Jim Sleeper: Peter Beinart Unbound?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale University.]

Anyone who actually writes anything about Israel that perfect strangers are likely to read had better believe he's got the wisdom, pointillist clarity and courage to unmask others' astigmatism, myopia and bad faith. Too often, though, the would-be Truth-teller, no matter where he stands on a political or religious spectrum, is less wise about Israel than he is driven by swift, dark currents in history and in himself that he may not have explored or even acknowledged.

Fortunately, I alone have gone the distance and exited the hall of broken mirrors and flying brickbats where public discussion of Israel rages. So I can explain, as no one else can, how both Israel's brutal, devious nationalists and its arch, airy universalist scourges are getting everything wrong.

Posting this from a vest-pocket park on Masaryk Street in Tel Aviv, I'm glancing at the Israeli workers, students, and mothers and toddlers taking breaks here or passing through, and I'm also glancing at my laptop whenever the intellectual pinball machine that is the blogosphere lights up with a new explanation of former New Republic editor Peter Beinart's much ballyhooed conversion from his old magazine's Zionist perversity to The New York Review of Books' waspishly busy reprovals of that perversity.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Beinart's pilgrimage began in Lithuania before he was born and ran through Johannesburg long before it took him from Martin Peretz's desk to Robert Silvers'.

When Beinart was at The New Republic, he was an ardent promoter of Joe Lieberman for President in 2004 and a shrieking scourge of anti-Iraq war liberals through 2006. I recount some of this record in a review of his new book The Icarus Syndrome, which bookforum.com has just posted and which I urge you to read for grounding.

Now, in The New York Review, Beinart has come out with an apostate's-over-compensatory ardor against the American Jewish establishment's self-destructive efforts to align public opinion and policy with Israel's ugliest gambits and conceits.

The liberals on my screen, among them TPM's own redoubtable M.J. Rosenberg, an earlier and even more ardent apostate from the Israel Lobby, are touting St. Peter's epiphany on his road from the Council on Foreign Relations and The New Republic to J-Street and The New York Review. I give Beinart my own, more measured, applause in the bookforum.com review.

Sitting here half a kilometer from the spot where Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing religious zealot, I agree with Beinart that Israel's energetically slippery American strategists and its governing coalition in Jerusalem are further isolating and degrading the Jewish state. Yet, looking up from my laptop, I see something that's not on screen or in Beinart's article and book, which barely mentions Israel in its penitential survey of American foreign-policy hubris across a century. Let me try to explain what's missing by saying something about the Israeli civil society I've encountered on this and other visits.

Tel Aviv's many shabby Bauhaus buildings and cheaply built plazas suggest a failed politics and aesthetic as surely as urban renewal efforts have done in many American cities. But while Israel's wistfully modernist dimension has little elegance and even less that's exotic, it has refreshingly less pomp or pretension of the sort one encounters in, say, Vienna. What Israel has instead is an easy elan that's hard to dismiss and is not as compromised as many readers really insist on believing that it is by the racism or militarism that are commonly ascribed to the whole country.

When you've been on your own here (not in a tour group) for even just a few hours (I'm not talking about myself; my first involvement in Arab-Jewish encounters here was in 1969), your aesthetic and moral centers of gravity begin to shift from American pieties and protocols of consumption to the more frank and trustworthy relations of a society whose synapses actually work. For all the growing inequalities, among Jews as well as between Jews and Arabs, that Israel's conservative free-marketeers have pushed under banners of religious nationalism, people aren't living as heavily as Americans do on "need-to-know" networking and courtly ingratiation.

Jews and Arabs walk Israeli streets at any hour with none of the fear of crime that urban Americans have coded into their body language. You can feel that curse lifting by your second day. There is very little binge drinking and alcoholism. Body language tends to be more supple and just plain relaxed. (I've just come from New York, okay?)

There are fewer Rambos because there are fewer loners, and that's because most Israelis are or have been part of a citizen army where no one salutes anyone and everyone knows everyone through others they already know. There's an unadorned, level-headed candor and solidarity in everyday encounters, out of uniform as well as in.

Many Americans would envy Israelis' casual confidence that a stranger will honor a simple request or agreement. The shared civic-republican entitlement and mutual obligation are earned by exposing one's body and life to and for others in ways most of us haven't done. "Life is With People" was the silly title of a schlocky Schocken book about shtetls, but in Israel you feel it in a thick, civic-republican sense that makes the bad architecture seem ancillary or at best ornamental. As your center of gravity shifts, new nerve ends start growing.

