Is Archliberal Peter Beinart Good for the Jews?

Peter Beinart is on a crusade to save the patrimony of liberal Zionism in Israel and America. In a wide-ranging interview, the charismatic author slams the American Jewish establishment and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also talks about his latest book, which is already provoking controversy.

NEW YORK CITY If Israel does not survive as a Jewish democratic state, I want to be able to tell my children that I did what little Im capable of. Im a writer, so what I can do is to try to sound an alarm. I just want to be able to say that to them.

The man speaking is Peter Beinart, the journalist, essayist and author who became American Jewrys most prominent prophet of doom following the publication of his 2010 article, The Failure of the Jewish Establishment. It is a role that will now be cemented in stone with the publication of his new book The Crisis of Zionism, in which he calls on American Jews to defend the dream of a democratic Jewish state before it is too late.

Peter Beinart
Dan Keinan

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Part of the problem in the American Jewish community is that people worry too much about what their aunt Esther and what the right-wing guy who they sit with at shul are going to say, and not enough about what their children are going to say, Beinart tells me in an interview at his office at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can disagree with my analysis, thats fine. But if you agree with my analysis of the situation, then that is what you worry about. You worry about how youre going to explain to the next generation that we squandered this patrimony.

Beinart - Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images - MArch 23, 2012
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

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The patrimony that Beinart is referring to, of course, is that of liberal Zionism, in both Israel and America. It is the legacy that Beinart cited in his controversial New York Times article this week which called for a boycott of settlements and which elicited a firestorm of condemnation and criticism. Beinart is on a crusade, if you will, to save the birthright of liberal American Jews, and his two main culprits – the enemies with whom he is doing battle – are the American Jewish establishment, which blindly follows right-wing Israeli policies, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who orchestrates them.

As far as Beinart is concerned, it is Netanyahu who is leading the Jewish people astray by misinterpreting historical precedents and misapplying them to the present. It is Netanyahu who has converted the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying organization, and recruited Christian Evangelicals to support his right-wing anti-liberal agendas. It is Netanyahu, aided and abetted by these very same American supporters, who has derailed President Barack Obamas Middle East peace policies, a move that could go down as a historical tragedy, Beinart asserts.

His arrogance and his intellectual insularity remind me of the worst of American politics in the Bush era, he says. This idea that because hes done some reading about the 1930s and 1940s, nobody understands history better than him, is intellectually sophomoric, you know? This constant putting of everything that Netanyahu encounters into the Holocaust analogy, first the Palestinians and now Iran, is the worst form of policymaking. His line that no one knows history beyond what he had for breakfast is [Dick] Cheney-esque, really. And it drives me up the wall.

Throughout Beinarts texts, speeches and interviews, it is clear that most everything that Netanyahu says or does drives him up the wall. Netanyahu is the arch villain, the embodiment of everything that has gone wrong with the Zionism that Beinart swears allegiance to. One of the reasons for this fixation, Beinart readily admits, is the fact that Netanyahu is so American that he plays so skillfully in the American political arena. That he is for many Democrats, as Beinart says, the Republican senator from New York. And it is in this context that Beinart offers what is, for this writer at least, one of the more incisive insights of his new book, an eye-opener that, admittedly, may not be accurate but is nonetheless spectacularly original.

A nasty world

According to Beinart, Netanyahus mistrust and dislike for Obama do not stem from the fact that the president is a Democrat, or a liberal, and definitely not because he is black, god forbid, or because his middle name is Hussein.

No, Netanyahu distrusts Obama because Obama reminds him of Jews. And not just any Jews, but leftist Jews the Jews that Netanyahu detests, the kind of Jews that Netanyahu once famously told an Israeli rabbi have forgotten what it is to be Jews.

What really struck me when I read his writings and that of his father Benzion, and then about the Revisionist tradition, is this belief that the world is a very nasty place, and the Jews are in danger because they dont recognize its nastiness. Because theyve gotten this crazy idea that theyre supposed to be better than everybody else. And that this is deep in our history, its something that has emerged over hundreds and hundreds of years in the Diaspora and weve got to get rid of it. Weve got to become like everybody else.

