Peter Beinart is right. The relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state is indeed in crisis. Beinart and his title are just wrong about what the crisis is. What we face, as his book accidentally demonstrates, is not The Crisis of Zionism, but a crisis of American Judaism.
The Crisis of Zionism is, as countless reviewers have already noted, an Israel-bashing-fest. The second intifada was Israel’s fault: It “erupted because while many Israelis genuinely believed that [Ehud] Barak was trying to end the occupation, Palestinians felt it was closing in on them.” Israel attacks terrorists “nestled amid a stateless and thus largely defenseless Palestinian population,” as if the terrorists’ decision to lodge there were Israel’s fault. Such myopia abounds.
Israel is blamed everywhere in this book, often thoughtlessly. The most obvious example is the one with which the book opens. Beinart watched a video of a young Palestinian boy wailing uncontrollably as Israeli troops arrested his father for “stealing water,” and found himself “staring in mute horror” at his computer screen. He is right, of course, that it is painful to watch a five-year-old weeping as his father is arrested. But Beinart is so anxious to blame Israel that he abandons any investigative savvy. Haaretz, not known for its enthusiastic support of the occupation that so troubles Beinart, reported that Fadel Jaber was actually arrested on suspicion of attacking the police. Border Police sources also suggested that the whole scene of the sobbing five-year-old was staged for the cameras. And everyone admits that Jaber was breaking the law.
Why, though, does Beinart never even wonder if there is an Israeli side to the story, never entertain the possibility that Jaber deserved to be arrested? The mere fact that Israeli actions cause people pain is too much for him to bear.
Here, then, is the rub, and the central question that I kept asking myself as I read the book: Why do Beinart and his ilk expect their Zionist bride to be free of all blemish? And worse, what is the reason for their instinctively blaming the bride they allegedly love, without asking whether anyone else might bear some responsibility for the painful realities they witness?
Why is there not one mention of the extraordinary social organizations in Israel, or the many cultural, literary and other accomplishments of Jews and Arabs in Israeli society? Why does one finish the book with the sense that Beinart, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, actually detests Israel? Why are assaults on Israel described in the cold language of the pathologist, while the scene with Jaber is so emotional? When Beinart mentions Gilad Schalit, this is all he has to say: “Hamas was not innocent in all this: it had abducted an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and refused to release him until Israel released Palestinians in its jails.” That’s it?! No mention of the fact that Schalit was captured inside Israeli territory? Or that Hamas never once allowed the Red Cross to visit him? Or that Schalit emerged from captivity emaciated? Or that he was held in virtual solitary confinement, with no sunlight, for five hellish years?
Where’s the Jewish soul here? What kind of Jewish observer weeps over young Khaled Jaber but has nothing else to say about Schalit? It’s worse than infuriating; it’s stunningly sad.
Again, the pathologist: Discussing the March 2011 murder of the Fogel family, Beinart first says, “[The terrorists] murdered Ehud and Ruth Fogel and three of their children, Yoav, Elad and Hadas, in their beds. Elad, aged four, was strangled to death. Hadas, aged three months, was decapitated.” Even about the Fogels, he can summon no emotion?
Then, unbelievably, Beinart has this to say: “But what distinguishes Palestinian terrorism and settler terrorism is the Israeli government’s response.” Really? That’s all that distinguishes Palestinian and Jewish terror? How about the fact that there have been very, very few incidents of Jewish terror, while the Palestinians have turned it into a cottage industry? How about the fact that Israeli society detests the Jews who do this sort of thing, while Palestinian society lionizes them? Why does Beinart not mention those enormous differences? His sort of accusation and absurd misrepresentation is what one would expect from the enemies of Israel, not someone who professes love for the Jewish state. When Beinart and I debated some time ago, I actually left the evening believing that he loved Israel. This book convinced me that I was horribly mistaken.
BUT WHY does he hate Israel so? Time and again, Beinart seems just bewildered that the Israel on which he was raised, that “Little Engine that Could” of swampdraining pioneers and noble soldiers, could commit the acts that he’s now suddenly discovering. In the War of Independence, Beinart tells us (as if he has uncovered something interesting), “Zionist forces committed abuses so terrible that David Ben-Gurion… declared himself ‘shocked by the deeds that have reached my ears.’”
