The Crisis of Zionism, by Peter Beinart

The Crisis of Zionism

While The Crisis of Zionism is highly critical of those who govern Israel and of their policies toward the Palestinians, the author certainly bends over backwards to avoid any charge of being anti-Semitic, or really even anti-Israel. He’ll never avoid such accusations entirely, of course, because to say anything even the slightest bit critical of the most right wing of Israeli policies will bring down upon you from some quarters the vilest hatred.

The author is a Jew himself (not that that inoculates him from attacks; he’ll just be denounced as a “self-hating Jew”) who wants Israel to return to its idealistic roots.

My own position on these issues has shifted gradually over the years. When I first started following politics and foreign affairs and such in the ’70s and ’80s, I was pretty solidly on Israel’s side in their conflicts with their neighbors in the Middle East. As a liberal inclined to favor the underdog, I saw Israel as imperfect but for the most part worthy of support in trying to maintain a homeland for a group of people about as persecuted throughout history as any. They were a democracy, and seemed at least a little more apt to be motivated in ethically defensible ways than their enemies.

But over time quite frankly I gave up on Israel. I stopped excusing Israeli misdeeds. I came to see them as corrupt bullies who were anything but underdogs in their conflicts. I realized that whatever they may or may not have been in the past, in the present they were the typical amoral state motivated by realpolitik to pursue their own self-interest, where every increase in power made them more corrupt and hungrier for more power.

I don’t buy the notion that they’re somehow different because everything they do that seems aggressive is ultimately defensive. Every country says that when it conquers and oppresses. Every act of aggression is justified that way. The United States conquered Iraq to defend itself from terrorism. Napoleon marched his armies all the way to Moscow because France was in a life-and-death struggle with England and if the Continental System (where all the countries of Europe were supposed to restrict trade with England to damage them economically) was not enforced, the English would have their way with vulnerable France. The Soviet Union dominated the countries on or near its borders—with military force when necessary—because it needed that defensive buffer against invasion.

It’s always defense. It always feels like you can be just a tiny bit safer if you extend your territory a little farther, or you weaken those who could potentially be aggressors against you a little more, or you manifest the kind of strength that will send the message that you’ll stand up for yourself if your potential enemies get any ideas.

It’s always those you are in conflict with who are the bad guys. You might superficially be behaving just as aggressively, bending or breaking international law just as much, killing just as many people, or more, but that’s different because you’re only doing it as a last resort to defend yourself against those bad guys.

I’ve been hearing it from Israel my whole life, and for a long time it just hasn’t rung true.

The author, though, contends that Israel really was different in the past, really was motivated more idealistically than the typical state—which is probably true—and laments how far it has drifted from that idealism.

He doesn’t want Israel to cease to be an essentially Jewish state, but he believes that being essentially Jewish means in part living as best you can by certain moral precepts, which Israel is certainly not doing currently as far as its treatment of the Palestinians; it doesn’t just mean that your population is majority Jewish or that the state acts to further the self-interest of Jews.

I’m not crazy about any country being defined ethnically like that, where people of a certain ethnic or religious background thereby have some less contingent form of citizenship or are somehow more entitled to be there, but I suppose his ethical form of it is less unpalatable. That is, for a state to pursue policies of keeping a group in the majority and in charge, it’s less offensive when that group is something like “people who believe in democracy and civil liberties and doing good in the world and act accordingly” than if it’s something like “people who are circumcised, and don’t eat certain kinds of meat, and call their supreme being this name rather than that name, and celebrate this holiday rather than that holiday, and have this color skin.”

Unfortunately, in the real world no matter how much people like the author might fight to base such exclusivity on ethical principles, the latter factors end up being the stronger elements of group identity, and making a state essentially about one group more than others ends up drifting toward apartheid.

According to Beinart, the main thing Israel needs to do to avoid losing its essentially Jewish nature (which it would if it absorbed the territories into Israel proper and recognized a Palestinian right to return) and to cease oppressing others in ways that are contrary to Jewish ethics (which it’s doing now in the territories) is to relinquish control of the territories and allow a free Palestinian state.