Obama, according to Beinart, is a product of this Jewish worldview that Netanyahu rejects. He is a Jewish president, as Beinart relates in his book, heavily influenced by liberal, leftist tikkun olam Jews (i.e., who believe in repairing the world), who came out of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam protests and among whom Obama lived, worked and thrived as he launched his political career in Chicago. And Netanyahu, so well versed in the ways of America, knows full well where Obama is coming from: a quintessentially Jewish place that frightens and alienates the Israeli prime minister, Beinart says. And it is to thwart this Jewish-inspired worldview of Obamas, especially as it pertains to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that Netanyahu has enlisted Jewish Americas most powerful agent of influence, AIPAC.

Whats wrong with AIPAC?

There is nothing wrong with the people themselves. Most AIPAC people are not ideological. They dont see themselves as right wing. Theyre mostly moderate Democrats. They just want to do something for Israel. They want to feel connected to Israel. They go to their synagogue dinner, they go to the Federation dinner, and they go to the AIPAC dinner. But I disagree with AIPACs definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. Obviously, they have every right to be involved and engaged, and I feel ambivalent – because theres a part of me, as a Jew, who, when I look at the AIPAC conference, says: Wow, were good. Who else could do this? I feel the same way when I see the list of Nobel Prize winners.

But the AIPAC conference is a fantasy of power without responsibility. The whole AIPAC ethos is about the Jewish experience of power. Youre a dentist in Cleveland. Your dad was a liquor-store owner in the Bronx. Your grandfather was a peddler in Riga. Your uncles and aunts and cousins were massacred in the Shoah. Nobody gave a shit about you. You come to AIPAC, and all the politicians come to tell you how great you are, and to tell you what you want to hear. For WASPs, it wouldnt be such a powerful experience. For Jews, especially older Jews, its a very powerful experience, especially when you tell people that youre using this power to save the Jewish people in the way that your parents and grandparents couldnt in the 1940s.

But the problem is, its only a narrative of power and survival. Its not a narrative of power and ethical responsibility. And thats a point I try to make in the book: Whats missing from the American Jewish conversation is a recognition that our tradition has something to teach us about the responsibility of power and the capacity to abuse power, and we dont see that in the Israel debate.

It is this attempt to eradicate the Jewish imperative for moral responsibility which, according to Beinart, is also a major reason for Netanyahus appeal to the Christian Evangelical right and its support for Israel, which Beinart describes as an unmitigated disaster.

They fit so well with Bibi, he says, because Bibi wants a Zionism and a Judaism that kicks to the side any notion of the Jews having a special ethical mission, and thats what the Christians want as well ... Do you know why they love Israel? Because they see themselves in a global struggle against Islam, and they believe that whats great about Israel is that Israel is taking it to the Muslims. Well, thats not what I love about Israel.

Rallying cry

Beinarts rallying cry to fight for the Israel he loves, and his harsh attack on those he views as undermining it, were the backdrop to his groundbreaking May 2010 article in the prestigious New York Review of Books, which catapulted him into his current status as the main ideologue of American Jewish liberals. The article took the American Jewish world by storm to a degree that surprised Beinart himself. It lambasted the Jewish establishment for driving away young and liberal Jews, for failing to stand up for human rights and democracy in Israel and in the territories, and for betraying the historical values of liberal American Zionism.

For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionisms door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead. Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.

Beinarts article was well written and well argued, but what turned it into such a sensation was its impeccable timing. He expressed, often with polemical hammer blows, what many Jews had been feeling in mid-2010. His message spread like wildfire in Jewish intelligentsia, among people who were increasingly dismayed by the undeniable contradiction between Obamas 2008 election and his liberal agenda, which they had fervently endorsed, and the values and voices that were emanating from Israel in the wake of Netanyahus 2009 election: Avigdor Lieberman, settler violence, antidemocratic legislation, insularity abroad and intolerance at home.

Beinart was tapping into the same kind of frustration with the status quo that had led to the establishment of J Street in 2008. The liberal, urban, intellectual elites of Jewish America were looking for a voice, and in Beinart they had found their would-be Jeremiah.

Beinart, almost a quintessential Jewish American intellectual, might not get very far in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of political discourse in Tel Aviv, but in New York and other urban U.S. Jewish centers, he fits the bill perfectly. He is undoubtedly more charismatic in the eyes of young American Jews than the heads of the organizations that he so caustically criticizes. At the recent General Assembly of Jewish Federations in Denver, I witnessed how swarms of young female listeners lapped up his words even those who later found it necessary to say they reject his message completely.