Most TPM readers think of the military as too militarizing, especially in places like Israel, and so do I. But the universality of the army here complicates its norms with civilian ones in ways not so easy to parse or condemn. In America the abolition of universal conscription in favor of a volunteer army was actually a conservative master stroke against a civic-republican spirit that had been aroused by a sense of shared public destiny and the outrages of the Vietnam war. There is no doubt about a shared, imminent destiny in Israel, and you needn't be a Zionist to know it.

So people here still get out of their cars and direct traffic to clear up jams without waiting for cops, although it must be added that they are driving like maniacs and paying the price. Employees behind counters think and respond realistically rather than euphemistically to your inquiries and requests, a refreshing contrast to even the best American response, which is usually something like, "No problem," implying that even your simple request was almost a problem for the temp worker who'd been put there to deflect it without any real training or public incentive to solve it.

I am not excusing anything. Israel's unpretentious, reliable public felicity and trust are fraying, and they unravel completely in pretty much the ways they have done at the borders of American Indian reservations and urban ghettos and in the American South, whose civic graces eddied around color bars. Actually, things are more complicated in Israel, owing to conflicting senses of belonging and danger much older and deeper than anything that even paranoid American Tea Partiers can imagine.

To understand the dark side of Zionism you do have to imagine what America would be like if it had had thousands of suicide bombings, proportionate to the 250 or so that drove Israel nearly crazy in the middle of the last decade but that Israel's critics never ponder. And yet, for all the paranoia, there was more than enough civic indignation in Israel last week to force Netanyahu's bone-heads to rescind their barring of the 81-year-old Noam Chomsky from entering the West Bank to teach at the Palestinian Birzeit University.

You can moralize about this, or you can think and take a stand, which many people did, and that is something else. Chomsky embarrassed Netanyahu anyway by declining the new offer of admission and delivering his talk by video from Amman. Bully for him. I am not giving this government any credit for letting Chomsky enter the West Bank; in George Bush's America a few years ago, Chomsky had "no problem" addressing an auditorium full of cadets at West Point.

Yet I'm wary of broad-brushing Israelis any more harshly than we ourselves would have wanted to be when Bush was our president and the Iraq War was emblematic of our country's national security strategy. Should our universities have been boycotted by the rest of the world, our scholars disinvited by other countries, on account of our brutal foreign policies? Weren't we all implicated, since Bush had won in 2004 by a more decisive margin than Netanyahu would five years later? Shouldn't a boycott like the one proposed against Israeli universities have been proposed with extra vigor against Britain's under Tony Blair? Why wasn't it? Don't Americans and Britons have a lot more to answer for?

Again, I am not excusing anything. Israel has never seemed to me more sad and disgusting than when Ehud Olmert touted it as America's junior partner in George Bush's war on terror or when it has mimicked Americans' gluttonous consumerism or Singapore's go-go, lockstep capitalism, which got it admitted last week by unanimous vote to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even the almost perfectly idiomatic if faintly neo-connish American English of Benjamin Netanyahu, who grew up in Washington diplomatic and academic circles, is as cloyingly off-putting as the patter of an Anglophile Jew who's trying to get something for nothing by pretending to be something he isn't.

Such postures evoke everything foreseen by Hannah Arendt, who assisted solicitously at Israel's birth and worked for world Jewish organizations for many years but warned in the 1950s that if Israelis "continue to ignore [partnerships with neighboring] Mediterranean peoples and watch out only for the big, faraway powers, they will appear only as... the agents of foreign and hostile interests. Jews who know their own history should be aware that... the anti-Semitism of tomorrow will assert that Jews not only profiteered from the presence of the foreign big powers... but had actually plotted it and hence are guilty of the consequences...

"The big nations that can afford to play the game of power politics have found it easy to forsake King Arthur's Round Table for the poker table," Arendt continued; "but the small, powerless nations [the Jews in Palestine] that venture their own stakes in that game, and try to mingle with the big, usually end by being sold down the river."

Beinart invokes Arendt, who nettles myopic neo-cons so much that they sputter every few years over her supposed betrayals of the Jewish people. They cannot acknowledge or review the brilliant collection of her Jewish Writings, edited by her literary executors Jerome Kohn and Elisabeth Young-Bruhl, from which the above excerpt is taken. Adam Kirsch couldn't do it a few weeks ago in the New York Times as he went out of his way to tie the sometime Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger about Arendt's neck - but not about the necks of Heidegger's other Jewish adepts, including Leo Strauss, whose philosophy was more Heideggerian than hers.

Like Arendt, Beinart the scourge of Israel's apologists nettles The New Republic's Jonathan Chait, an often-reasonable and likeable apologist for too much that Israel has done wrong. It is Chait who observed, on my screen here in a Tel Aviv park, that Beinart's AIPAC-bashing is "overwrought" because he hasn't outgrown the jejune idealism and moralism that made him declare a "liberal" war on Islamo-fascism in 2006. Beinart's bellicosity heartened neo-conservatives even though he tried to distance his war-whooping and left-bashing from their war whooping and left-bashing.

