Sunday, June 30, 2013

Crisis of Zionism? What Crisis?

I just read the paperback edition of Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. It's a very good book,which you should go out and buy. It's also a pretty disturbing book. But not as disturbing as the reviews.

If you are an American who pays particular attention to Israel, you may have heard of Beinart and his book. Beinart is a former editor of The New Republic who is a practicing Orthodox Jew. His book is an attack on the American Jewish establishment, of which he was formerly a part, for its enabling of what he regards as destructive tendencies in Israel.

Here are some of the main points:
  1. Jewish organizations in the US, which once had a liberal outlook in tune with the ideology of most American Jews, have been taken over by by wealthy right-wingers with close ties to right-wingers in Israel.
  2. The Israeli government is now dominated by such right-wingers, whose goal is permanent Israeli control over the occupied territory of the West Bank.  
  3. In support of this goal, the right, both in the US and in Israel, has funded a huge program of construction of settlements in the West Bank. The settlers are protected by the Israeli military, which has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure their safety.
  4. The result is that there are now two Israels. The Israel that is not under military occupation is a democracy. In the West Bank, however, Jews have the vote and Arabs don't; there are roads that Jews are allowed to drive on and Arabs are not; there is one judicial system for Jews and another (much harsher) one for Arabs. In short, it looks very much like apartheid. Moreover, many of the worst tendencies of the undemocratic Israel, specifically its racism and its violence, have begun to infect democratic Israel.
  5. A real possibility, therefore, is the destruction of the idea, expressed in Israel's Declaration of Independence, of a democratic, Jewish state with equal rights for all. Beinart would personally feel this as one of the greatest tragedies of his life.
  6. Young American Jews do not see Israel as an embattled democracy. They see a militarily powerful country that is oppressing the Arabs of the West Bank. The response has largely been to distance themselves from Israel, even among those who have retained, or developed, an attachment to Judaism.
The book has been received by reviewers with an astonishing combination of vitriol and dismissiveness. A review in The New York Times accuses Beinart of ignoring the contribution of the Palestinians to the conflict ("While there is a chapter called “The Crisis in Israel” and a chapter called “The Crisis in America,” there is no chapter called “The Crisis in Palestinian Society” or “The Crisis in Islam”"), and says that he uses "several formulations favored by anti-Semites."

The Washington Post review says the book is "...calculated to appeal to disillusioned Jewish summer camp alumni, NPR listeners and other beautiful souls who want the Holy Land to be a better place but do not have the time or ability to study the issues... ." The reviewer "heartily endorse[s] many of his talking points," but says that according to Beinart, "if you disagree with the current Israeli administration but don’t regard it as a font of evil and corruption, you are blind, deaf and dumb." And again, Beinart is guilty of absolving the Palestinians: "From this book you would think that Palestinians are just the passive and helpless victims of Israeli sadism, with no historical agency; no politics, diplomacy or violence of their own...."

And so on, through the Wall Street Journal ("Here is what he thinks: Israel is an oppressive, apartheid-type state.") and on out to the extreme right wing, where Beinart is, inevitably, a "self-hating Jew."

This is all complete nonsense. Some of it may arise from mere intellectual laziness or personal animosity; some of it must be intentional deceit.

To begin with, why is the book called "The Crisis of Zionism"? Because that's what it's about. Obvious, you say, but it seems to have escaped the reviewers: Why on earth should a book about the crisis in Zionism have a chapter called "The Crisis in Islam"?

Indeed, the reviewers above have virtually nothing to say about the topic of the book. Nothing about young American Jews' weakened attachment to Israel. Nothing about the settlements. Nothing about the poisoning of Israeli politics. They don't deny these problems. Nor do they affirm them. They simply ignore them.

To fill up the space on the page, they instead go the ad-hominem full monty. Thus, the reviewer for the Washington Post observes, with no supporting evidence, "'The Crisis of Zionism' is most interesting when seen for what it is, at least in part: a political stump speech for...the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews." The online Jewish magazine Tablet, in a feature that largely follows this theme (here's Tablet, being even-handed: "Even his fiercest detractors concede he has a genius for publicity"), quotes former New Republic owner Martin Peretz: “It’s a narcissistic book, and the narcissism of privileged and haughty people is never particularly attractive...I always knew he was a very vain man, but a lot of us are vain, and.. if I had his mother, I’d be even more vain than I am.”

The problem with the argumentum ad hominem, of course, is that it's not an argument at all. Why should anyone care whether or not Peter Beinart is a narcissist? One gets the sense of a magic trick, in which the hand is quicker than the eye and the real issues are made to disappear. Tablet quotes the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris:  "'I have a son who lives in Israel, not on the Upper West Side, and he lives with a gas mask...' The main problem with Beinart’s argument, Harris told me, was that it seemed designed to be maximally appealing to people who don’t want to confront the ethical complexity of the situation as it stands today."

Well, Mr. Harris, I had a gas mask too, and guess what? The situation is not ethically complex at all! Want something Israel can do to improve the prospects for peace, and at the same time, make the lives of Arabs on the West Bank less miserable? Want something that has no effect on Israel's security, and requires no assumptions about whether the Palestinians are ready for peace? Here's the plan: Stop building settlements. Stop building settlements.

The settlements are the rabbit that has disappeared from the American Jewish establishment's top hat. Nobody can explain to liberals (i.e., most American Jews) why Israel should build them, so they are gone in a puff of complexity.

But the rabbit keeps coming back, and more prestidigitation is required. The latest distraction is the tarring and feathering of Peter Beinart.