What’s truly interesting about this, of course, is not Ben-Gurion’s shock, but Beinart’s. Does Beinart really expect Israel to have fought 10 wars (depending on how you count, but I include the War of Independence, the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War, the first intifada, the second intifada, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead) without occasional terrible misdeeds being committed? Seriously? How could someone as smart as Beinart be so naïve? What disturbs him so deeply about Israel that he suspends his prodigious intellectual capacity and assumes a stance of consistently stunned disappointment?
Beinart’s problem, most fundamentally, is that the American liberalism with which he is so infatuated does not comfortably have a place for Jewish ethnic nationalism.
Throughout the book, the words “liberal” or “democratic” are always positives. And what means “negative” or “shameful”? In Beinart’s book, the word is “tribal.” Every time he uses the word “tribal,” he means “distasteful.” “Liberalism was out,” he laments early in the book, and “tribalism was in.” Or “ethically, the ADL and AJC are caught between the liberalism that defined organized American Jewish life before 1967 and the tribalism that has dominated it since.” “Among younger non-Orthodox Jews,” he later says smugly, “tribalism is in steep decline.” What is wrong with the settlers is that they have “tribal privilege” much “like the British in India, Serbs in Kosovo, and whites in the segregated South.”
Really? Israel, in which Beduin women graduate from medical school, is like the segregated South? Surely Beinart knows better. So why the relentless attack?
BEINART’S PROBLEM isn’t really with Israel. It’s with Judaism. Bottom line, what troubles Beinart isn’t what’s happened to Zionism. What troubles him is the dimension of Jewish life that he can’t abide, but of which Zionism insists on reminding him. And that element is the undeniable fact that Judaism is tribal.
Judaism, in its earliest phases, was actually composed of tribes. Even after the tribes mostly disappeared, a deeply tribal sense continued to color the lenses through which Jews viewed the world. The Book of Esther is a book about peoplehood (Esther 3:8) and the dangers of forgetting our tribalism when acceptance by the foreign majority becomes too tempting (4:14). In the story of Ruth, tribalism comes before even God when joining the Jews: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Other peoples, too, define human beings on the basis of what people they come from. When the ship on which Jonah has run away is beset by a storm, the other sailors ask him, “What is your country, and of what people are you?” (Jonah 1:8) The list is virtually endless.
I don’t know which kiddush Beinart recited on the first night of Passover, but surely he knows that most Jews begin the main portion of the kiddush by praising God “who has chosen us from among all the nations, raising us above other languages.” Has he noticed that the blessing before being called up to the Torah thanks God for “choosing us from among all the nations,” or that we end Shabbat with havdala, noting that God distinguishes between “holy and profane, light and dark, between Israel and the nations”? What about the Mishna’s claim in Bikkurim (1:4) that converts may not recite the phrase that “God swore to our ancestors” because they are not of our tribe (a position that Maimonides overruled, interestingly) or the Talmud’s claim that “converts are as burdensome to [the people of] Israel as leprosy” (Yevamot 47b), presumably because the mere idea of having people join a tribe is counterintuitive?
Does Beinart’s Haggada not contain the line “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations”? And does that phrase mean nothing? Judaism is many things, but it is undeniably tribal. The crisis that Beinart feels stems from the fact that he cannot abide Judaism’s tribalism; the State of Israel is simply caught in the crossfire between Beinart and the religion that so deeply conflicts him.
NOW, WE can surely debate whether or not Jewish tribalism – a view of the world that says that we are not just like everyone else, that we are distinct and ought to remain that way – is one with which we are comfortable. We can debate whether or not this element of Judaism invariably leads to illegitimate Jewish senses of supremacy. But what we cannot debate is that that is what Judaism has always been. Had Beinart argued that a tribal Judaism has outlived its usefulness, that would not have been very new (Reform Judaism made that claim a long time ago, though it has largely retreated from that position), but it would have been interesting. And honest. And fair.
