Beinart’s ‘Crisis of Zionism’

Beinart’s ‘Crisis of Zionism’

Peter Beinart

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.

By | 2012-06-21T12:10:00-04:00 June 21st, 2012|Blog, Settlement Boycott|9 Comments


  1. Richard Schwartz June 21, 2012 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    Great analysis, Ralph,

    I think it is important to stress that Israel needs a resolution of her conflict with the Palestinians in order to be able to avert renewed conflict, effectively address her economic, social, and environmental problems, and remain both a Jewish and a democratic state. Of course this will not be easy to obtain, but I believe it should be a priority, with conditions to provide security for Israel a prime consideration.

  2. Lilly Rivlin June 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    Ralph, this is an excellent piece. Some one sent me Prof. Michael Curtis’ take on Alice Walker’s decision not to have a Hebrew translation of Color Purple. Perhaps you should send your piece to Prof. Curtis, it is much more reasonable and takes into consideration Israel’s actions, e.g. settlement policy and occupation.

  3. DrSteve June 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm - Reply

    As to the Obama’s “Jewishness” while I do find the disussion irrlevant and silly, his kids did go to a lcoal Jewish pre-school/dayschool early on, in Chicago. He had a relanship with the Rabbi of the congregation near their home. The Obama’s cultural Jewishness meme was actually endorsed and promoted by non other than the great waffling fence straddler Jeff Goldberg, during the 2008 campaign.

    As to Palestinian violence notably during Intifada 2, on the one hand there is much ignored evidence that it was pre-planned by the even as Camp David 2 (NY Tmies had front page article on training camps during the negotiation period). And it certainly killed the Israeli peace camp politically. On the other hand, given the continous growth of the settlements, breaking of all agreements from Oslo to Wye and beyond by Iraaeli governments in their de facto support on the ground for neverending land grabs and settlement expansion, and the fact that the occupation beyond the green line is in fact illegal and has been since 1967, who can blame the Palestinians for taking military action? As Israeli leaders such as Barak and Sharon have said, if they were Palestinians, they would be fighting for their indepdencne and land with the PLO.

  4. DrSteve June 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm - Reply

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  5. Eva Seligman-Kennard June 21, 2012 at 7:31 pm - Reply

    While I agree with most of the writer’s comments, I think it is unfortunate he starts his piece by saying,that “the book is guite good in spots.”

    This undermines all the legitimate points the writer later makes and where he largely agrees with the books main thesis. In addition, I am quite sure that Beinart is very well aware that his settlement products boycot suggestion is a largely symbolical one and is meant to be as such. This too, while a minor note, undermines the main mesage of Beinart’s book, as does the unimportant (in my mind) discussion about preciscely and to what extent Obama’s earlier lfe was influenced by his Jewish environments and connections.

  6. Anonymous June 21, 2012 at 8:13 pm - Reply

    Well, TIAA-CREF have just taken Caterpillar out of its Socially Responsible Investment fund thanks to the hard work of the BDS movement, and no thanks to ditherers and posturers like Beinart and Partners for Progressive Israel. Alice Walker has generated more attention to Israeli oppresion than anyone in months.

    Lilly, there was already an older Hebrew translation of the Color Purple. Alice Walker does not have a problem with the concept of her book in Hebrew. She rejects its publication at this time by an Israeli publishing house that has not taken a position against Israel’s oppression. Don’t misrepresent the position that she took.

    It’s remarkable that on this “progressive” website Lilly is extolling the virtues of Michael Curtis’ take on Alice Walker:

    As just one point (of many), take these statements by Curtis, seemingly oblivious to the attacks on African asylum seekers, as he tells it like it is to a black woman (who may just be aware that Israel’s Minister of the Interior says that Israel is the country of the “White Man”):

    “If there is racism and discrimination in the area it is more pertinent to the words and actions of Palestinians than those of Israelis. .. Finally, Alice Walker may see some of the 120,000 black Africans from Ethiopia who are now citizens of the state of Israel. Whatever this remarkable assimiilation means it is not “apartheid.”

    The promotion of reactionary hasbara pieces by writers like Curtis is disturbing coming from people who wish to label themselves as progressives.


  7. Anonymous June 22, 2012 at 12:31 am - Reply

    I may have misunderstood this from Lilly:

    “Some one sent me Prof. Michael Curtis’ take on Alice Walker’s decision not to have a Hebrew translation of Color Purple. Perhaps you should send your piece to Prof. Curtis, it is much more reasonable and takes into consideration Israel’s actions, e.g. settlement policy and occupation.”

    I find those sentences a bit confusing, but I’m now thinking maybe Lilly was not extolling the vitues of Curtis’ piece. If I had misunderstood, which My apologies to Lily and all for likely misunderstanding.

    The point about Lilly misrepresenting Alice Walker – Walker is not opposing having her book in Hebrew – stands, however.


  8. Anonymous June 25, 2012 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Great article Ralph – Al the best – Ted (Jonas)

  9. […] Jew.  His controversial book, The Crisis of Zionism, came out in 2012 (for my review, click here); he teaches at the CUNY School of Journalism and writes for a number of publications.  Both he […]

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