Murray Polner: Review of Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism” (Henry Holt, 2012)


Murray Polner, a book reviewer for the History News Network, was editor of Present Tense, a magazine published by the American Jewish Committee from 1973 until 1990, wrote Rabbi: The American Experience, and co-edited, with Stefan Merken, Peace, Justice & Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition.

Peter Beinart is an American Jewish writer who attends an Orthodox synagogue. In The Crisis of Zionism he breaks ranks with the long-established American Jewish guardians of everything Israel does and says about war, peace and justice.

Beinart is a former New Republic editor and now Daily Beast blogger/writer and City University of New York professor whose book was preceded by his earlier essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in the New York Review of Books, where he wrote “In the American Jewish establishment today, the language of liberal Zionism—with its idioms of human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromise has been drained of meaning.”

Beinart takes aim at growing anti-democratic tendencies inside Netanyahu’s Israel (more thoroughly covered in Gershom Gorenberg’s withering Israel Unmasked) and how the wealthy, politically sophisticated organized American Jewish community—by no means a majority of American Jews—has sought to silence criticism of Israel. Beinart’s book will no doubt be assailed as encouraging anti-Semitism and growing (at least as they see it) anti-Israel voices that could persuade some to question their party line. (Jack Ross’s brilliant Rabbi Outcast, largely ignored by reviewers, tracks the history of long-forgotten, largely rabbinic, American anti-Zionism). Beinart also wonders why so many non-Orthodox American Jews, most of whom are unaffiliated with any Jewish groups and who gave Obama 78 percent of their vote in 2008, remain silent, giving free reign for Israel’s unquestioning defenders to denounce critics.

Perhaps that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the U.S. Congress in May 2011 received twenty-nine standing ovations from both sides of the aisle. It was as if the Messiah had finally arrived, at least in Washington. In March 2012 he was again hailed as he arrived in the U.S. hoping to force the U.S. into attacking Iran, which he charged was building a nuclear bomb and was an “existential” threat to Israel.

According to Beinart, older American Jewish organizations have, in addition to fighting anti-Semitism, abandoned their historic defense of working people, minority rights, civil liberties and democracy. Now it is Israel almost all the time. It was the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a former U.S. 10th Mountain Division ski paratrooper who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart during WWII and later became head of Reform Jewry’s largest religious organization, who early on criticized the transformation to a “kidney machine,” which was designed to reinforce the attachment to Israel and keep the checks rolling in.

By concentrating primarily on Israel’s welfare and policies, says Beinart, the American donor is “contributing to a public Jewish tragedy. What he is buying for Israel, with his check, is American indifference—indifference to Palestinian suffering and indifference to the principles of Israel’s declaration of independence. When Israel subsidizes Jews to move across the green line or imprisons Palestinians for protesting nonviolently in the West Bank or makes it illegal to boycott settlement goods, he helps ensure that the American government will not care.”

Today AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (some of its constituent groups have few or no members), pose as the voice of American Jewry, which they are not. Meanwhile, their sympathizers track dissenters, parsing every word, every sentence, indeed everyone of note who dares to publicly criticize Israeli policies. Skeptics are accused of “delegitimizing” Israel. Jews who think differently are berated as “self-hating Jews.”

The late historian Tony Judt, who was Jewish, once wrote that he thought the best solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict was a bi-national and secular state. He also condemned the seizure of Palestinian lands in the West Bank. For this and other offenses he was denied the right to speak when two influential organizational figures intimidated his hosts into withdrawing their invitations. Playwright Tony Kushner was almost denied an award because one detractor found his views wanting. There are many more examples. More recently, M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC employee turned Media Matters columnist and critic, has been assailed but refuses to be bullied about his opposition to war with Iran. “The first step,” he responded after one attack, “is continuing to shine a light on their [Iran war agitators] activities. That is what I do.”

Zionism was founded as a political reaction against persistent European anti-Semitism and murderous pogroms. Early European Zionists taught it was better for Jews to have a home of their own as a desperately needed haven. Though opposed by the Jewish Bund and non- and anti-Zionists, (the former identified with working-class socialism, the ultra-Orthodox believing that only the Messiah’s arrival could herald a return to the Holy Land and still others maintained Judaism was a religion, not a political movement), Zionism’s founding fathers, many of them socialists too, established what they hoped would become a home for world Jewry. Israel’s Jewish population has since been augmented with the arrival of Holocaust survivors and Sephardic and Russian immigrants. But after the capture of the West Bank in 1967 and the influx of Jewish settlers, now numbering some 400,000, democracy is under attack by right-wingers and extremists.

As a result, anti-democratic trends within Israel and the West Bank, concludes Beinart, “in which the illiberal Zionism beyond the green line destroys the possibility of liberal Zionism inside it [and] not only breeds intolerance toward Arab Israelis; it also breeds intolerance toward dissident Jewish Israelis.”

The heart of the problem as he sees it is that Israeli and American Jews are no longer victims. “At the core of the tragedy lies the refusal to accept that in both America and Israel, we live in an age not of Jewish weakness, but of Jewish power, and that without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else.”

It is hard to know what, precisely, Zionism means today. Fulfillment of biblical prophesies? A constant reminder that we must never forget a cruel history of persecution? Encouraging non-Israeli Jews to quit their homes and live in Israel? A light unto the world? Or has the world’s first Zionist nation become no more than just another colonial power controlling a subject people, and thus emptying Zionism of any meaning or purpose?

Beinart and many other American Jewish critics will not easily be ostracized or silenced. Nor can an increasing number of newer American Jewish groups such as J Street, American Friends of Peace Now, B’Tselem USA; Shalom Center, Tikkun, Jewish Voices for Peace as well as an army of Internet bloggers.

Peter Beinart’s extraordinary book deserves to be widely read and publicly debated.

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