I imagine Israeli right wingers and “realists,” and their supporters outside of Israel scoffing at the naiveté of this author, thinking states can and should be motivated morally, or that Jews specifically have some special obligation to run their state that way.

But to the degree that that attitude really does hold sway, Israel is entitled to zero moral support from, say, voters in democracies who aren’t completely amoral that way about foreign policy. If it’s naïve, insulting, or otherwise inappropriate to hold Israel to higher ethical standards, then why should we care about their fate more than that of any other country? Out of some kind of self-interest only? Surely in that case our amoral interests would lie more with siding with countries with a lot of oil or something like that.

Either Israel deserves support because it’s special in being threatened by bad guys but not being a bad guy, in which case it should be judged in such moral terms, or it deserves no more support than any other random country pursuing realpolitik, acquiring nuclear weapons, engaging in torture, and dominating its neighbors. You can’t appeal to supposed moral superiority only when convenient.

The author notes that in the U.S., the debate is very, very skewed in favor of the right wing policies of Israel for two reasons. One, the Israeli lobby is an unusually powerful one that conducts itself like any amoral, manipulative pressure group from the gun lobby to the oil companies. Two, the sizable number of American Jews—especially younger Jews—who do not agree with Israeli policies like those regarding the occupied territories tend to censor themselves and hold back criticism, on the grounds that as a Jew who hasn’t chosen to emigrate to Israel you really shouldn’t second guess the Jews who are there and have to deal every day with the threats to their country.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of people in government, the media, academia, etc. fall all over themselves competing for who can be not only the most pro-Israel, but the most pro-Israeli right wing. The rare exceptions are swiftly punished, or are just too marginal to have much influence over anything.

Presidents, says the author, pretty much always act in ways more to the liking of the most militaristic anti-Palestinian Israelis than their actual sentiments, due to this political reality. Note, for instance, how much more frankly Jimmy Carter can blame Israel for a lot of the ills of the Middle East now that he’s retired and never has to worry about running for office again.

Obama, the author says, is another example of a president who clearly saw that Israel was in the wrong in certain respects and ought not be unconditionally supported—which is why he’s despised by Netanyahu and his ilk—but who ultimately caved completely to the political pressure.

Will that ever change? Beinart believes there’s hope in the aforementioned younger American Jews. He thinks they can and should overcome the hesitancy to criticize Israel even when they disagree with it. After all, why are American Jews somehow unqualified to side with, say, Peace Now against the Likud hard liners, but there’s no problem in their siding with the Likud hard liners against Peace Now? If as a Jew you have to live in Israel to have a right to express an opinion about its internal political debates, then shouldn’t American Jews also refrain from supporting AIPAC?

The author doesn’t want American Jews to set aside their Jewishness when deciding what to say or how to act as concerns Israel; he wants them to embrace their Jewishness. He wants less assimilation, and more, for instance, Jewish children educated in exclusively Jewish schools. It is precisely as Jews that he wants them to stand up to the worst in Israel’s behavior and hold it to the higher standards of ideal Zionism.

You can consider the book to be largely addressed to fellow Jews, in fact. So in that sense, non-Jewish readers like myself are just interested observers of a conversation we’re not participants in.

I don’t share his urgency about Jews avoiding assimilation and all that—I think ethnic and religious exclusivity and thinking of oneself as part of some special group has done enormously more harm than good to the world, though again I certainly prefer the “nice” kind of Jewish motivation he’s talking about over the zealotry of the settlers and such—but I agree with the majority of the positions he argues for in the book.

And maybe a book like The Crisis of Zionism can have some influence on the kind of younger American Jews he sees as key to change. But in reading this I just couldn’t shake the feeling that to the vast majority of Israelis and Jews who don’t already agree with him, he will come across as ridiculously naïve insofar as he lacks influence, and dangerously naïve insofar as anyone really listens to him.

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