Beinart is a classic Washington scholar-journalist-pundit, a Yale and Oxford graduate who has edited the New Republic, stamped his wonk pass at the Council on Foreign Relations and now hangs out at the New America Foundation and the City University of New York. That was how The Washington Posts Carlos Lozada described him in 2010.

Born in 1971 to immigrant parents from South Africa who made their home in the elitist intellectual milieu of Harvard and MIT, Beinart was for many years described by the adjective wunderkind. He studied at Yale, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and at the ripe old age of 28 was appointed editor of Martin Peretzs influential, soft-at-home, tough-abroad New Republic. Beinart is the author of two books on American foreign policy, which received mixed reviews.

Turbo-charged version

In 2006 he published The Good Fight: Why Liberals and Only Liberals Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, which focused on the works of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr a few years before he became a household name due to his influence on the foreign policy thinking of President Obama.

In 2010, Beinart wrote The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, in which he blames American overconfidence and hubris for a century of foreign policy mishaps, follies and tragedies. It is in this second book that Beinart recants his own support for the 2003 Iraq war, leading a reviewer in the Christian Science Monitor to describe the book as a history of Beinarts own hubris.

Beinarts born-again ardor, his zeal of a convert, is one of the motivations critics ascribed to his hard-hitting New York Review of Books article. It is probably just one of a series of broadsides that Beinart will have to confront with the publication of The Crisis of Zionism by Times Books, the publishing arm of The New York Times. It is, in many ways, a turbo-charged version of his original article.

It includes a detailed and utterly unflattering account of the relations between Netanyahu and Obama over the past three years, as told to Beinart by sources close to the latter who are clearly no great fans of the former. It expands and expounds on Beinarts original indictment of antidemocratic Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians. It laments the Israeli betrayal of the liberal values that Beinart believes Israel was founded on and, consequently, its growing distance from American Jews. It lambasts the perpetuation and fostering of the Jewish sense of victimhood by Netanyahu and others of his ilk, which serves to absolve Jews of any need to come to terms with their own moral shortcomings. It is, at once, a condemnation of the Jewish establishment and a call to arms for liberal Jewry. It is, or may come to be, the Little Red Book of left-leaning American Jewish intellectuals, the Liberal Manifesto of sophisticated Jews who insist on clinging to their old-style Zionism, even if it no longer exists.

The book is, I tell Beinart, like a compendium of all the leftist opinion articles that have been written and that will be written on these subjects for years to come. His critics will say that the work is more indicative of Beinarts own clueless liberalism than it is of misguided Israeli policies a shining example of how leftists have lost their way. His facts and statistics are not borne out by the research and the polls, they will claim. He doesnt live in Israel, of course, doesnt send his children to the army and shouldnt be criticizing Israel in the first place. He is arming Israels worst enemies with some of their best lines. And sometimes it seems that he just doesnt get it: Beinart ignores what Israel has gone through over the last decade and thereby misreads what Israelis are thinking today as ADL chairman Abe Foxman said.

Indeed, for an Israeli reader, even one who is sympathetic to Beinart, there are some glaring gaps in his book, made all the more striking by the fact that these were widely pointed out to him in many reviews and critiques of his 2010 article.

It often seems like you just dont feel the pain, that you dont grasp the impact of the trauma of the suicide bombings and the second intifada on the Israeli psyche and public opinion.

Im sorry. If that doesnt come through, then its a failure of the book. I didnt live it, but I totally understand it. This randomness of the violence, the sense that the whole of Israel was a battlefield. If you say that this pushed Israeli politics significantly to the right, I think thats incontestably right. But people go from that descriptive reality to a normative claim: that therefore, the interpretation of the second intifada, that became dominant on the Israeli right and among most American Jews, is correct.

9/11 had an incredibly traumatic impact on Americans. Nobody can understand American foreign policy in the ensuing years without understanding the trauma. But that doesnt mean it justifies the way that American leaders, and to some degree even American public opinion, responded to 9/11. It may be more understandable, emotionally, but it doesnt mean it was wise.

But it also seems you dont give enough weight to Iran. And the Arab Spring. And to a whole host of similar events.

