A Review of Reviews

Peter Beinart has weighed in.  His polemic, The Crisis of Zionism, is a plea for a moderated US foreign policy towards a wayward Israel that’s careening in a perilously illiberal direction and, more profoundly, for a re-imagined Zionism that embraces the righteous principles that most of its early adherents championed.  Now the critics have weighed in on Beinart.  It ain’t pretty.

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens is scathing.  Referencing Beinart’s book, Stephens says his is a “false prophesy,” riddled with errors of omission and commission.  It’s also pathetically maudlin and derivative.  Stephens responds to Bienart’s list of particulars about the Jewish state with an exaggerated rhetorical yawn.  The settlements; the “flawed democracy;” the demographic time bomb–it’s all old hat, repackaged in a cloyingly unoriginal way.  In Stephens’ barely veiled estimation, Beinart is a Pitshetsh, a chronic complainer in Yiddish.  Or perhaps just a shtik drek, a shithead.

Jonathan Rosen of Nextbook is equally dismissive.  In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Rosen claims Beinart is “especially good at invoking facts as a way of dismissing them.”  Rosen also accuses Beinart of overemphasizing Israel’s ability to reach an accommodation with its recalcitrant neighbors, minimizing threats to the Jewish state, and coming perilously close to repeating anti-Semitic tropes, like that of a formidable yet unseen Jewish power.

Gary Rosenblatt of The Jewish Week of New York is a bit more charitable, but he also criticizes The Crisis of Zionism for “oversimplifying” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It’s not Israel’s intransigence that prevents peace, Rosenblatt tells NPR’s Terry Gross.  “Israel’s real problem is dealing with people who don’t want a Jewish state in the region.”

Even generally laudatory reviewers like Jacob Heilbrunn of the National Interest, who calls Beinart brave and courageous, faults The Crisis of Zionism for lacking balance.  “[Beinart] does not sufficiently take into account Israel’s own strategic dilemmas, including the threat of terrorism from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Lebanon…Nor does Beinart expound about Iran.”  Nor the Palestinians more generally, it might be added. 

Consider a recent poll conducted by American pollster Stanley Greenberg and the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion that found that two-thirds of Palestinians would accept a two-state solution, but with the hope of eventually replacing Israel with a single Palestinian state.  While such results can be read in many ways, Beinart is not terribly interested in contemplating Palestinian responsibility for their plight.   

In some ways this makes sense.  Israel, after all, is the stronger party (the occupational power) and, as such, bears more blame for its intractable conflict with the Palestinians.  And, of course, Beinart’s book is entitled The Crisis of Zionism, not The Crisis of Palestinian Nationalism, so naturally his focus is on the actions of the Jewish state and its unquestioning supporters rather than the behavior of Israel’s antagonists.  Regardless, more equanimity would have strengthened his case.

But what’s most striking about the ruckus over The Crisis of Zionism is not what’s said in the book but rather what goes unsaid by its critics.  Beinart’s book highlights a series of worryingly punitive laws restricting dissent in Israel, such as legislation allowing Jewish settlers in the West Bank to sue Israelis who promote boycotts of their products.  He also chronicles hateful and intolerant rhetoric of leading Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Netanyahu who approvingly quotes notable historical figures expressing hateful views of Arabs; and Foreign Minster Avigdor Lieberman who has endorsed “right-sizing the state,” by which he means unilaterally redrawing Israel’s borders to exile hundreds of thousands of its Arabs citizens.

But all this goes unmentioned by Beinart’s critics.  Nary a peep is uttered about it or, more generally, the rise of “Revisionist Zionism” embraced by Netanyahu, Lieberman, amongst others, which rejects universal values, unlike traditional Zionism.  “The Bible says ‘thou shalt no oppress a stranger; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt,’” Revisionist hero Vladimir Jabotinsky wrote in 1910.  “Contemporary morality has no place for such childish humanism.”

The conspicuous silence is no coincidence.  A cult of perceived Jewish victimhood borne from millennia of actual victimization has taken root, inhibiting some supporters of the Jewish state from seeing it as anything but a besieged island incapable of having responsibility beyond that shared by all Jewish people: to simply survive.  Historian David Biale calls the cult of victimhood a “consoling myth.”  Beinart, meanwhile, identifies it as a threat to Zionism and, more critically, to the Jewish state itself.  For their part, Beinart’s critics predictably cry foul.  Beinert, they remonstrate in unison, grotesquely blames the victim—a telling accusation that inadvertently confirms that Zionism, shorn of its idealist roots and incapable of self-examination, is indeed in crisis.

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