Stephen M. Walt

On ‘The Crisis of Zionism': Why you should read Peter Beinart

On ‘The Crisis of Zionism': Why you should read Peter Beinart

I’ve finished reading Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism last week, and I enthusiastically recommend it to all of you. It is an excellent and important book, which is not to say I agree with everything in it.

Some commentators — including Dylan Byers and Andrew Sullivan — think "the conversation is over" and that Beinart failed to move the debate as much as he had hoped. I’m not so sure. It’s impossible to tell how much long-term impact a book or an article will have in the first few months after it’s published, and a lot depends on whether the trends Beinart describes are as powerful and enduring as he maintains. I think they are, which means that people will keep coming back to his arguments as events in the real world demonstrate that much of what he says is correct.

Beinart’s central argument is straightforward and well-documented. First, he argues that Israel is evolving in an increasingly illiberal direction, largely due to its protracted occupation of the West Bank and its brutal treatment of its Palestinian subjects — who by necessity must be denied political rights if the occupation is to endure. As both a committed liberal and proud Zionist, Beinart sees this as a tragic betrayal of Israel’s founding ideals. 

Second, Beinart shows how the "American Jewish Establishment" (i.e., organizations like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents, etc.) has actively aided this process, both by making Israel the centerpiece of American Jewish identity and by pressuring U.S. politicians to back Israel no matter what it does. Unconditional U.S. support has allowed Israel to sustain a costly and dangerous colonial project while making it impossible for the United States to serve as an effective mediator in the long-running but failed "peace process."

Third, he believes this situation threatens both Jewish identity in America and long-term U.S. support for Israel because younger American Jews both lack an adequate grounding in Jewish traditions and values and because they are increasingly turned off by Israel’s behavior. At best, they are becoming indifferent; at worst, they are becoming hostile to an Israel that they see as a betrayal, not a fulfillment of Jewish aspirations. This is especially true of non-Orthodox Jews, who tend to embrace the universalist ideals of liberalism. And as others have noted, inter-marriage and assimilation are likely to reinforce these tendencies over time.

In order to reconcile liberal values with the Zionist project and to help Israel escape a bleak future as an apartheid state, Beinart believes the United States — and American Jewry — must press Israel to change its policies and accept a two-state solution. He favors boycotting products produced in the West Bank, for example, and thinks the American Jewish establishment must abandon its unthinking deference to hardline Israeli leaders. He also believes that greater resources must be devoted to fostering Jewish traditions among younger American Jews. For this reason, he favors creating more full-time Jewish schools, supported by some form of public funding. He believes these steps will ameliorate the current tensions between liberalism and Zionism and ensure a bright future for Israel and American Jewry.

The book has some real strengths, and Beinart’s willingness to confront a powerful set of shibboleths is admirable. It is gracefully written and an easy read, and it offers plenty of vivid anecdotes and illustrations to support the book’s main arguments. Although Beinart is mindful of the Palestinians’s own mistakes and crimes over the past century, he also does a brilliant job of debunking the catalogue of rationalizations that Israel’s defenders have invented to defend forty-five years of occupation. In addition, his account of the Obama administration’s humiliating failure at the hands of AIPAC et al and the Netanyahu government is gripping as well as depressing. Among other things, his account explodes the oft-repeated myth that the Israel lobby has lots of clout on Capitol Hill but little in the White House.

As one would expect, mainstream reviewers drawn from the ranks of Israel’s defenders have been neither kind nor fair-minded in discussing the book. Because Beinart himself is an observant Jew whose affection for Israel is beyond question, he is largely protected from the accusations of anti-Semitism that are inevitably directed at anyone who criticizes Israeli policy or the lobby. But as Jerome Slater documents in his own review of the book, Beinart’s most prominent critics simply do not address Beinart’s actual arguments. Instead, they either misrepresent what he wrote or chase red herrings (such as his supposedly preachy "tone" or his personal motivations for writing the book). This approach is all too familiar to some of us: if you can’t refute an author’s facts or logic, changing the subject and impugning his or her motives is about all that’s left.

Although I believe one can learn a great deal from The Crisis of Zionism, and think that it will be widely read over time, it has three problems worth noting. First, and most importantly, I think Beinart understates the tensions between liberalism and Zionism. At its core, liberalism privileges the individual and believes that all humans enjoy the same political rights regardless of ethnic, religious or other characteristics. But Zionism, like all nationalisms, privileges a particular group over all others. Israel is hardly the only country where this tension exists, and Beinart is correct to say that an end to the occupation would reduce the contradictions between liberal values and Israeli practices. But that tension will not disappear even if two states were created, if only because Israel will still have a sizeable Arab minority which is almost certain to continue being treated as a group of second-class citizens. It is hard to see how Israel could remain an avowedly "Jewish" state while according all Israeli citizens equal rights and opportunities both de jure and de facto. Could an Israel Arab ever become head of the IDF or Prime Minister in a "Jewish state?" The question answers itself.

Second, I think it is unfortunate that Beinart chose to direct his book almost entirely toward the American Jewish community. That is his privilege, and it’s possible that the best way to get a smarter U.S. policy would be to convince American Jewry to embrace a different approach. Yet Beinart’s focus also reinforces the idea that U.S. Middle East policy — and especially its policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is a subject that is only of legitimate concern to Jewish-Americans (and Arab-Americans) and can only be legitimately discussed by these groups. In fact, U.S. Middle East policy affects all of us in countless ways and it ought to be a subject that anyone can discuss openly and calmly without inviting the usual accusations of bigotry or bias. I’m sure Beinart would agree, yet his book as written sends a subtly different message.

Third, Beinart’s proposal to use public monies (such as school vouchers) to subsidize full-time Jewish schools strikes me as wrong-headed. I have no problem with any groups setting up private schools that emphasize particular religious values. What bothers me is the idea that the rest of society ought to subsidize these private enterprises whose avowed purpose is to sustain a particular group’s identity. I’d say the same thing, by the way, if a Catholic, Episcopal, Muslim, Sikh, Mormon, or Zorastrian commentator were advocating similar public backing for schools catering to his or her group. Assimilation has been the key to ethnic tolerance here in the United States, and critical to our long-term success as a melting-pot society. Public education that brings students from different backgrounds together has been a key element in that process, and that’s where public funds should go.  

Despite these objections, The Crisis of Zionism is a thoughtful and courageous book from someone who cares deeply about the United States and Israel, as well as the Jewish people. To Beinart’s credit, he’s been willing to take a hard look at current trends and offer an impassioned warning about the dangers he sees looming.  

For that reason alone, it deserves a wide audience and serious discussion — which has not been the case up to now. The issues Beinart is wrestling with are not likely to go away, since it appears that a viable two-state solution is becoming less likely by the week, and maybe even impossible. It will be fascinating to see how Beinart’s thinking evolves in the future, especially if the targets of his critique ignore his generally valuable advice.