Response

04.17.12

A Response to Jonathan Rosen

The telling thing about Jonathan Rosen’s New York Times review of my book, The Crisis of Zionism, is the lack of quotes. It’s much easier to turn a book into a cartoon when you ignore the text.

Rosen says that I label “many” of Israel’s “leaders racist,” and leaves it there, as if I were simply spewing insults. In fact, I’m careful not to call any Israeli prime minister “racist,” including the current one.

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Frenemies: President Obama and Benjamin Netayahu have been on a colossal collision course since the start of their political careers

What I do is quote from Benjamin Netanyahu’s book, A Durable Peace—reissued in 2009—in which Netanyahu approvingly cites Winston Churchill as saying, “Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine,” and in which he approvingly cites another former British former colonial official, Richard Meinertzhagen, as saying, “The Arab is a poor fighter, though an adept at looting, sabotage and murder.”

I also quote Netanyahu as saying early in his political career that “the Arabs know only force” and as boasting in 2007 that one of the “positive” effects of the cuts in child welfare spending that he oversaw as Ariel Sharon’s finance minister “was the demographic effect on the non-Jewish public, where there was a dramatic drop in the birth rate.”

Never do I claim that those statements make Netanyahu a racist. But I do think they reflect a disturbing lack of respect for Israel’s Arab citizens, one that is particularly worrisome given the urgent need to counter the growing alienation many Arab Israelis feel toward the state in which they live. Does Rosen disagree? Who knows, since he ignores what my book actually says.

Similarly, Rosen says that I depict “Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza not as a gut-wrenching act of desperation but as a cynical ploy to continue the occupation by other means.” I agree that for many Israelis the dismantling of settlements in Gaza (which is not the same as “withdrawal,” since the United States government still defines Gaza as Israeli-occupied) was indeed gut-wrenching. But I also quote Ariel Sharon’s influential chief of staff, Dov Weissglas, as saying, “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that peace process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

I think other Israeli leaders—notably Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert—did try to create a Palestinian state on the vast majority of the West Bank. But I don’t think that was Sharon’s goal is dismantling the settlements in Gaza, and I quote not only Weissglas, but Sharon himself, to prove my case. Does Rosen think my evidence is wrong? Who knows, since again, he never even acknowledges it?

It goes on like this. Rosen says that I “belittle those who harp on a Hamas charter that calls for the destruction of Israel.” No, I say that “discussing the Hamas charter is important; people should read it.” But I criticize American Jewish organizations for never acknowledging more recent statements by Hamas’s top leaders, including the claims by Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniya that if the Palestinians vote in a referendum to accept the two-state solution, Hamas will accept their will.

I go on to say that “of course” these newer statements should not be taken at face value, “especially since Hamas continues to make statements hostile to Israel’s existence.” My point is not that Hamas is benign, but that its current stance towards Israel is more ambiguous than American Jewish leaders admit. Yet Rosen does exactly what I accuse those leaders of. He simply ignores evidence that doesn’t confirm his view.

Rosen says that I “play down the magnitude of the Palestinian demand for a right of return” for refugees. Actually, I write that “when American Jewish groups say that at Camp David the Palestinian leaders wanted a Palestinian state but not a Jewish one, the refugee issue is the best evidence they have.” But I also note that two Israeli negotiators at Camp David, Gilead Sher and Yossi Beilin, have suggested that Yasir Arafat would have accepted a symbolic “right” of return without an actual mass movement of refugees back to pre-1967 Israel, especially if he had gained control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Again, as I note in my book, the evidence is ambiguous. But not for Rosen, who breezes by that ambiguity by ignoring what my book actually says.

Rosen says that I advocate “a boycott of people and products from beyond Israel’s 1967 eastern border.” First of all, Israel has no “border” with the West Bank; you have borders with countries. What Israel has is an armistice line. Second, claiming that I propose boycotting “people and products beyond Israel’s 1967 eastern border” is wrong because East Jerusalem lies east of the 1967 line and I explicitly exempt it from any boycott. Third, Rosen fails to mention that I would support a boycott of West Bank goods only if it were coupled with some commensurate act of investment in what I call “democratic Israel.” Yet again, Rosen sneers at my book without honestly depicting what it actually says.

Then there’s the guilt by association. Rosen says I “employ several formulations favored by anti-Semites.” One of them is that “privately, American Jews revel in Jewish power.” Has Rosen never heard American Jews proudly recount the number of Jews on the Supreme Court, in the Cabinet, and in the presidencies of the Ivy League? If so, the people he encounters at synagogue, Shabbat meals, and Jewish day schools are very different from the ones I’ve been mingling with my entire adult life. He calls “grotesque” my claim that “in the 1970s, American Jewish organizations began hoarding the Holocaust.”

My point, illustrated with numerous examples, is that in the 1970s American Jewish groups began describing the Holocaust less as a horror that could happen to any group of people and more as an example of the eternal hatred of gentiles toward Jews. Does Rosen deny that such a shift occurred? Does he celebrate or regret it? Who knows, because he waves away the entire discussion with the epithet “grotesque.”

Similarly, Rosen suggests that I am in league with anti-Semites because I suggest that the desire to avoid conflict with organizations like AIPAC restrained the Obama administration from more aggressively pushing peace talks. But I illustrate that claim with two full chapters of anecdotes and quotations, many drawn from interviews with administration officials, congressional staffers, and figures from the organized American Jewish world. The idea that groups like AIPAC help shape American policy toward Israel does indeed fuel the mania of anti-Semites; it also happens to be true. Rosen ignores the latter part because, yet again, he ignores the evidence in my book.     

By ignoring what I actually say, Rosen makes my book sound one-sided when it’s not. Reading his review, you’d never know that I criticize the Palestinians. In fact, I call Arafat a “corrupt and tyrannical” leader whose role in the second intifada constituted a “crime.” I call Palestinian terrorism “grotesque” and give gory details of the hideous murders of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah in 2000 and of the young Fogel children in the settlement of Itamar in 2011.

Reading Rosen’s review, you’d never know that I think Israel has anything to be proud of. In fact, I write that Israel’s Arab citizens “enjoy individual rights like freedom of speech, assembly and worship. They sit in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and on its Supreme Court. Arab Israelis also enjoy the kind of group rights for which many ethnic and religious minorities yearn…In a nation that has lived since its creation with the ever-present threat of war—a strain that would have countries less nourished by liberal ideals into police states—these are impressive accomplishments...Certainly, no American familiar with the way the United States government treated German Americans during World War I, Japanese Americans during World War II, or even Muslim Americans during the ‘war on terror’—during wars, that, unlike Israel’s, mostly took place thousands of miles from America’s shores—has any cause for sanctimony.”

Most fundamentally of all, Rosen ignores my contention that by holding millions of West Bank Palestinians as non-citizens, and building settlements that eat away at the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, Israel is imperiling its democratic character. That simple, and unoriginal, fear lies at heart of The Crisis of Zionism. Does Rosen share it? He never lets on because in addition to persistently ignoring the specific factual claims in my book, he ignores the book’s central argument. It’s easier to sneer that way.