By Rabbi Philip Graubart
I can’t remember when a single book — “The Crisis of Zionism,” by Peter Beinart — created such a stir in the American Jewish community. The book and its responses serve as a sort of test for our communal strength. Beinart fires off a harsh, cogent critique, not only of Israel’s polices, but of the culture of Jewish leadership in North America. How do we respond to rebuke?
For the most part, we’ve passed the test. Several prominent Jewish intellectuals harshly attacked the book. Daniel Gordis even accused Beinart of not loving Israel and having a problem with Judaism. But Beinart and Gordis publically debated twice in the last year, treating each other with respect. Beinart and William Kristol — a New York neo-conservative — went at each other at Bnei Jeshurun in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but the encounter (at least what I saw on Youtube) was friendly, even genial. One Jerusalem Post columnist twice called for Beinart to be treated as a traitor (I’m not sure what he means by that. Arrested? Taken out and shot?), but for the most part the debate has been sharp but respectful.
But what about the content, Beinart’s arguments, the supposed crisis? The critique itself is familiar. Israel’s settlement policies are destroying the possibility of the only peaceful solution to the conflict: two states. The American Jewish leadership has alienated the younger generation and lost the ability to critically engage with Israel. Ugly, undemocratic elements are growing in Israel, contaminating its politics. Israel isn’t doing enough to nurture Palestinian moderates. Most of us have heard these complaints before, though I must say Beinart presents them convincingly — and I confess to agreeing with many of them.
The problem is the harsh moral tone, the unforgiving lens through which Beinart views Israel’s choices in the territories. For Beinart, Israeli policies haven’t been merely unwise — they’ve been wicked: stealing land, denying water, bulldozing homes, arresting, deporting. Beinart either ignores or downplays the Palestinian violence and rejectionism that often leads to these admittedly ugly practices. He complains that the American Jewish leadership sees no wrong in Israel, but in the book, at least, Beinart tilts the other way, blaming Israel almost exclusively.
More troubling is the moral condescension. Beinart’s most controversial recommendation is that North American Jews actively pressure Israel to adopt more liberal, democratic policies. He published a New York Times op-ed urging Jews to boycott products made in the West Bank, a suggestion he echoes in the book. But the implication here is that Jews living outside of Israel somehow know better than Israelis or, worse, are morally superior, less tainted by non-democratic hatreds. But, while living in Israel doesn’t make you an expert on Palestinian nationalism, or Arab geo-politics, it certainly gives you more skin in the game and more practical experience. Just a year ago, an Israeli writer Gershon Gorenberg published a book called “The Unmaking of Israel,” which is every bit as compelling and critical as Beinart’s, but it didn’t stir up half the controversy. The reason is obvious: Gorenberg lives there, so he lives every day with the consequence of his opinions. Beinart lives here, risking only his reputation.
A recent Torah reading gave me, finally, the vocabulary I’ve needed to criticize Beinart, a writer I continue to admire. Moses sends spies to scout out the land. God disapproves and throws one of His periodic tantrums when the spies bring back a negative report. But why shouldn’t invaders scout out the land they’re about to attack? And shouldn’t spies report honestly on what they see?
Rashi suggests the problem lies with one phrase in Moses’ instructions to the spies. Moses asks for information about topography and population, but also “is the land good, or not?” But God had promised them a “good” land, flowing with milk and honey. Suggesting that the land might not be good — might, in fact, be bad — calls into question Moses’ loyalty to the whole project. Similarly, at least from the book, it’s not clear Beinart thinks of the current Zionist enterprise as “good.” Certainly his fullest energies are engaged with what’s not good, with what he predicts will become truly awful trends.
Also, Moses tells the spies to “wander” the land, using a Hebrew verb (latur) that in modern Hebrew comes to mean “tour,” as in tourist. Many commentaries suggest that the Israelites at the time weren’t fully committed to living in the land. They were tourists, so they couldn’t see the whole picture.
Beinart may love Israel (I have no reason to doubt it), but he’s a tourist; he doesn’t live there. By his own admission, he relies on the reporting of others and engages most deeply with American Judaism. As a consequence, he’s cavalier, condescending and careless with his moral judgments. He’s missing something.