That may be true, but I dont think any of these events are good reasons to create a one-state solution in the West Bank. The point Im trying to get at is that these things become manipulated by people who have no interest in the creation of something along the lines of the Clinton parameters. And it seems to me that we cant play that game forever. Because then you get what you most fear, which is from the river to the sea, you know? And when I listen to American Jewish leaders or, frankly, when I listen to Netanyahu, I dont feel a kind of recognition that this is not some distant potential, that there could be a triggering mechanism, a Palestinian intifada of some sort, which washes away the Palestinian Authority. And we could be there, a week from Tuesday. Sometimes I think were like in the old Road Runner cartoon where he goes off the cliff but [doesnt fall because] he hasnt looked down, you know?

Nonetheless, you seem to pay lip service to the effects of the violence and to the rejectionism of the Palestinians and of Hamas and of Iran. You go through the motions on what is, after all, 99 percent of the story as far as the Israeli public is concerned. Often it seems that for you, Israel is at fault for everything.

No, I dont think thats fair. In my own narrative of what I think happened through the Oslo Process and going through the second intifada, you will find again and again references to Palestinian culpability. I made a point of describing the grisly details of the Itamar massacre, precisely because I wanted to put on paper what the Palestinian terrorists did. But people are used to hearing a narrative in which theres never much recognition of the fact that there is culpability on both sides. I genuinely believe there is very serious culpability on both sides for the failure of Oslo, for what happened at Camp David and for what happened in the Gaza disengagement.

You sound very disappointed with Obama. You thought he would carry through with his peace agenda, but then he capitulated.

I was disappointed at the way he handled the settlements fight, and then I was probably even more disappointed at his reaction in the wake of his 67 lines-plus-swaps speech. And now Im disappointed that he acts as if the settlements issue basically doesnt exist and that he is willing to essentially live within a purely Iran framework, which is what Bibi wanted from the very beginning. Im disappointed in Obama, but Im more disappointed in us, because you cant expect Obama to care more about the survival of Israel as a Jewish democratic state than we American Jews do. We American Jews played a huge role in making the political price for Obama doing what he believed in too high. So he said, Do you expect me to lay down in front of the train tracks, when you are determined to go on a path that could destroy Israel as a Jewish democratic state?

Fundamental problem

Maybe you have misplaced expectations. This is what American Jews are.

I think there are many American Jews –I dont know if its most – who have responded to what they saw during the first intifada, the Lebanon war and, in even larger numbers, since the Netanyahu/Lieberman government emerged. And what they see is a government thats not genuinely committed to a two-state solution, and is pursuing an agenda that undermines liberal democracy at home. I think American Jews are concerned about these questions of the legislative agenda in the Knesset and the questions of free speech and the issues with the Haredim. Even the American Jewish Committee and ADL have spoken out about it. I think you see it in the American Jewish intellectual conversation. Look at The New York Times, which is the house newspaper of the American Jewish community. Look at their columnists.

Its hard to quantify, but I think if you did an honest poll of the AIPAC agenda versus the J Street agenda with American Jews, you would have a roughly 50/50 split, which I think you would find was quite generational. And that among non-Orthodox American Jews under the age of 40, you would find that the J Street agenda was more popular (with the J Street agenda being active government intervention to try to bring about a two-state solution.)

But I can make the counterargument that if you take American Jews who are actively interested in Israel, you will find that 90 percent will agree with the Israeli government stance that Iran is a threat and the Palestinians dont want peace.

Barack Obama won more than 75 percent of the Jewish vote. So you have to reckon with the fact that despite the statements from Jewish leaders who voiced suspicion of Obama, the vast majority still voted for him. And I would be willing to bet what little money I have in the bank that Barack Obama will win 70 percent of the Jewish vote in November. A lot of those Jews are not voting on Israel, of course. But theyre not totally uninterested in Israel. Which is to say, if they genuinely believed that Barack Obama was a threat ... then he wouldnt be able to get that number. I think people who are actually involved in Israel-related organizations, who are on the right, are not a representative sampling of American Jews, and this is a fundamental problem you have more broadly in American politics. I mean, the Cuban lobby does not represent most Cubans, but it represents the Cubans who care the most. Thats probably true for gun owners, too.

I think one question that American Jews who are on the left have to face is how much they care about this compared to everything else. People say, Yes, and what about global warming? Thats part of the reason I dont come at this from a purely universalistic perspective. You say to people: You have to be involved in this struggle because its the struggle of your people, its your honor. The future of Judaism is going to be impacted by this, you cant run away from it.

