A Tale Of Two Zionisms

What’s been lost in the controversy over Peter Beinart's provocative book, The Crisis of Zionism, is the movement that actually built the country: the Hebrew cultural revolution that aimed to modernize Judaism in the wake of the Haskalah, attracting young pioneers to Palestine, then Israel, while most seeking refuge went to America; the Zionism whose historic foil was rabbinic orthodoxy, not—or not mainly—anti-Semites.

I have just written a lengthy review essay in The Nation that takes up Beinart’s book in this context. Think of it as an appeal to understand what Zionism was about--and the political innovations it may yet open up--from the point of view of Israeli progressives, not just American ones.

It is hard, even for many Israelis, to witness the unfolding occupation, or watch the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throw its weight around, or hear the ways Netanyahu justifies the Jewish state, and not wonder what Zionism really was—and whether, if he’s the face of it, the world might have been better off without it. It is also hard for many Americans to watch Netanyahu try to force President Obama’s hand on Iran by threatening unilateral action that would destabilize America’s global position—with a brazenness much like Bibi’s pal Eric Cantor when he tried to force Obama’s hand on the debt ceiling—and not wonder if Israel’s present government and its lobby are as extortive of America’s politicians as the banks, another instance of the tail gracelessly wagging the dog.

In such a climate, the apparent conversion of Peter Beinart—formerly the editor of Martin Peretz’s echt-Zionist New Republic, now an opponent of the espoused Zionism of American Jewish organizations—was bound to make the publication of his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, a polarizing event. Ever since it appeared in March, a great many American Jewish leaders and public intellectuals have taken sides. “One positive thing you can say about Peter Beinart’s critics,” J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward, “is that none of them has smacked him in the face with a rifle butt.” Even Daniel Gordis, who accused Beinart in the Jerusalem Post of indulging in an “Israel-bashing-fest,” admitted that the discussion “is no longer a conversation about what Beinart wrote.”

Beinart’s shifts in reputation have become so much of the drama surrounding his book, in fact, that many have overlooked what a sharp and ambitious polemic he’s written. Over its several hundred pages, The Crisis of Zionism refutes the following claims: that keeping faith with the victims of anti-Semitism means viewing Jewish political power through the lens of the Holocaust; that Israel’s legal substructure guarantees the state’s democratic character; that holding the West Bank improves Israel’s security; that observers of Jewish festivals necessarily derive humanist ideals from them; that Israel’s occupation cannot become something akin to apartheid; that Israelis have, despite the ongoing conflict, managed to avoid becoming racist; that Palestine’s Fatah leaders are mostly responsible for the breakdown of the Oslo Accords; that Hamas is more committed to Israel’s destruction than to the establishment of a Palestinian state; that settlements have not been the main obstacle to peace; that Netanyahu embodies the mainstream of historic Zionism; that Netanyahu and other leaders of the Likud have held back Palestinian rights more out of pragmatism than strident ideology; that President Obama is skeptical of Israel and unsympathetic to American Jews; that Obama was wrong to press for a freeze on settlements early in his administration; and that Israel’s Islamic neighbors, such as Turkey and Egypt, would be hostile to Israel irrespective of what Israel does with the Palestinians.

The Crisis of Zionism aims even more powerful demurrals at American Jewish groups like the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), all largely responsible for making the roster of claims cited above a catechism for congressional briefings. Though Beinart has much to say about the way Israeli governments have conducted themselves over the years, his true targets are the leaders of these American Jewish organizations. He fiercely rejects their allegations that Jews who publicly criticize Israel’s structure and direction, or the current Israeli government, “delegitimize” the state. He is a respectful, indeed a more or less “observant” Jew. He is content to mine Halacha—Jewish law, disciplined study, liturgy, ritual, music—for its contribution to universalist and open-spirited precepts. But he takes pains to distance himself from communities of the “Modern Orthodox” upon whom these organizations increasingly depend.

All in all, Beinart’s expansive arguments have a circumscribed goal: to discredit the political forces that impede a two-state solution. Beinart’s underlying passion is American liberalism, and so the ideology of the Modern Orthodox constitutes his fattest target. The idea that scriptural wisdom and the strict observance of commandments make a Jew “good” drives him nuts, sort of the way it drove freethinking Jews to shrimp, or indeed to Zionism, in the nineteenth century. But one wisdom received these days has political significance, and it is a measure of how much the meaning of “Zionist” has changed since then. Beinart concedes the creativity of many Jews drawn to Halacha, especially in innovating prayer or expounding critically on the Torah. But the Modern Orthodox are, along with their version of Zionism, self-segregating and a little too attracted to Jewish pathos, which the great historian Salo Baron called the “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history. They are thus temperamentally and ideologically connected to the settlement movement, even willing to join forces with American evangelicals to protect the status quo of occupation. Above all, they have a cavalier regard for liberal civil society in Israel, the very kind of society that has allowed Jews to thrive in America.

Only about 11 percent of American Jews attend synagogue every week and may be inferred to gravitate to Orthodoxy, “modern” or otherwise, but their numbers are growing, as is their alienation from the more amorphous and liberal Jewish majority. Their self-enclosed and rigidly “pro-Israel” (that is, pro-Likud) attitudes are a kind of “demographic problem” in America. “Not long ago, the phrase ‘Orthodox Jew’ conjured an elderly man with a Yiddish accent. Today it conjures a young family pushing a stroller,” Beinart writes. Meanwhile, the major Jewish organizations in question (“Has anyone ever heard of a minor one?” Abba Eban once quipped) have been failing to reflect the values of mainstream American Jews—who, for example, still poll at least two to one in favor of Obama, and even favor a more activist peace process in which the United States might apply pressure on both sides to come to terms.

Read on in The Nation