Having just completed Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism, I emerge with a mix of feelings over this important work. Although his analysis is quite good in spots, Beinart–along with most of our dovish pro-Israel camp–may understate the extent to which episodes of Palestinian violence (e.g., Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacks during the 1990s, the frightful toll on Israelis of the Second Intifada, and the intermittent rocket and other attacks from Gaza following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005) have undermined Israeli trust in the utility of peacemaking.
But his depiction of the failures at Camp David in 2000, the pernicious and inexorable advances of the settlement movement and the ways in which Prime Minister Netanyahu resists a deal that would require a major curtailment of settlements, humbling Pres. Obama in the process—all seem spot on. Since a deal has especially been possible after Abbas replaced Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, and the Arab League has been offering a regional peace since 2002, this is all very sad and maddening.
His view of Barack Obama as the first “Jewish President,” however, seems a little silly. By the same token, one might call him the first Arab or Muslim President, not out of respect for the claim of crazies that Obama’s really a Muslim, but because of his reputed friendship in Chicago with Prof. Rashid Khalidi and his openness toward Pakistanis and others from Muslim countries due to his unusually cosmopolitan upbringing.
I’ve known the son of the late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Jonathan Wolf, for many years; he lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a couple of decades before moving back to Chicago. His father figures prominently in Beinart’s “The Jewish President” chapter as one of Obama’s Jewish mentors. But Jon recently told me that his father only met him about a dozen times. I suspect that Obama’s relationship with Khalidi was not much deeper.
I share Beinart’s concern for Israel’s future if a two-state agreement is not reached soon. This is not because I think a one-state solution is a viable alternative, but because I think it is not. One state, whether as an ongoing status quo of occupation, with Israel ruling indefinitely over several million non-Israeli Arabs, or if a unified one-person/one-vote regime is imposed in all of Israel and the Palestinian territories, would mean either Jews or Arabs ruling the roost over the other. In the long run, and we don’t know if this means ten years or 50 or more, it is the Arabs who will likely win out, but at a terrible cost.
His view of the closed-minded rigidity of most Jewish community organizations on the one hand and the growing embarrassment and alienation of liberal American Jews regarding Israel on the other, also seems correct. Yet I find Beinart’s suggestion a non-starter (and off-topic) that public education authorities subsidize non-Jewish academic subjects in Jewish day schools, so that new generations can afford having a good Jewish education outside of a right-wing Orthodox environment.
I fully understand the logic of his proposal for a “Zionist BDS,” to engage in an economic boycott of West Bank settlements in order to emphasize the illegitimacy of the settlement enterprise and to blunt the fundamentally anti-Israel intent of the leadership of the international BDS movement. Partners for Progressive Israel has pioneered with this position since early 2011. Still, I see this as making a moral statement and helping to define the issues, rather than a practical way to break the logjam.
We agree with him on the need to emphasize the legitimacy of Israel within the Green Line, even taking into account Israel’s imperfections. And we similarly take issue with the international BDS movement for its semi-hidden agenda to undermine Israel as a majority Jewish state. Aside from this, Israel’s unequal treatment of its Arab citizens does not rise to the level of legislated segregation and disenfranchisement that was true in South Africa; primarily, this inequality is in the underfunding of Israel’s Arab towns and villages and in not insuring Arab citizens equal access to housing and jobs. But apartheid is uncomfortably closer to the truth in the West Bank, where Arabs have no citizenship rights and are systematically denied equal rights and protection under the law.
I see Israel as nowhere nearly as vulnerable to an international boycott as apartheid South Africa was; for one thing, unlike South African whites, Israeli Jews are not a small minority in their own country. For another, most Israelis (and Israel’s American supporters) dig in their heels when they feel under attack. Any kind of boycott action, including “Zionist BDS” that only targets West Bank settlements, tends to get lumped together as anti-Israel.
And I’m not just speaking of right-wingers. Hence, there’s the bristling reaction to his book that we see even among some liberal-ish writers and editors, as discussed in a long, insightful article in New York magazine. But I think it’s really only right-wingers who have questioned Beinart’s loyalty and passion as a Jew. (He happens to attend an Orthodox shul and to send his children to a Conservative Jewish day school.)
I know from my own experience that you have to have a thick skin. It’s not easy going against the grain and being an iconoclast. But it’s the right thing to do–and not just for moral reasons–but to promote a pathway for a more secure and better future for Israel and for ourselves as Jews in the Diaspora.