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Peter Beinart, shown in a February 2009 address to the Center for American Progress. (Center for American Progress via Creative Commons)

Peter Beinart’s Brave, Quixotic Quest

The former liberal hawk wants to create a more humane Zionism, but have the facts on the ground in the West Bank made that impossible?

BY Jordan Michael Smith

In late March, at the third annual conference of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobbying group, Daniel Levy sat on a panel debating the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Levy, a former Israeli government official now with a think tank in Washington, spoke for a few minutes on the possibilities of peace moving forward. He then made a reference he knew everyone in the 500-strong audience would understand. “Peter Beinart is right,” he said.

Levy didn’t explain who Beinart is, or what Beinart is right about. He didn’t have to. Peter Beinart is the man of the moment in American Jewish circles. Every single person at the J Street Conference, and every person following the debates about Israel in American life, knows who he is. Equally loathed and loved, Beinart has become the most important Jewish intellectual in America right now. And the response to him, and what he believes, may determine the future of U.S. foreign policy.

Beinart came to attention when he was hired to edit The New Republic (TNR) in 1999. At least until Facebook’s co-founder bought the magazine earlier this year, it was impossible to take leadership of TNR without the assent of Marty Peretz, the magazine’s one-time owner and longtime editor. Peretz wrote about many issues, but he was obsessed with one thing: hardline support for Israel. He frequently described Arabs and Muslims in nakedly racist terms, so opposed was he to any challenge to the Jewish state. “Muslim life is cheap,” he once wrote.

And yet Beinart managed to become editor at a preposterously young age, despite never really demonstrating his Israeli bona fides. “I was conflicted about [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], so I didn’t write about it much,” he says. Still, he went on trips to Israel sponsored by the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy and published the usual pro-Israel diatribes for which TNR is known, enough to demonstrate his bona fides to those in control of the magazine.

There was reason to suspect, however, that Beinart was relatively moderate on the Middle East issue. In 1996, he penned an article for the journal Transition on “The Jews of South Africa,” the country from which his family emigrated. He wrote critically of the complicity of South African Jews in the apartheid regime. “South African Jews did not feel ownership over the institutions of power, but they were implicated in them nonetheless,” he wrote. “And the institutions were, of course, monstrous.” The piece was scathing in its portrayal of the South Africa Jewish community as contributing to apartheid by remaining distinct, which guaranteed their support for a political system based on racial separation and hierarchy. “The ideology of apartheid, with its mania for classification and segregation, suited the Jews just fine,” Beinart wrote.

“The Jews of South Africa” was particularly penetrating in its examination of the failure of the South African Jewish establishment to support those few Jews who fought against apartheid. “Although it has adopted the [African National Congress] Jews in recent years, the Jewish leadership was quick to disavow them during apartheid, fearful lest the Jewish radicals tar the entire community with a reputation for disloyalty.” South African Rabbis said, “they do not belong to any synagogue,” suggesting that Jews campaigning against apartheid were not legitimate Jews at all. The essay concluded with a story from biblical times demonstrating that “Jews had a responsibility to promote justice even between gentiles.” Though foreshadowing his future work, the article largely went unnoticed at the time.

While editing TNR, Beinart was far more concerned with supporting the Iraq War and transforming the Democratic Party. He wrote a book called The Good Fight, which asserted that liberals could only regain control of American policy if they abandoned their skepticism toward the use of force abroad. “On national security, and now increasingly on race, the Democratic Party has returned to the 1980s,” Beinart wrote in 2003. “And the lesson of that decade is that the party will not return from the wilderness until it confronts the internal forces that have put it there.”

None of that was accurate, of course. The Democratic Party overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Iraq War, to its eternal discredit. Rather than offering a strategy that focused on diplomacy and destroying Al Qaeda, the party opted for something very similar to what the Republicans were selling. “When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right,” Bill Clinton cynically said in 2002. Beinart appeared to agree.

When the Iraq invasion revealed itself to be a disaster, however, Beinart did what many hawks refused to do: he rethought his views. “We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war,” he wrote in TNR in 2007. “That’s why a liberal international order, like a liberal domestic one, restrains the use of force – because it assumes that no nation is governed by angels, including our own.”

Doubling down on his reconsiderations, Beinart authored a book called The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. As its subtitle indicates, the book argued that the United States periodically attempted to remake and dominate the world. Whereas Beinart once saw American military power as necessary, he now believed that it frequently damaged the world as well as itself.

After leaving TNR in 2006, Beinart floated around for a while, with stints at the Council on Foreign Relations and Time magazine, before ending up at the online magazine The Daily Beast, where he remains a columnist today. At the same time he was revising his perspective on American power, he was also rethinking his ideas about Israel. In June 2010, Beinart dropped a bombshell of an article in The New York Review of Books called “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”

The piece took a hammer toward the traditional U.S. Jewish leadership and organizations for jettisoning their liberal principles in support for an increasingly undemocratic brand of Zionism in Israel. “Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral,” Beinart wrote. “In the American Jewish establishment today, the language of liberal Zionism – with its idioms of human rights, equal citizenship, and territorial compromise – has been drained of meaning.” He criticized American Jewish leaders’ “obsession with victimhood” and “uncritical brand of Zionism.”

Speaking of the NYRB essay now, Beinart says he “didn’t know the level of attention it would get,” even though he was aware it was a subject people were passionate about. He says he was motivated to write the piece by the election of the Netanyahu government, with its contempt for what’s left of the Peace Process and complete dismissal of Palestinian rights.

