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A Reply To Peter Beinart

Not long ago, I ran into an AIPAC staffer at a social gathering. We debated the Middle East for a bit, and continued the discussion over lunch. I told him that I thought the political estrangement of liberalism and support for Israel posed a long-term existential threat, and that his organization was contributing to the problem. We agreed to disagree.

Former TNR editor Peter Beinart has a sharp, attention-grabbing essay in The New York Review of Books making this case not just against AIPAC but most of the mainstream American Jewish organizations. Indeed, he goes much further. Those groups, he argues, have abandoned liberalism on the Middle East and are responsible for a generation of young Jews who hold no connection to Israel.

Peter is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known. His essay is a call to arms to the American Jewish leadership that needs to be heeded. At the same time, the qualities that make it an effective call to arms also make it fall short as a description of reality.

In its intellectual style, Peter’s piece reminded me of another attention-grabbing essay he wrote – “A Fighting Faith,” his 2004 manifesto in TNR urging Democrats to purge their anti-interventionist wing. Both essays exude an almost masochistic “tough love” toward groups which Peter (and I) feel affinity, urging them to adopt positions that Peter (and I) share or else face political annihilation. Both also suffer from analytical shortcomings – Peter’s latest less so than his last one – that leave me a bit intellectually queasy.

First, both reflect Peter’s highly idealistic conception of the world, in which political setbacks are the consequence of a failure to confront difficult truths, and intellectuals themselves hold a decisive place in the course of events. Peter’s 2004 essay argued that liberals had lost the presidency, and would continue to lose the presidency, because they had failed to confront the anti-war tendency within their base:

[L]iberals don't have a sympathetic White House to enact liberal anti-totalitarianism policies. But, unless liberals stop glossing over fundamental differences in the name of unity, they never will.

Likewise, his current piece places the blame for the lack of Zionist passion among secular Jews upon the failure of the Jewish leadership to confront Israel’s right-wing lurch:

This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s.

You can see the polemical imperative of such warnings. But a bit of reflection makes clear that they bear little relationship to reality. Democrats managed to sweep the two elections that came after “A Fighting Faith” without undergoing anything like the rigorous ideological cleansing Peter prescribed. I suspect that young Jews’ indifference toward Israel is overwhelmingly a function of their weakening ties to Judaism itself. Peter argues for such reforms as bringing pro-peace Israeli students to campus. I suspect that such things, or even a dramatically more liberal turn by the American Jewish establishment, would have little effect on the opinion of young Jews. Sometimes virtue must be its own reward.

Second, Peter can over-react to the most recent political setback, all the better to lend urgency to his call to arms. 2004 was not just another electoral setback, but a harbinger of existential crisis for the Democratic Party:

Two elections, and two defeats, into the September 11 era, American liberalism still has not had its meeting at the Willard Hotel. And the hour is getting late.

In the same vein, Peter now paints Israel as falling almost inexorably into the grip of the far right. “The Netanyahu coalition,” he writes, “is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society.” There is certainly some truth to this – Russian immigration and the higher Orthodox birthrate have altered the face of the Israeli electorate. On the other hand, it was not that long ago that left-of-center parties governed Israel. Demography does not work that rapidly. Though he concedes that Israeli government can move in and out of power quickly, the tone of his essay has the same two-minutes-to-midnight urgency. I hope that, just as he rethought the stridency of “A Fighting Faith,” he’ll eventually look back on this piece as somewhat overwrought.

Finally, and most seriously, the stridency and clarity of Peter’s argument comes at the cost of shaving off the rough edges of reality that would otherwise intrude. Just as he once all-too-quickly dismissed the flaws of George W. Bush’s foreign policy for the good of urging Democrats to move rightward, he seems to have again temporarily blinded himself to counter-argument. Peter, for instance, twice writes that Palestinians “wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders.” It’s an odd contrast with his description of the Israeli polity, every problem with which he portrays as reflective of a deep cancer on the Israeli soul. Moreover, if you examine the respective public opinion, it’s not actually true – most Palestinians want to undo the Jewish state altogether, while most Israelis accept the need for a two-state solution.

Peter describes at length Bibi Netanyahu’s 1993 book making the case against statehood for Palestinians. It’s a disgusting expression of a classical Jewish paranoia in which any threat to Israel is tantamount to Nazism -- which, by the way, Leon Wieseltier masterfully dissected in 2002. The trouble is that Peter repeatedly passes off lines from the book as Netanyahu’s current viewpoint, which it isn’t. (He now accepts Palestinian statehood.) Now, Netanyahu is a slippery character, and one could make the case that he lacks the true desire to follow through on his new stance, and I wouldn’t dispute that. But to make this case is at least to acknowledge that Israeli politics have changed since 1993 such that Netanyahu’s old rejectionism is no longer tenable. That acknowledgement would complicate, and reduce the urgency of, Peter’s clarion call.

More disturbingly, Peter adopts the habit, associated with Israel’s most strident critics, of portraying any response to Israel’s critics as an act of coercion rather than an expression of disagreement:

Not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as well. In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world’s most respected international human rights groups.

It’s true that American Jewish groups have fiercely attacked some human rights groups. But if this is an attempt to “prevent criticism,” then Peter’s essay is an attempt to prevent support of Israel. As for the substance of these complaints, Peter flicks them away in a line (“Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not infallible.”) But there are deep problems with both the obsessive focus on, and the particulars of, their critiques of Israel. Moshe Halbertal and Ben Birnbaum published thoughtful, balanced, and generally devastating analyses of the Goldstone Report and Human Rights Watch. I have yet to see anybody on the left mount a convincing rebuttal. American Jews should pay more attention to human rights violations in Israel, but they’d be more likely to treat such claims seriously if they had less genuine reason to dismiss them as unfair.

Here, of course, we find ourselves on the precipice of the murky question of which side to blame. The funny thing is that Peter and I probably agree almost entirely on the objective state of reality. Liberal Zionism is being squeezed on both ends by opponents who seek to define it out of existence. Conservatives wish to define Zionism as a conservative idea, so that any sympathizer of Israel must support the Republican Party. Left-wing critics of Israel, likewise, have found their most potent rhetorical tool to be describing any supporter of the U.S.-Israel alliance, from Likudniks to Meretz Party doves, as neoconservatives, so as to brand support for Israel as right-wing and unacceptable. Peter and I both find this pincer campaign threatening at an elemental level. He focuses more of his ire on the right-wing half, I direct more against the left.

I don’t begrudge Peter his choice. As I said, somebody needs to grab the American Jewish leadership by the lapels and shake some sense into it. I believe the urgency of Peter’s appeal led him to focus on his target so single-mindedly as to impair his formidable analytic powers. I hope that, as with “A Fighting Faith,” he’ll eventually see the need to usefully complicate his argument.