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The Crisis of Zionism

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Author: Peter Beinart

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Picador; First Edition edition (April 2, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1250026733
ISBN-13: 978-1250026736

The Crisis of Zionism

Israel’s next great crisis may come not with the Palestinians or Iran but with young American Jews

A dramatic shift is taking place in Israel and America. In Israel, the deepening occupation of the West Bank is putting Israeli democracy at risk. In the United States, the refusal of major Jewish organizations to defend democracy in the Jewish state is alienating many young liberal Jews from Zionism itself. In the next generation, the liberal Zionist dream—the dream of a state that safeguards the Jewish people and cherishes democratic ideals—may die.

In The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart lays out in chilling detail the looming danger to Israeli democracy and the American Jewish establishment’s refusal to confront it. And he offers a fascinating, groundbreaking portrait of the two leaders at the center of the crisis: Barack Obama, America’s first “Jewish president,” a man steeped in the liberalism he learned from his many Jewish friends and mentors in Chicago; and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who considers liberalism the Jewish people’s special curse. These two men embody fundamentally different visions not just of American and Israeli national interests but of the mission of the Jewish people itself.

Beinart concludes with provocative proposals for how the relationship between American Jews and Israel must change, and with an eloquent and moving appeal for American Jews to defend the dream of a democratic Jewish state before it is too late.

Editorial Reviews

"A brave book."— Paul Krugman, The New York Times

"Passionately argued."— David Remnick, The New Yorker

"An excellent, loving, and wise book about Israel... Eminently reasonable."—Joe Klein, Time

"A sharp and ambitious polemic."—Bernard Avishai, The Nation

"An important new book that rejects the manipulation of Jewish victimhood in the name of Israel’s domination of the Palestinians.... Important and timely for the future of Israel."—Roger Cohen, The New York Times

"Mr. Beinart has a book.... called The Crisis of Zionism. Chapter five, on 'The Jewish President,' fully justifies the cover price."—Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal

"A terrifyingly frank account of our current state of affairs."—Andrew Sullivan

"Mr. Beinart thinks America's Jews must redeem both themselves and Israel by rededicating themselves to Israel's ethical character.... The sentiment is noble, and the message deserves to be heard."—The Economist

"An impressive achievement."—Alan Wolfe, The Chronicle of Higher Education

"[A] probing, courageous and timely book... [It] marks a significant evolution in the debate over Israel."—The National Interest

"A passionately argued work that will evoke intense debate."—Booklist

"An elegant, deeply honest look at the failure of Jewish liberalism in forging Israel as a democratic state… Straight talk by a clear-thinking intellectual with his heart in the right place."—Kirkus Reviews

"Peter Beinart has written a deeply important book for anyone who cares about Israel, its security, its democracy, and its prospects for a just and lasting peace. Beinart explains the roots of the current political and religious debates within Israel, raises the tough questions that can’t be avoided, and offers a new way forward to achieve Zionism’s founding ideals, both in Israel and among the diaspora Jews in the United States and elsewhere."—President Bill Clinton

"Peter Beinart has written the outstanding Zionist statement for the twenty-first century. The Crisis of Zionism is a courageously scathing critique of the sorry state of Zionism today and a clarion call to reaffirm the linkage of liberal values, Jewish commitment, and democratic practice that made the creation of the state of Israel possible and is the key to its moral and physical survival."—Naomi Chazan, former deputy speaker of the Knesset and president of the New Israel Fund

"Progress in the United States has most often occurred when patriotic Americans have insisted on facing our failures head on and holding us to our founding ideals. In that spirit, Peter Beinart has written a brave and important book about Zionism today. Anyone who loves Israel and wishes to see it survive must read this book."—Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, and former dean, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

"The Crisis of Zionism is a must read for everyone who cares about the future of Israel. Peter Beinart makes a strong case for a vision of Zionism that encompasses ending the occupation of the West Bank and deepening Jewish education in America. Even if you disagree with him, you should still read this book."—Edgar M. Bronfman, president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation

"If you are concerned about Israel’s future, you should read this book. It will inform, provoke, and challenge you, as the author, with clarity and grace, lays out the looming dangers to Israeli democracy and appeals for a Jewish state that is both democratic and just to all, including its Arab minority."—Lee H. Hamilton, former Congressman and Vice-Chair of the 9/11 Commission

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

By: Stephen M. Walt

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.

About the Author

Peter Beinart is associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the senior political writer for The Daily Beast and a contributor to Time. Beinart is a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of The Good Fight. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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