His CV could scarcely be more stellar: he studied at Yale and Cambridge; he teaches at CUNY; he’s been a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and editor of the New Republic; he writes regularly for National Journal, Haaretz, and the Atlantic website, and has contributed to Time, The New York Times, and other top-drawer publications; he’s published three books; in 2012, Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 global thinkers.
But Peter Beinart is best known for his unusually harsh criticism of Israel. Yes, he is Jewish himself, and, according to his Wikipedia page, attends an Orthodox synagogue, keeps kosher, and sends his children to a Jewish school. But for countless readers, his name is synonymous with a degree of hostility to Israel that may be common enough in the countries surrounding Israel but that is rather unusual in an American Jew living in New York City.
Beinart first spelled out his views on Israel at length in a 2010 article for the New York Review of Books entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” The article began with the assertion that American Jews, who at one time had been both liberal and Zionist, were breaking up into two distinct camps: “Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal.”
In Beinart’s view, most American Jewish Zionists were now increasingly possessed of a “naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians.” He criticized then Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for wanting “to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs who won’t swear a loyalty oath to the Jewish state.” (Is it outrageous for a country to expect its citizens to be loyal? Don’t new American citizens swear an oath?) “He said Arab Knesset members who met with representatives of Hamas should be executed.” (If cetain Knesset members consort covertly with terrorists who’ve sworn to destroy Israel, isn’t that treason?)
Part of Beinart’s message was that Israel and its defenders should lighten up. He chided them for their “obsession with victimhood.” Young Jews in the U.S., he pointed out, simply can’t relate to all that victim rhetoric. It didn’t occur to Beinart that perhaps the reason for this inability to relate lay in those young people’s historical illiteracy, their ignorance of current geopolitical realities, and/or their lack of imagination. No, to him, the takeaway was that the victim rhetoric is overblown.
“Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas,” he acknowledged. “Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran.” But for young Jews growing up in pleasant, leafy places like Scarsdale, New York, or Brentwood, California, the rhetoric about Jewish victimhood “simply bears no relationship to their lived experience.” A remarkable argument: as if the cushy lives of American Jews somehow made concern about the perilous position of Israel invalid!
Another part of Beinart’s message was that Israel needs to treat Palestinians better, withdraw from the West Bank, and make more serious efforts to establish a lasting peace. In short, in a world where Israel is one of the most democratic and peaceable of countries, and where a hundred-odd nations – including most if Israel’s neighbors – regularly commit atrocities against their citizens that would give you nightmares for the rest of your life, Beinart was, in effect, joining the anti-Semites in the UN’s Human Rights Council in piling on Israel.
In a reply to Beinart’s article, Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League pointed out that the Israelis had, in fact, made repeated good-faith efforts to end the Palestinian conflict. At Camp David in 2000, Israel had offered to pull out of 90% of the territories and eliminate most settlements. In response, it “got a big no and suicide bombs.” In 2005 Israel “withdrew unilaterally from Gaza with the intent to do likewise in the West Bank because they saw no partner for peace.” The response that time? Rockets fired at civilian targets. Much the same happened in 2008. Repeatedly, in short, Israel’s enemies have replied to honest overtures for peace with violence. And yet Israel has kept coming back, hat in hand, trying once again to get along.
Beinart answered Foxman’s charges by doubling down on his condemnation of what he called “the growing authoritarian, even racist, tendencies in Israeli politics.” And he wasn’t done: in 2012, he expanded his indictment of the Jewish state to book length. We’ll get to The Crisis of Zionism on Thursday.