Does Peter Beinart Love Israel?

I am inspired by Beinart's attempt to draw a distinction between the boycott of Israel by many international activists and a targeted boycott of the settlements.

Who loves Israel? Who likes Israel? Who is ambivalent, who feels smitten, and who feels lust? Who wants to get married to Israel? Who wants to keep things platonic? Who prefers to be “frenemies”?

This line of questioning is all a bit absurd, but it seems this is what has become of the discussion among some Israel analysts these days. Perhaps as if to unconsciously mark the week the world lost Dick Clark, America’s “oldest living teenager,” it’s all become dangerously adolescent.

Beinart - Getty images - March 23, 2012
Getty images

In a scathing review in the Jerusalem Post of Peter Beinart’s new book The Crisis of Zionism, Daniel Gordis tries to call out Beinart on whether he “loves” Israel or not. Gordis writes, “When Beinart and I debated some time ago, I actually left the evening believing that he loved Israel. This book convinced me that I was horribly mistaken.”

Gordis goes on to parse the degree of “emotion” Beinart does or doesn’t exude when he chronicles the abduction of Gilad Shalit and the murder of the Fogel family in the pages of his book. Apparently it wasn’t enough for Beinart to write that “‘[The terrorists] murdered Ehud and Ruth Fogel and three of their children, Yoav, Elad and Hadas, in their beds. Elad, aged four, was strangled to death. Hadas, aged three months, was decapitated.’”

Gordis asks: “Even about the Fogels, he can summon no emotion?”

Gordis doesn’t give examples of the kinds of adjectives and adverbs he wishes Beinart had included. Maybe he should have sent him a list of possible sentence endings in advance, like the fill-in-the-blank summer camp stationery that was popular when I was a youth in the 1980s. Or maybe Mad Libs -- that zany kids’ party game where writers choose a set of word forms which then form parts of a story -- would have worked best. Perhaps Beinart should have dotted his text with emoticons, or concluded his book with a row of xoxoxo’s.

The State of Israel’s teenage years took place at the same time American Bandstand was peaking. While Dick Clark’s teens hopped and twisted, Israel built itself up from within, shoring up a collectivist ethic through kibbutz life. Teenagers prepared for military service defending internationally accepted borders. National poets and songwriters pined for peace.

But now almost forty-five years into the West Bank occupation, the hope for possibility and change - that most precious commodity of adolescence - is giving way to the kind of bitter cynicism that stunted maturity can sometimes bring. And while growing up means a natural individuating as one gradually separates from one’s parents, with maturity also comes a sense of responsibility. Gordis would prefer that that responsibility remain tribal; Beinart seeks to look across the family lawn to see who else might be suffering.

When I watched the video of the Gordis-Beinart debate to which Gordis alludes, an exchange at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple in the fall of 2010, I was impressed by the humanity between the two commentators. It was also a crucial and timely discussion to have: Beinart’s 2010 article in the New York Review of Books had done much to let in fresh air to what had been an increasingly stale conversation about Israel within the Jewish community. And Gordis was a formidable and respectful interlocutor.

But this attempt to test a writer’s love for the subject before his words can be taken seriously is all a bit too much.

As a fellow Jewish parent with young kids I enjoy reading Beinart’s tweets about how he engages his children on Jewish topics. As someone active in my own synagogue I am interested in how he may or may not manage to reconcile his attendance at an Orthodox shul -- a biographical detail he mentions in the book -- with important current Jewish debates over the role of the Orthodox movement in enabling Israeli settler policies, for example. And as I wrote recently in these pages, I am inspired by his attempt to draw a distinction between what the boycott of Israel by many international activists and a targeted boycott of the settlements, or what he calls Zionist BDS -- to make a distinction between “democratic Israel” and “undemocratic Israel.”

But I frankly don’t care whether Beinart loves Israel in the “shame-shame-double-shame-now-I-know-your-boyfriend’s-name” youthful refrain, whether he is “feeling spurned,” or whether he “just wants to be friends.’ While some would prefer to play spin the bottle and spy on who is or is not locked in a smoldering embrace, the Middle East burns.

Follow Mira Sucharov on Twitter @sucharov