Some of us, myself included – as in my forthcoming book The Promise of Israel – would then respond that the very tribalism that so troubles Beinart is actually essential. Why? Because it is tribalism, the very opposite of the universalism that so enthralls Beinart, that is key to our being someone, of having something to contribute to humanity. No one has said it better than Michael Sandel, who wrote in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice:
“We cannot regard ourselves as independent…without… understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are – as members of this family or community or nation or people, as bearers of this history, as sons and daughters of that revolution, as citizens of this republic. Allegiances such as these are more than values I happen to have…. They go beyond the obligations I voluntarily incur and the ‘natural duties’ I owe to human beings as such. They allow that to some I owe more than justice requires or even permits, not by reason of agreements I have made but instead in virtue of those more or less enduring attachments and commitments which taken together partly define the person I am.… To imagine a person incapable of constitutive attachments such as these is not to conceive an ideally free and rational agent, but to imagine a person wholly without character, without moral depth.”
One can surely disagree with Sandel. That is the debate that Peter Beinart wants to have; he just doesn’t know it. He believes that a tribal Judaism is one of which we should be ashamed. A Judaism of which we could be genuinely proud would be a universalist Judaism that taught Jews to be “sympathetic to the rights of Palestinians… at least as [much] as global warming, health care, gay rights and a dozen other issues.”
In the universalized Judaism for which Beinart yearns, however, there would be no place for Israel. Jews would not need a refuge, for they would fit in everywhere. They would not reside in the Middle East, for the creation of the Jewish state (like the creation of every other state) required the displacement of people. So the only way for this basically-unnecessary-Israel to be tolerable is for it to be perfect. If people are arrested and their children cry, Beinart cannot bear it. If Israel fights 10 wars in 65 years and there are terrible incidents, Zionism is in crisis. So he will discuss Jewish losses with the frigid pathos of a pathologist, but weep at the pain that Israel causes. He will hold Israel accountable to standards that are utterly unreachable and unrealistic, because in a world in which tribalism is the real problem, Beinart can feel the love only so long as the bride is utterly beyond reproach.
WE DON’T marry perfect spouses, though, and we don’t raise perfect children. Love is tested in the messiness of life, in the thick of triumphs and disappointments. Israel fails us all in many ways, but it’s also an astounding story of the revitalization of the Jewish people, of a democracy built by people who for the most part did not come from democracies.
Beinart’s real problem is that Israel is not, and was never meant to be, a felafel-eating, Hebrew speaking version of the United States. It is not ethnic-neutral. It was created, and our children die for it, not simply so there can be another democracy in the Middle East. Is one more democracy worth my soldier son’s risking his life? No, it’s not. Israel is about the revitalization of the Jewish people. It is, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, “of the Jews, by the Jews and for the Jews,” all while protecting and honoring those who are not Jewish. Are we perfect? Hardly. But do we aspire to America’s ideal of a democracy? Not at all. We’re about something very different.
As Beinart himself admits, his cadre of mostly young American Jews is essentially Jewishly illiterate. They know nothing of Judaism’s intellectual depth, can say nothing about the classical Jewish canon, have no sense of what great ideas Judaism has brought to the world. They are thus utterly incapable of articulating what a Jewish state not committed to America’s ideals might be about. Confused and disappointed, they grow ashamed of us. For us to fit their universalistic world, in which nothing Jewish is of supreme value, they need us to be perfect. When we’re not, they cannot abide us.
We Jews have been here before. Until recently, it had typically been the enemies of the Jews who demanded that we drop our differentness in order to be accepted. Today, it’s the Jews themselves, or some of them. Wise Jews, however, will know better than to believe that becoming just like everyone else will do us any good. Leaving aside the fact that such a move would mean abdicating the very essence of Judaism and that it would produce an anemic ethos incapable of attracting anyone of real substance, it will also never succeed in getting the world to like the Jews. As Israel Zangwill, the famed British Zionist, wrote scathingly a century ago:
“The poor people of Kishinev tried to save themselves by putting in their windows sacred Russian images. It is our history in a nutshell. In moments of danger we put up the flag of the enemy. And it avails nothing in the long run – the image-imitators at Kishinev were the people particularly chosen for crucifixion.”
It is no accident that Beinart’s book is among the most discussed – and reviled – in recent memory. For the book is not really about Israel. It is about the unsustainable new Judaism of which he is a selfappointed prophet, and to which, sadly, many young American Jews seem to be attracted, its self-consuming malignant core notwithstanding.
I can think of no reaction more apt than that of Deuteronomy 13:12: “Let all of Israel hear and be filled with fear.”