Chait casts Beinart's 180-degree turn now in terms reminiscent of the aphorism, les extremes touchent, meaning that a spectrum's ideological poles sometimes have more in common with each other than with the middling positions in between. Stalinists become neo-cons without altering anything in their cankered and bitter psychology. Similarly, Beinart, yesterday's American hegemonic warrior against the multilateralist, anti-nationalist left, becomes Beinart, today's apostle of multilateralism against the nationalist, power-politicking right. His moralism doesn't abate, because he sustains it more to restore his own good odor than to persuade ordinary American Jews or the ordinary Israelis around me in the park.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg notes that "the essay's placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart's goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it. Who is he trying to convince? Timothy Garton Ash? Peter should have published this essay on Tablet, or some other sort of publication not associated with Tony Judt's disproportionate hatred of Jewish nationalism."

The supreme irony for Beinart is that the extremes at both ends of the Israel controversy touch each other within him, because he embodies both of their ethno-cultural inflections. In the Israel controversy's public discourse and bare-knuckled politics, it's predominantly the descendants of Russian and Eastern European Jews -- whether they're American neoconservatives like Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol or members of the Knesset like Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman -- who drive the cankered, bitter, increasingly fascistic Jewish nationalism, with its opportunistic abuses of religion and its cold rage against any social-welfarism that reminds it even fleetingly of the Communist totalitarianism that some of them escaped.

At the other extreme of the controversy, it's Britons -- and British Jews unlucky enough to have internalized British stereotypes of themselves in their formative years -- who dominate the cankered, bitter, obsessive, and hypocritically fine-spun loathing of Israel. Political decay, impotence and bitterness slither out of people in peculiar ways, and, for too many Brits, who have so much more to regret and apologize for and so much bottomless hypocrisy to plumb, the anguish of decline slithers out against the Jews in eerily disembodied, oddly passionless ways:

How odd of God to Choose the Jews, runs a characteristically disdainful verse by the 20th Century British journalist William Norman Ewer.

To which my own riposte is, Moses, Jesus, Spinoza; Marx, Einstein, and Freud; no wonder the gentiles are annoyed.

British Jews who got the Ewer line's hooks in their guts in their early years seem condemned to writhe with it, much as American blacks who internalized a standard of idealized whiteness that denigrated them turned it toward vicious detestation of darker-skinned blacks, and much as German Jews who'd internalized an idealized German kultur loathed greasy, furtive Ostjuden from... Russia and Eastern Europe. Here - and let us not mince words - we are talking about self-hatred, which is a cold, fine-spun, exacting usurper of sound judgment.

Beinart's ancestors came from Lithuania, but before World War I they migrated not to the U.S. but to South Africa. In the interwar years of Wilsonian nationalist awakening, other Lithuanian Jews saw what was rising around them in their home of 500 years and opted for Zionism, transforming their ancestral, liturgical Hebrew into an old/new language and migrating to Palestine in the 1920s and 30s. Still others opted for the more universal promise of Communism in Europe and Russia, and yet others for capitalist opportunity in America. Those who stayed put were slaughtered by the tens of thousands by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian recruits in the summer of 1941.

Some Lithuanian-Jewish Communists came to America and South Africa, among them Joseph Slovo, a founder of the African National Congress, and some of their children became ANC sympathizers, like the young Ian Shapiro, now a political scientist at Yale. And some of these leftists became neo-conservatives in the manner I've mentioned.

Beinart's family and most other South African Jews weren't leftists. They came seeking bourgeois opportunity and freedom from persecution. But in South Africa they internalized the idealized British standards I've mentioned, and few were immune to internalizing the "odd" but unrelenting British discomfort and pretended bemusement about Jews.

All this prompts many a British Jew's own efforts at expiation and projection. Even young Beinart, although he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and attended the Buckingham Brown and Nichols School and then Yale, where he was influenced by the Jewish nationalist political theorist Steven Smith, eventually spent a year at Oxford reckoning with whatever aspirations and insecurities the Brits of South Africa had implanted in his parents and, through them, in him.

This is, of course, a recipe for the unsavory stew of aspirations and fears we encountered in his writings and his trajectory as I sketch them briefly in bookforum.

Although I don't share their positions, Chait and Goldberg have a point: Beinart, like the estimable Tony Judt, himself a British Jew, is right in principle about Israel's worst apologists, but he overstates his case for reasons having more to do with swift, dark currents in history and himself than with the complicated realities in Israel and Palestine.

Again, I'm not excusing anything. There are plenty of dark, swift currents here. I'm just looking at hundreds of decent, ordinary people and deciding that there are better ways than Beinart's to be right

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