An expert's point of view on a current event.

Curing the Israel Estrangement Syndrome

Peter Beinart misdiagnoses the root causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict and misunderstands American Jews' relationship with Israel.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Peter Beinart’s recent essay denouncing the "American Jewish establishment" is drawing a great deal of controversy not for what it says — attacks on the pro-Israel community in the New York Review of Books are a dime a dozen — but for who wrote it. The New Republic, which Beinart used to edit, is not known for producing writers who pen harsh criticisms of the Israel lobby, much less ones claiming , "Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral."

Beinart’s thesis is nothing new; liberal American Jews have long complained about what they claim is the right-wing bias of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel groups, only to see their own attempts at founding organizations to speak on behalf of the supposedly silent majority — J Street being just the latest incarnation — fail.

But Beinart has never been part of American Jewry’s leftist faction; up until recently, he was a prominent spokesperson for the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party. That his piece appears in a publication that is typically the home of anti-Zionist or far-left polemics does not detract, however, from the significance of the essay to the intracommunal Jewish debate over Israel.

Beinart largely bases his claim of American liberal Jewish estrangement from Zionism on a two-year-old study completed by Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California, Davis, which found that "non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders." But that study contained numerous flaws, many of which were debunked in a paper released by researchers at Brandeis University. "As American Jews grow older, they tend to become more emotionally attached to Israel," concluded the Brandeis study, meaning that a static survey of young Jews is not necessarily indicative of future beliefs. It also found that "general political orientation on a continuum from ‘extremely liberal’ to ‘extremely conservative’ is not related to attachment to Israel." (Further problems with the original Cohen paper were highlighted at the time by the Jerusalem Post‘s Shmuel Rosner).

From the very beginning, Beinart creates a false dichotomy between peace-loving, liberal Jewish Zionists, and racist, warmongering Orthodox ones. "Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel," he writes. "And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included." He is aghast at the rightward turn in Israeli politics, spending much time agonizing over hard-line Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s rise to power. He writes of his discovery of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1993 book A Place Among the Nations — in which the current prime minister rejects the creation of a Palestinian state — as if this information was new and at all relevant to the current debate.

All this comes across as slightly amateurish to people who actually follow Israeli politics on a semiregular basis. Yes, Netanyahu opposed the creation of a Palestinian state in a book published 17 years ago. But he, as well as the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public, supports the creation of a Palestinian state today. Beinart obsesses over the Israeli right — citing, among others, the reactionary views of Effie Eitam, an ex-cabinet minister who last held office six years ago — at the expense of sober analysis. Beinart’s treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict occurs in a vacuum: He bemoans the excesses of the Israeli right but ignores that the Arab and Muslim states have continuously produced political leaders near-uniformly characterized by authoritarianism, fascism, anti-Semitism, or some combination of the three.

Most telling about Beinart’s essay is what’s missing. Like many liberal observers of the conflict, Beinart portrays Israelis as the sole drivers of history, with the Arabs relegated to the role of passive, background characters. Liberal Zionists, he says, "see average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders," and not, say, active agents who have played some part in their own misfortune. The actions of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran are not discussed in the 5,000-word piece until four paragraphs from the end.

There is no mention that Palestinians voted Hamas into power in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. There is similarly no mention of the murderous anti-Semitism spewed in Palestinian schools, television, radio, and newspapers, or the medieval propaganda sponsored by Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even Egypt. And, perhaps most tellingly, there is no mention of the poll, conducted just last month by An-Najah National University in the West Bank, which found that 77 percent of Palestinians oppose a two-state solution.

The foundational error in Beinart’s piece is a grievous misunderstanding for why the Arab-Israeli conflict persists to this day: Arab intransigence. Beinart ignores the many strides that Israeli leaders have made for peace — especially in the past decade, when the American Jewish establishment allegedly fell under the sway of right-wing extremists. Beinart mentions in passing former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer in 2000 to the Palestinians, which included the entire Gaza Strip and nearly all of the West Bank. But he doesn’t consider Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s rejection of the deal and subsequent initiation of the second intifada. Indeed, Arafat’s name does not appear once in the essay.

Beinart’s concessions to Israeli fears are similarly perfunctory. "Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran," he writes, while failing to note that the region’s Arab regimes worry just as much. Indeed, this sentence is as far as Beinart goes in attempting to explain the region’s complicated politics. There is no appreciation of the regional Cold War pitting Iran and Syria, along with their terrorist proxies, against Israel and the status quo ante Arab governments. Such nuances get in the way of a narrative that seeks to blame American Jews and not, say, Iranian mullahs or Syrian autocrats for the lack of a Palestinian state. But Israel’s security — and the entire region’s stability — requires something more substantive than Beinart’s myopic approach, which sees little worth analyzing beyond the views emanating out of Likud headquarters.

While Beinart is a sharp analyst of U.S. domestic politics, he fails to appreciate how Israel’s repeated, spurned attempts at peace have resulted in the utter collapse of the Israeli left. Although he quotes former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s statement that Israel could become an "apartheid state" should the occupation persist, he doesn’t mention that Olmert offered the Palestinians essentially the same proposal as Barak, only to have it rejected out of hand.

As for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral evacuation of settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Beinart only describes the dismantling as "proposed." He doesn’t explain that Sharon, with overwhelming support from an Israeli public hungry for peace, actually went through with the task. In return for the withdrawal, Israel was greeted by Hamas’s violent takeover of Gaza in 2007 and a hail of rockets that terrorized southern Israeli cities. (In line with his obsessive cataloguing of the most egregious examples of Israeli right-wing rhetoric, Beinart does find the space to quote the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Shas Party urging "God strike [Sharon] down" for the withdrawal. Yet he neglects to mention that the same rabbi recently called for a complete stop to settlement construction in Jerusalem in order to improve Israel’s relationship with the United States.)

At the end of the day, if Beinart truly thinks that the Israeli government is to blame for the current impasse, his problem does not lie with Israel’s defenders in the United States. Rather, his dispute lies with the Israeli electorate, which, after all, voted the Israeli government into power. But rather than confront this reality — that his own prescriptions for the Middle East are wildly out of step with the Israeli people — Beinart targets those in his own country who have loudly criticized the Obama administration’s bungled diplomatic attempts to pressure Israel.

Like his latter-day opposition to the Iraq war, Beinart is late to joining the anti-"Jewish establishment" bandwagon. But for all his hand-wringing about the rightward turn in Israeli politics, he offers few suggestions as to how American Jews can alleviate the situation other than the pious instruction that they demonstrate concern "by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes." He concludes his essay by quoting approvingly the words of former Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg — a man who has compared Israel to pre-Nazi Germany, suggested revoking the law of return (which allows diaspora Jews to become Israeli citizens), and called upon all Israelis to obtain foreign passports. If this is what Beinart means by "talking frankly" about Israel, one wishes he were as vigilant about those seeking to destroy it.

James Kirchick is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.” Twitter: @jkirchick