or learn about Jabar, his family and his people. Rather, Beinart watches a Youtube video, is emotionally affected and decides to write a book about that without ever actually learning about the subject of his emotions or really treating them as human beings. Sound familiar anyone? *cough* Kony2012 *cough*
Stephens goes on to criticise Beinart’s complete failure to do any on-the-ground reporting in writing his book, which sounds more like a polemic than a piece of journalism. I particularly liked this line:
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.