The real crisis is the America-centric Zionism

Jordan Chandler Hirsch has given the best review that I have seen yet of Peter Beinart’s new book The Crisis of Zionism (UPDATE: except this one) (disclaimer: I have not read the book myself). For those who don’t follow these things, for the past couple of years, Beinart has been trying to pioneer some new form of “liberal Zionism” that, for reasons explained below, I find deeply flawed.

Before I get into that, I would just like to highlight one important point that Beinart has backtracked on. In the New York Review of Books essay with which Beinart originally launched his campaign, he had a premise that was very popular with quite a few of the Jews who were inclined to agree with his position anyway (hi Liam): that the reason American Jews have become increasingly alienated towards Israel is that they cannot “blindly support” Israel the way AIPAC does (which AIPAC doesn’t actually do).

This is understandably an attractive prospect for Beinart and his followers — who wouldn’t want to believe that everyone naturally agrees with them and if only the establishment were different, they would be super popular. Unfortunately for Beinart (and Liam), this assumption is not grounded in reality.  He has since been proven wrong and quietly moved away from this position:

Diaspora Divided > Jewish Review of Books.

Beinart—though he doesn’t explicitly admit to it—largely walks back his theory of political distancing in The Crisis of Zionism. In fact, in direct contradiction to his article in The New York Review of Books, he endorses Cohen’s argument that, for the vast majority of American Jews whose ties to Israel are weakening, intermarriage is a more important factor than politics. Noting that the intermarriage rate among Jews today is “roughly 50 percent,” Beinart admits “the harsh truth is that for many young, non-Orthodox American Jews, Israel isn’t that important because being Jewish isn’t that important.” Later, he states, quite rightly, “it would be wrong to imagine that young, secular American Jews seethe with outrage at Israel’s policies.” “For the most part,” he writes, “they do not care enough to seethe.”

Hirsch goes on to explain the important flaws in Beinart’s thesis. He more-or-less describes my point of view as well: rather than addressing the problem, Beinart is just presenting its polar opposite.

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. As far as he is concerned, it’s the job of American Jewry to remind Israel that, despite the past twenty years of Arab rejectionism, the responsibility to end the occupation continues to rest squarely on its shoulders. This mission, he suggests, derives from a tradition of liberal activism that emerged out of opposition to segregation and the Vietnam War, one in which American Jews defined their identity by standing, first and foremost, with victims. By criticizing the occupation, the young elites can affirm that identity and rescue Zionism.

I have a huge problem with this condescending and exceptionalist America-centric attitude. Don’t get me wrong, the US has a very important role to play in the conflict and Diaspora Jewry has an important influence over Israel. That said, it is absurd to decry the pro-Israel establishment for failing to criticise Israel and then become so absorbed in the glee of criticising Israel that you fail to criticise the Palestinians.

There is a nastily familiar Western paternalism in this worldview. The idea that every problem within the Palestinians is directly Israel’s fault and it is up to Israel — and only Israel — to fix the conflict is absurd and denies the Palestinians the legitimacy of moral agency while imploring Israel to “give” them the legitimacy of statehood as though it were something that Israel could simply hand them. In a Kony2012-esque fashion, it puts the fate of Israel and Palestine into the hands of some 20-something American Jews and polarises the narrative into “Palestinians good, Israel bad”.

Again, I have yet to actually read Beinart’s book myself — although I did read the original essay — but I have seen this school of thought popping-up everywhere and attributing Beinart as its spiritual father. That said, his new Open Zion blog is awesome.

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