The awful symbolism of the Israeli military attacking an unarmed humanitarian mission at sea—a mission not unlike the Zionist humanitarian missions to Palestine of 1947–48—provides a particularly painful reminder of just how far Israel has strayed from the ideals of its founding. Among the raid's countless counterproductive consequences is that it will further alienate the Jewish state from the liberal Zionists abroad who wish to support Israel but struggle to locate their values amid its increasingly right-wing and decreasingly democratic political culture.
Shortly before the attack, Peter Beinart's stinging critique of the failure of the American Jewish establishment either to defend democracy in Israel or engage liberal young Jews in the Zionist project, published in The New York Review of Books, somehow pierced the wall of denial that had enveloped all such discussions in America for the past forty years. Beinart, ex–liberal hawk editor of The New Republic and a member of an Orthodox synagogue, described an "American Zionist movement that does not even feign concern for Palestinian dignity and a broader American Jewish population that does not even feign concern for Israel." He placed the blame directly on the leaders of organizations like AIPAC, where "the Holocaust analogies never stop, and their message is always the same: Jews are licensed by their victimhood to worry only about themselves." And yet as Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has reported, Beinart's piece "is being examined as well in the uppermost precincts of organized U.S. Jewry." He notes that "even some of Beinart's named targets—speaking off the record—agreed that a crisis was imminent and that he raised worthwhile issues."
True, many of the usual complaints were made by the usual suspects. Beinart, they said, is "highly idealistic" and "strident" (TNR's Jonathan Chait); "pseudo-courageous" (TNR's Leon Wieseltier); writing "in a publication that is typically the home of anti-Zionist or far-left polemics" and "joining the anti-'Jewish establishment' bandwagon" (TNR's James Kirchick); "utopian" and not "too interested in the forces that seek the elimination of Israel" (The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg); and "joining the Israel bashers" (Commentary's Noah Pollak).
But owing to his credentials as both a deeply committed Zionist and—let's admit it—a former parishioner in Marty Peretz's church of peculiarly neurotic and racist-tinged Jewish McCarthyism, Beinart proved immune to these time-honored tactics of discreditation. Indeed, he skillfully turned many of his critics' attacks back in their faces. Chait thinks Beinart is naïve—an odd criticism, Beinart notes, coming from someone who contends that Benjamin Netanyahu is sincerely dedicated to the goal of a Palestinian state. Chait and Goldberg say they do not disagree with many of Beinart's criticisms, but they think his focus is misplaced, given the threats Israel faces and the hostility of so many liberals and leftists to its legitimate concerns. Although some "leftists (and for that matter) rightists...focus so disproportionately on Israel's failings as to raise questions about their true motives," Beinart responds, the essay, alas, was about something else. Meanwhile, such complaints are consistent, Beinart points out, with such writers' typical response to all criticism of Israel. Yes, Jonathan Chait may "occasionally condemn Israel's actions, but with so much rationalization and minimization that he usually ends up more critical of the people criticizing Israeli abuses than of the abuses themselves. Yes, it's unfortunate.... Yes, it's regrettable.... Now can we get back to bashing J Street?"
The debate, moreover, has revealed the commonality between those who attack everything Israel does and those who defend it with the same ideological fervor (and frequent inattention to circumstance, context or fact). Pollak, for instance, pretends that Beinart's liberal Zionist plea puts him in the company of certain contributors (and columnists) for The Nation, Noam Chomsky, Avi Shlaim and of course The Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. It's hard to believe that Pollak, a graduate student at Yale, could have gotten past its admissions officers demonstrating such pitiful powers of discernment. Then again, smart people often say stupid things when discussing Israel and the Palestinians. For instance, Mearsheimer, the distinguished University of Chicago political scientist, gave a speech not long ago in which, speaking as an advocate for the Palestinians, he named a list of "righteous Jews" and, mirroring Pollak, lumped together disappointed friends of Israel M.J. Rosenberg, Roger Cohen and the folks at J Street with committed anti-Zionists like Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and Naomi Klein. This tactic—a favorite of Jewish McCarthyites and Israel-haters both—will weaken in the wake of Beinart's recasting of the conversation.
Beinart accurately insists that "American Jewish leaders and commentators have become far too promiscuous about throwing around words like anti-Israel," a term he defines to mean someone who wants "Israel to disappear as a Jewish state." Personally, I think Beinart's definition goes just a shade too far here. Recent books by Bernard Avishai and Kai Bird manage to oppose Israel's religiously defined state apparatus and yet remain supportive of the rights and aspirations of Jewish Israelis. This may be naïve—in the same manner that people like Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt and Judah Magnes naïvely supported a nonexistent binational alternative to statehood in 1948—but it is unfair to term these views "anti-Israel."
Still, a moment of credit. Beinart has succeeded where many of us have tried and failed. He has opened a door to some painfully honest discussion about what role, if any, diaspora liberal Zionists might play to help Israel preserve its democratic character and make peace with its neighbors. And not a moment too soon...