It has been often said that the conflict in Palestine cannot be resolved without a fundamental change of policy in Washington. There is some truth in this. No other country has given such unlimited and unquestioning support to the State of Israel as the US. Peter Beinart makes an impassioned call in this book for a change of approach in order to save Israel from self-destruction.
When it was first published in the US earlier this year, The Crisis of Zionism was met with extreme hostility and outrage from sections of America’s Jewish community. The young author, an avowed Zionist, has shown a rare willingness from within his community to break the long-standing taboo of challenging the status quo. “We need a new American Jewish story” built around the truth that Jews “are not history’s permanent victims,” he avers.
As a political movement, Beinart believes that Zionism is by nature democratic and liberal, but in recent years these features have been distorted and compromised, both in America and Israel. Throughout the book the author argues that American Jews and Israel have abused the influence and power they’ve accrued. While in private they revel in this wealth and power, they avoid admitting it publicly for fear of fuelling anti-Semitic myths.
Beinart is by no means a pioneer. Others have raised similar concerns about Israel’s self-destructive path. In September 2003, Avraham Burg, a former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and speaker of Israel’s Knesset (parliament) wrote in the Guardian under the title “The End of Zionism”, that “The Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice”. He called on the country to “shed its illusions and choose between racist oppression and democracy”.
Although the author of the book under review directs much of his criticism for Israeli policies in the territories occupied in 1967, he does acknowledge systematic discrimination within Israel itself.
He extols Zionism’s founding father, Theodore Herzl, claiming that while he wanted a Jewish state he also cherished liberal ideals, freedom of speech and religion. The truth is that Herzl espoused no such attitudes to the indigenous Palestinian people. An entry in his diary on 12th June 1895 betrayed a supremacist tendency: “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country.”
An honest reading of Herzl’s The Jewish State reveals an enterprise that was intrinsically racist and colonialist: “We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.”
Indeed, as early as 1891, Ahad Ha’Am, had condemned the attitudes of the Jewish settlers in Palestine: “They treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, deprive them of their rights, offend them without cause and even boast of these deeds; and nobody among us opposes this despicable inclination.”
Beinart asserts that while it is difficult for Jews to admit that race hatred can take root among a people who experienced it as they did, the fact is that maintaining an occupation requires racism and breeds it.
Notwithstanding his attempt to embellish Herzl’s image, the book is at times unusually candid. The author admits that there is a contradiction which underpins the Zionist enterprise; that is, between the desire to build a liberal democracy and the temptation to flout those principles in the name of Jewish security. Throughout the book he hammers home the point that Israel has strayed from its founding promise of “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”. The case of the 1948 Arabs (those who remained in the nascent state) is especially noteworthy. Beinart acknowledges that they have suffered neglect and discrimination, owning less than four per cent of the land while being 20 per cent of Israel’s population.
The Crisis of Zionism is based on a wealth of primary sources: official documents, reports and interviews with officials both in the US and Israel. The author uses these with consummate skill sufficiently to beg the question, democracy for whom? A classic example was some 2010 research by a Tel Aviv University Centre for Peace which showed that 57 per cent of Israeli Jews believe human rights groups which expose Israel’s “immoral” conduct should not be allowed to operate freely.
Yet another was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s speech at the UN in 2010 proposing the “right sizing of the state” by “moving borders to better reflect demographic realities”. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t disavow the speech; he merely said it was not coordinated with him. As bad as it may sound these views were representative of broader Israeli thinking; in 2010, 53 per cent of Israelis wanted their Arab fellow citizens to be encouraged to leave.
If it is to become a genuine liberal democracy, Israel must, according to Beinart, offer equal rights to its Palestinian population and allow those in the occupied territories to establish a state of their own. He echoes the former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert that if Israel does not enfranchise the Palestinians beyond the Green (1949 armistice) Line, it runs the risk of becoming an apartheid state.
In the chapter titled “The Crisis in America” he argues that the major Jewish bodies in the United States are increasingly less representative of most American Jews. He describes the community as a plutocracy dominated by the most affluent members. They do not champion democracy in Israel, justifying this by claiming that the situation is similar to that of 1939. At the heart of American Zionism, Beinart explains, is the “victimhood narrative”. For American Jewish leaders any harsh criticism of Israel that is not accompanied with equally harsh criticism of other countries is anti-Semitism. Hence, in their effort to inoculate Israeli policy from criticism American Jewish organisations have stretched the definition of anti-Semitism to the point of absurdity.
In a chapter titled “The Jewish president”, the author depicts Barak Obama as an individual who cannot defend his principles and beliefs in the face of Zionist pressure. From strident criticism of Israeli settlements in his Cairo 2009 speech, Obama drifted to a position of rewarding Netanyahu with lavish incentives and most bizarrely threatening to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas for opposing the settlements.
The book gives a forensic and altogether uncomplimentary view of Netanyahu’s character; a man influenced by his father who was an aide to the revisionist leader Valdimir Jabotinsky. According to Beinart, Benzoin Netanyahu transmitted his views to his son Benjamin successfully. The son tells how he was fearful of his father’s reaction after he shook Yasser Arafat’s hands in the late 1990s.
Despite their forced smiles before the cameras the book reveals that many officials in the Clinton administration held very disparaging views of Netanyahu. Joe Lockhart, the former White House press secretary, described him as “one of the single most obnoxious individuals you’re going to come [into contact] – just a liar and a cheat”.
In conclusion, Beinart says that the challenge facing Jews today comes not from their weakness but from their power. Young Jews, he explains, are not redefining American Zionism, they are abandoning it. He castigates his co-religionists for indulging in the “toxic current” that has permeated their thought. This is reflected in the rabbis who proclaim that it is permissible to kill gentile children because they may grow into evil people like their parents and who view Palestinians not as people with legitimate rights but as imposters.
The Crisis of Zionism affirms that American Zionists have adopted an insularity that speaks of fear and arrogance; fear that they can’t engage in dialogue, and arrogance that the outside world can’t add anything of value. But by invoking Israeli democracy, they have actually laid a trap for themselves.
Peter Beinart does not only paint a dim picture in this book, he is also worried about the future. He says changing pro-Israel politics in Washington is difficult because liberal Jews have little influence among Republicans who are beholden to the Christian right, and in the Democratic Party they despise Israel but don’t have the courage to say so in public for fear of damaging their careers. You can’t sell occupation in a post-colonial age, he says. Hence he supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against the settlements and calls for protests against the likes of Lieberman when they visit America.
If American Jews do not help Israel to reconcile with its Zionist and democratic ideals, their children would choose between them.