It doesnt seem like multitudes of Jews are flocking to your point of view, J Street notwithstanding. Do you think some are afraid to speak their minds?

If you live in the Jewish organizational world, then its harder to be a public critic of Israel. If you live in the world of electoral politics, its harder. If you live in the Orthodox community, its certainly harder. Other than that, I dont think its very hard. It just depends on how close you are to this part of the American Jewish community. If youre just some left-leaning Jewish person living among other left-leaning people, then its not hard. I dont want to suggest that I think people on the left who criticize Israel are persecuted. But there are some environments in which its difficult.

Dont you think one of the reasons your article resonated is that people were surprised that anyone dared to say the things you did? Is open discussion of Israel in the American media being stifled?

I want people, non-Jewish Americans, to have opinions about this like they have opinions about anything else. They may be wrong, they may be stupid, they may be ignorant. Let them have their opinions. And dont call them anti-Semites unless they have a history of animus toward the Jewish people.

The problem is that we have a Jewish organizational world whose business model is anti-Semitism, and theres not enough of it in the United States. So they have to keep looking for it in the Israel debate, when whats going on is not anti-Semitism. And it upsets me a great deal that American Jewish leaders never have to pay the price. Nobody ever loses their job for getting up on the wrong side of the bed one morning, reading an op-ed they dont like, and then saying that that person is an anti-Semite. And you should lose your job for that. There should be consequences for that. The pain of being called an anti-Semite in this post-Holocaust world, when youre not, is just agonizing to watch, frankly.

You wont be called an anti-Semite; youll be called a self-hating Jew.

Whatever. What is a self-hating Jew? All Jews are self-loving and self-hating. Its one of the stupidest things Ive ever heard. I love Jews more than anything in the world, and Jews drive me crazy. But I actually think Im lucky, because I think the debate is opening. I think a lot about what it was like for Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who had a great influence on Obama, when he founded Breira [an organization devoted to recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination in the mid-70s, which was fiercely subdued by the establishment]. Im operating [at] a time when the space is widening; perhaps Im trying to widen it a bit more than some people would like.

I think American public discussion is really shifting and I dont think Netanyahu understands. I feel like theres a lot of hubris in the way he goes to AIPAC and he goes to Congress, and he thinks he has some vision of what the real America is like – of those God-fearing Christians out there. I dont think he understands that this is more and more precarious. The sands could shift quickly.

Do you get hate mail? Are people nasty to you?

I get some. Ive gotten some disturbing calls on my cell phone, but theyve stopped. One has to keep this in perspective. I mean, there are journalists around the world who face real consequences, you know? Someone sends me a mean e-mail, I send them a mean e-mail back, or I just delete it. The truth is that when you respond in a human way to people, I find that they melt. I think a lot of these people are lonely. They just want some response."

Beinart is to be the featured speaker at this weekends J Street conference in Washington. He has recently launched a blog for liberal-Jewish opinion writers, called Zion Square, on the popular Internet website The Daily Beast.

What started out as an article has, it seems, taken over much of his professional life. It is a position that will place him in the crosshairs of many right-wing critics, but it has also made him the darling of left-wing circles. And in New York, far more than in Tel Aviv, that is as comfortable an environment as one could wish for.

One of the criticisms against you is that you represent this detached American Jewish liberal whose main need is to be appreciated by his own leftist liberal milieu, and who isnt connected anymore to the mainstream of where Jews are going.

My Jewish identity, my sense of connection to being Jewish, is not because Im on the left. I drag my kids to shul every week, I read the parchment with my son every week, and I send my kids to Jewish school. J Street is hosting a panel on how to talk to your children about Israel. And what Im going to say, very explicitly, is that I think the most important thing to do with Jewish kids is to instill in them a love of, a commitment to and a fascination with Judaism and the Jewish state. To do all of that first.

Im going to pass on a Jewish identity that is defined by disliking Bibi Netanyahu. My hope is that I can pass on a Jewish identity that is rooted in having beautiful memories of Purim. People can say whatever they want about me, but if you want to look 20 or 30 years down the road and see who succeeded with their kids Im willing to put that effort up against somebody who thinks that the way theyre going to instill Jewish identity in their kid is by taking them to the AIPAC conference.