Defending Israel (and Waiting for a Miracle)
Those in the market for conspiracy theories might be pleased by the mainstream media reaction to Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. Not only has the book been widely attacked but so too have its author’s motives for writing it. Beinart’s book is essentially a call for American Jews to challenge the professional Jewish establishment that has failed to stand up for the liberal values of the community it professes to represent and acts instead as an apologist for Israel’s rightward, anti-democratic drift toward permanent occupation. With an impressive uniformity of opinion, Beinart’s reviewers have by and large ignored the details of his critique. Jewish liberals, centrists, neocons and far-right chauvinists all apparently agree that Beinart has written the wrong book. Instead of focusing his attention on the shortcomings of Israeli and American Jewish institutions, he should be complaining about Palestinian rejectionism and suicide-bombing (as might be expected of former protégés of Marty Peretz), as it is obviously their behavior, rather than any action that Israel may have been forced to take in self-defense, that lies at the root of the conflict.
Even were one to grant the substance of the anti-Beinart attacks, one would still be left with Lenin’s age-old question: What is to be done? Where are the alternatives to an all-out effort—risks and all—to end the occupation? While some of the reviewers profess distaste for the policies of the Israeli government, none propose a solution that involves anything much more than Palestinian surrender. And since that is not going to happen—indeed the political weakness of Palestinian “moderates” is often cited as yet another roadblock to a sustainable peace agreement—then what we are left with is the passive acceptance of Israel’s slow-motion destruction of its democracy coupled with an apparently endless (and brutal) military occupation.
As is always the case when Israel is criticized, discussion in that country has been far more open and self-confident in its press than in our own. Writing in the invaluable +972 webzine, Mairav Zonszein observes, “Beinart’s writing does not shed new light on the situation, but the fact that he is making such waves reflects just how hard it is for American Jews to figure out their identity vis-à-vis Israel—and how, after 64 years trying to figure it out, it continues to be the mainstay of American Jewish discourse.” Her colleague Noam Sheizaf writes, “The panic with which the ‘Crisis of Zionism’ was met had nothing to do with the book’s not-so-new political message…but rather from the thought that Beinart does represent something real, that the Jewish establishment is indeed failing, not in terms of political effectiveness, but on a much deeper level that has to do with the moral values and the self-perception of the people it claims to represent.”
In contrast to Beinart’s book, which has dominated discussion in Jewish literary circles since its publication, another book, Side by Side—edited by the late Dan Bar-On as well as Sami Adwan, the Israeli and Palestinian co-founders of Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), together with Eyal Nayeh—has received virtually no attention. This is a shame, as it is at least as central to any possibility for Middle Eastern peace as Beinart’s book. One of PRIME’s projects, begun in 2002, was to try to construct a high school text based on a single narrative history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This goal has long been, in your columnist’s view, the single most crucial building block for a democratically based—and therefore politically stable—two-state solution. So long as every new “fact” merely confirms one side’s narrative that places all the fault on the other, rejectionists will continue to rule unchallenged.
Alas, it proved impossible. And so Side by Side instead tells the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an Israeli and a Palestinian perspective on alternating pages. This follows the example of PRIME’s series of three pamphlets, which included a third, blank section for students to write their own histories. Perhaps predictably, however, neither side’s schools would use them. In 2004, in fact, far-right Israeli education minister Limor Livnat threatened to discipline teachers who taught from the booklets, and Palestinian teachers were threatened with violence when they tried. As Bar-On wrote, the failure, first to produce a single narrative and second to find educators willing to teach both versions to their students, demonstrated that “both the Palestinians and the Jewish-Israelis were not truly ready to move forward with the political arrangement because they were incapable of accepting each other’s ‘otherness.’”
American Jews could play a useful role in aiding our Israeli cousins to see that they are destroying what was noble and admirable in the creation of a democratic and egalitarian Jewish homeland over fears that are in some significant respects (albeit not entirely) driven by psychological rather than real-world factors. But as the ferocious reaction to Beinart’s book, coupled with the nonreaction to the PRIME project, demonstrates, the opposite is unfortunately going to be the case. As Sheizaf observes, the project of “Jewish establishment and members of the Jewish media—the manufacturers of ideology” is to do whatever is necessary “to relieve the pain of their community by blurring the existence of a problem. It is an ungrateful task, which will last as long as the occupation does.”
So again, the alternative? Kiddushin 39b in the Babylonian Talmud tells us, “And wherever the potential for harm is ever present we do not rely on miracles.” Yet that is exactly what the American Jewish establishment and its media apologists do when it comes to the preservation of a Jewish and democratic Israel. And therein lies the true “crisis” of Zionism.