05.18.10

Love Israel? Criticize It

The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart, responding to attacks on his recent essay, says those who love Israel as a liberal democratic Jewish state should be furious with the country today—not ignore or explain away its faults.

The prime minister of Israel has repeatedly compared the establishment of a Palestinian state to the Holocaust. His foreign minister, and protégé, has flirted with advocating the physical expulsion of Israeli Arabs. The spiritual leader of his government's fourth-largest party has called for politicians who advocate ceding territory to the Palestinians to be struck dead. West Bank settlements are growing at triple the rate of the Israeli population, and according to a recent Tel Aviv University poll, 80 percent of religious Jewish Israeli high schoolers would refuse orders to dismantle them. One-third of Jewish Israelis favor pardoning Yigal Amir, the man who murdered Yitzhak Rabin.

I hate writing these words. I was raised to love Israel, and I will teach my children to love it. But we don't get to choose what is true. And if you love Israel not only because it is a Jewish state but also because it is a liberal democratic Jewish state, a state that strives to embody the best in the Jewish ethical tradition, there is only one decent response to these truths: fury. If you're not angry, you're either not paying attention or you don't care.

Powerful forces in Israel are making the establishment of a Palestinian state impossible, ever, and that the more impossible it becomes, the more mainstream a view physical expulsion will become.

That's the problem with organizations like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Morally, they have neutered themselves. They claim to admire Israel not only for its Jewishness but also for its democratic values, and yet they will not defend those values, even when the Israelis most committed to them scream that they are under siege. To a lesser degree, it is also the problem with my old friend Jonathan Chait of The New Republic, a gifted writer and thinker who does occasionally condemn Israel's actions, but with so much rationalization and minimization that he usually ends up more critical of the people criticizing Israeli abuses than of the abuses themselves. Yes, it's unfortunate that Israel's current government has fascist characteristics (don't take my word for it; that's the assessment of renowned Hebrew University fascism scholar Ze'ev Sternhell). Yes, it's regrettable that two former Israeli prime ministers have recently warned that if Israel doesn't stop settlement growth, it risks becoming an "apartheid state." Now can we get back to bashing J Street?

Peter Beinart: Why Israel Has to Do BetterJon's recent critique of my New York Review of Books essay " The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" is a case in point. After a long, non-sequitur attack on an essay I wrote six years ago that has nothing to do with Israel, he gets to his main point: that the political trends in the Jewish state aren't really that bad. After all, he notes, "it was not that long ago that left-of-center governments governed Israel." Actually, it's been almost a decade since Ehud Barak was voted from office. Since then, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu has become Israel's third largest party, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, has swung hard against territorial compromise, and settlers have burrowed deeper into the Israeli bureaucracy, army, and rabbinate. Yes, Israel could still elect a prime minister like Tzipi Livni who, unlike past Kadima prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, probably qualifies as center-left. But my point was that even a center-left prime minister will find it harder than before to assemble a coalition for territorial withdrawal, and to actually carry out that withdrawal, because the number of settlers has risen dramatically in the last decade, and because three of Israel's largest political parties (Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Shas) are now deeply committed to the settlement project as opposed to one (Likud) a decade ago. If Jon thinks that this analysis is "somewhat overwrought," he should try reading the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the flagship newspaper of Israeli liberalism, sometime. It publishes more overwrought things every single day.

Jon also thinks I'm too tough on Benjamin Netanyahu, since the prime minister has now stated that he supports a Palestinian state, and that proves that "Israeli politics have changed since 1993 such that Netanyahu's old rejectionism is no longer tenable." But Netanyahu maintained his old rejectionism right through the 2009 election, and through his efforts to form a government. In fact, his refusal to say he supported a Palestinian state is a major reason that Livni's Kadima would not join his coalition. Under intense American pressure, he finally mouthed the words, while adding poison pills like his demand that Palestinians not merely recognize Israel but recognize it as a "Jewish state." As Livni herself put it, "Netanyahu doesn't really believe that two states, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, even a demilitarized one, is an Israeli interest. But…he understood that at this stage he needs to utter the words." So what exactly is Jon celebrating, except perhaps that we have an American president willing to spend political capital to pressure Israel? Too bad TNR thinks that is a bad idea.

Then come the diversions. Jon says I wrote that Palestinians "wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders." Actually, as one of the commentators on his own blog noted, I made no such claim. Rather, I attributed that position to many secular and younger American Jews. My own view is that Palestinian public opinion shifts depending on the prospects for a Palestinian state. But what is Jon's point? I never suggested that the Palestinians were blameless, or even that it is realistic to establish a Palestinian state tomorrow. My argument is that powerful forces in Israel are making the establishment of a Palestinian state impossible, ever, and that the more impossible it becomes, the more mainstream a view physical expulsion will become. It's telling that Jon doesn't grapple with that argument at all.

Jon goes on to defend the AIPAC-led campaign against Human Rights Watch, which he calls "unfair" and "obsessive" in its criticism of Israel. He has a rather loose definition of "obsessive," since the very New Republic hit-piece he calls "devastating" acknowledges that several Middle Eastern countries garner more criticism from the group than does Israel. But again, he ignores my basic point, which is that Human Rights Watch is no tougher on the Israeli government than are a host of Israeli human rights organizations, and that the effort to delegitimize international human rights criticism is intimately connected to the Israeli government's effort to delegitimize, if not outright censor, domestic human rights criticism. This is what Sternhell has called the Netanyahu government's "crude and multifaceted campaign" against "the foundations of the democratic and liberal order." And Jon does not engage the subject.

Finally, Jon speculates that "young Jews' indifference toward Israel is overwhelmingly a function of their weakening ties to Judaism itself." Of course, assimilation plays a role. In referring to the young American Jews who might revive liberal Zionism in the United States, the last line of my piece was "I hope they care enough to try." But in his focus groups, Frank Luntz found that the best way to make young, secular American Jews identify with Israel was, in fact, to link Israel to their belief in free expression, human rights, and peace. That requires introducing them to those Israelis struggling to sustain Israeli democracy, people like David Grossman, Yaron Ezrahi, Akiva Eldar, and the students protesting at Sheikh Jarrah, people who love Israel enough to speak in anger about what is happening to it. Jon should try it sometime.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.