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Tuesday, May 25, 2010, 10:50 am

Peter Beinart Throws Down Gauntlet, Takes on ‘American Jewish Establishment’

By Rachel Curtis
By Rachel Curtis

A whirlwind of debate was kicked up online last week by Peter Beinart’s gutsy New York Review of Books essay, titled "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment." In an urgent appeal to American Jews, Beinart describes a widening gulf between two distinct strains of Zionism struggling for primacy in Israel. Liberal Zionism, based in the Enlightenment idea of progress, is devoted simultaneously to a Jewish state and to the defense of universal human rights. The second, a hawkish Zionism espoused by the likes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, thrives on the memory of persecution and believes that Israel’s only responsibility is to survive.

American Jewish groups such as AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which shape the United States’ “special relationship” with Israel, play a critical role in deciding which strain of Zionism dominates. By turning a blind eye to some of Israel’s anti-Palestinian policies and to perpetrating the narrative that Israel is constantly on the “knife-edge of extinction,” says Beinart, America’s Jewish leaders lend the hawkish Zionists legitimacy in the international arena. Beinart, who is Jewish and a former editor of The New Republic magazine, writes:

There is an epidemic of not watching among American Zionists today … A bill in the Knesset to allow Jewish neighborhoods to bar entry to Israeli Arabs, an Israeli human rights report on settlers burning Palestinian olive groves, three more Palestinian teenagers shot – it’s unpleasant. Rationalizing and minimizing Palestinian suffering has become a kind of game.

This matters, Beinart argues, because as Israel grows increasingly radical and right-wing, the very values upon which it was founded are destroyed. Beinart recalls that in 1948, Knesset member Pinchas Lavon declared, “For the first time we shall be the majority living with a minority, and we shall be called upon to provide an example and prove how Jews live with a minority.”

Rather than set a virtuous example, Foreign Minister Lieberman favors arresting Arabs who publicly mourn on Israeli Independence Day, and has stated that Arab Knesset members who met with Hamas representatives should be executed. That hardly ensures the humane treatment of the Palestinians. Beinart quotes Hebrew University Professor Ze’ev Sternhell in his article: “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs [Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party] were in power in post-World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain.”

Journalists, Jewish advocates and pundits quickly immediately weighed on the article. The president of J Street, the new progressive Jewish-American PAC that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, offered his laudatory take here, and Jonathan Chait of The New Republic vouched for Beinart’s intellect and character and in large part agreed with the essay.

But Chait does challenge several minor claims, chastening Beinart for allowing emotion to interfere with his reasoning. In short, Chait says: Don’t write angry, and don't overreact – Israel has not been lost to the far right. (Chait might feel differently if he were a Palestinian locked in the Gaza Strip, with its isolated and decaying economy.) The ensuing exchange between the two is engaging, and can be followed at The Daily Beast, where Beinart writes about politics, and The New Republic.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg posted a series of emails he exchanged with Beinart on his blog, in which he rallies in Israel’s defense. In Part II of the post, Goldberg zeros in on Israel’s right to protect itself. “You don’t seem too interested in the forces that seek the elimination of Israel,” chides Goldberg, continuing:

The world has its share of crazy Muslim extremists – the ones, for instance, who are pointing 40,000 rockets at Israel from Lebanon right now- and they are not pointing these rockets at Israel in order to bring about the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. They are seeking the physical destruction of 5.5 million Jews in their historic homeland. I take this seriously, and I think you should take it seriously, as well.

It's difficult to deny that Israelis face legitimate threats: There are Palestinians who feel their troubles would be best solved by annihilating Israel. Yet no matter how frightening the threat from Muslim extremists is for Israelis, it surely must pale in comparison to that felt by Palestinians – who do not control their own borders, do not possess nuclear weapons, and do not enjoy a special relationship with the most powerful and most militarized country on the planet.

You can read other reactions to Beinart's piece here and here.

Rachel Curtis is an In These Times intern, earned her master’s degree in international journalism from Cardiff University, Wales.

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