What made Beinart’s piece raise a firestorm was not its content but its author’s stature in the American Jewish community. The article’s criticisms were nothing that had not appeared in the NYRB before. But Beinart was a former editor of TNR and liberal hawk, as well as active in the Jewish community; he sends his children to Jewish schools, attends an Orthodox synagogue, and keeps Kosher.

Instead of retreating, however, Beinart began expanding his essay into a book. He has turned into a one-man crusade for a different form of Zionism, one that respects Palestinian rights and prioritizes equal rights inside Israel. “I’m primarily a writer, not an activist,” he says. But he has done what few others have: Used his credibility inside the American Jewish community to confront its tendency to support Israel regardless of its behavior. He attends synagogues and campus Jewish groups to speak of the failure of their traditional leadership to their best principles. There, he frequently encounters hostility from those accustomed to being told that Israel has done little wrong in its conflict with the Palestinians. “Tell your son his father is a traitor,” one woman wrote to Beinart on Twitter.

The Crisis of Zionism was released in March. The strongest argument of the work is not about Israel per se, but about the diaspora’s failure to come to grips with the reality of Jewish power. Instead of adjusting to a world where Israel militarily and economically dwarfs its neighbors and is firmly enmeshed in the American elite, Beinart notes, the American Jewish leadership prefers to rely on outdated notions of Jewish victimhood, which relieves them of responsibilities for Israel’s brutal actions against the Palestinians, Lebanese and others.

The book spared a heated debate unseen since Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer wrote “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the article and book arguing that Israel’s supporters in the United States were responsible for leading America’s Middle East policy in a terrible direction. Unlike those authors, however, Beinart is speaking from deep within the American Jewish community, making it more difficult for opponents to dismiss him as an anti-Semite.

“It matters that he was the wunderkind editor of The New Republic, that he was a neocon when it comes to Israel, that he was from a Jewish background,” Daniel Sokatch, the head of the New Israel Fund, which funds progressive organizations in Israel, told the online Jewish magazine Tablet. “Peter was in the right place at the right time, and he was the right guy.” Tablet said he had become “the only critic of the Israeli occupation to have become a sort of folk hero.” At last year’s J Street Conference, t-shirts were sold with Beinart’s face on it. Prominent writers like Andrew Sullivan, Rick Perlstein, Paul Krugman and Joe Klein have come to Beinart’s defense, calling him brave for having launched a much-needed discussion.

That has not stopped the attacks, of course. Commentary magazine attacked Beinart’s “public apostasy.” Barry Rubin criticized his “betrayal.” Beinart’s former boss Marty Peretz said of Beinart in Tablet, “I always knew he was a very vain man, but a lot of us are vain, and if you had his mother, or if I had his mother, I’d be even more vain than I am.” Peretz put on a mocking mother voice – “this is the most brilliant boy, he’s so smart, he’s so touching” – before concluding: “It’s a Jewish mother situation.” (In response, Beinart will only say that he is grateful to Peretz for giving him his first journalism job and that he owes the man a lot).

Last week’s New York magazine has a feature on Beinart by his former TNR colleague Jason Zengerle, who asserts that Beinart has lost the support of his potential liberal allies. “Withering reviews have come from Beinart’s ideological allies on the Jewish center-left as well,” Zengerle notes. He also quotes veteran Jewish writer J.J. Goldberg, saying, “He’s energized the right without having mobilized the left. I don’t see an outpouring of support for him.”

There is no doubt that Beinart has sparked an important debate within the Jewish community, however. “American Jews are increasingly divided over Israel – some of the divide is religious and some of it is generational,” he says. “But the public conversation doesn’t reflect the divisions because the older Jews are louder and more influential.”

Most of Beinart’s conversations are with a Jewish audience, for whom the book is clearly written. “I’ve got a lot of hostile reaction,” he says. “I’m trying to make it possible in the Jewish community to say things that need to be said, but there are those people who don’t want them said.” On average, many younger Jews – with the notable exception of Orthodox Jews – have been friendly to his argument.

Beinart has done some outreach with the Muslim and Arab-American communities. Some members give him “lovely and touching” support, happy that “a Jewish man is recognizing that justice is necessary for Palestinians.” But some think the book doesn’t go far enough, in that it argues for the fundamental justice of the Zionist cause and advocates for Israel to remain a Jewish, democratic state within the 1967 borders.

The Daily Beast has begun hosting an important blog devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict called “Open Zion,” edited by Beinart. The blog features an Arab-American, as well as a Palestinian-American who believes in a one-state solution to the conflict.

And yet, it may be that Beinart’s book is too little, too late. The West Bank is so populated with Israeli settlements that the window of possibility for a viable Palestinian state has essentially closed. Beinart’s call in The Crisis of Zionism to boycott settlement products while supporting Israeli-made goods ignores the growing conflation of the two. He concedes there are “practical” issues with his partial-boycott proposal, but says the Palestinian Authority has already enacted such a boycott in support of the two-state solution and that it encourages a distinction between one territory with citizenship and freedom for Arabs, with the ability to deepen equality – albeit with real discrimination – versus an occupation that recognizes no Palestinian rights at all.

The question, then, is not whether Peter Beinart is brave or providing a service to America, Israel and the Palestinians – he is. The question is whether anything can possibly be done to save Israel from becoming what the country’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has envisaged: an apartheid state that ultimately destroys the dream of a democratic Jewish homeland, once and for all.

Jordan Michael Smith is a Contributing Writer at Salon.

Jordan Michael Smith, a writer in Washington, D.C., has written for The New York Times, Washington and Boston Globe.

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