Peter Beinart: The Jewish world's most divisive intellectual
With the release in the last few weeks of his third book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart has brought upon himself the anger of the Jewish American establishment. Could this son of South African immigrants be the one to finally break the ideological stranglehold of a few rich, pro-Netanyahu philanthropists? KEVIN BLOOM provides the background to an intellectual and journalistic phenomenon.
He’s been wrong before, and fabulously so.
And in 2010, when “wunderkind” journalist Peter Beinart appeared on the Charlie Rose show to discuss his second book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, he knew he wasn’t going to escape without an explanation.
The issue was that in his first book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, Beinart had taken a very definitive position on America’s role as an anti-totalitarian crusader.
When he’d started writing it, from his perch as the youngest-ever editor of The New Republic, this son of South African Jewish immigrants had a clear and confident vision: on the one hand, he was against an anti-imperialist left that rejects the exercise of US power, believing instead in a bold liberalism that confronts global Islamist repression as directly as Cold War liberals confronted global communist repression; on the other hand, he keenly intuited the problems behind the Bush administration’s assumption of America’s moral superiority.
The line Beinart trod between the two dominant ideologies of his time led him, inevitably, to his great mistake, a mistake he acknowledged on the eve of The Good Fight’s publication. Four years later, it was still an albatross around his neck, and therefore constituted the opening pages of The Icarus Syndrome.
Rose, commendably, dealt with the matter early – a few seconds into the show’s third minute, he said: “Much has been made, and you have made much of it, in terms of your support for the war [in Iraq]. Tell me where you went in on that, and where you came out on that.”
Beinart didn’t hesitate. “Well, you know, it’s not self-flagellation. I had a reason for needing to go back to the Iraq war. And the reason was that I didn’t think I could continue to write very effectively. You know, when you write about events of the day, you have to have some larger worldview. And I had had one; it grew on me over the course of the 1990s. I was in college when the Gulf War happened. Then the Bosnia debate in the mid-90s, the Kosovo debate… ”
Rose interjected: “And part of that debate is, ‘why didn’t we do something earlier?’”
“Exactly,” said Beinart. “It was a story about military interventions that worked, it was a story about military interventions… thank goodness we did them. People were grateful.”
Rose: “Right. And the argument was made at the time, ‘It will be a dark mark against your history if you ignore the plight of these people’.”
Beinart: “That’s right. The people on the other side said, ‘The Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, will be Vietnam.’ And yet Vietnam became like the person who cried wolf. It wasn’t Vietnam. In fact, it was these inspiring stories about America’s might and our ability to do good. And so that all produced these sets of ideas I had on the eve of the Iraq war.”
Naïve? Perhaps. But then Beinart refused, in his words, “to leave the scene of the crime intellectually” – he went back and methodically tried to figure out how he’d gone so wrong, and his answer to himself was summarised in The Icarus Syndrome’s subtitle: a history of American hubris.
Which could only have been construed as a convenient flip-flop had the book not grappled so intently with the makers of that history – men like Woodrow Wilson in World War 1, John F Kennedy in Vietnam and George W Bush in Iraq.
Also, the fact that America’s foremost arbiters of cultural relevance had paid the book such close attention was enough, in and of itself, to ensure that Beinart would not be ignored. Around the same time that he appeared on Charlie Rose, the New Yorker’s George Packer, in a 4,000-word piece, deconstructed Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome in words that, while not overly flattering, accorded the book an important place in US foreign-policy literature.
Packer’s understanding of the central point of The Icarus Syndrome was to be found in the review’s penultimate paragraph: “Beinart’s fundamental message is to avoid hubris and cultivate wisdom, which, like all maxims, seems obvious but turns out to be difficult in the extreme. None of his characters, not even the ones he most admires, had an unblemished record… The best guide, it appears, is good judgment based on hard experience: it’s probably better to have done things than to have dreamed of doing things; it’s also necessary to understand each new problem not as a repetition of old ones but on its own terms. In his introduction, Beinart outlines a number of the early-warning signs that a spell of myopia is about to deliver a catastrophe: doctrinaire mental habits, belief in preordained success, contempt for the counsel of allies, pervasive fear of threats, refusal to prioritise enemies. Americans have been especially vulnerable to irrational surges in national faith, because of an improbable combination: they’ve acquired the supreme strength of an imperial power without relinquishing their original claim – whether from God or the Declaration of Independence – to speak for freedom-seeking people everywhere.”
Cue to late March 2012 and the publication of Beinart’s third book, The Crisis of Zionism, and you begin to understand why he is the most divisive and controversial intellectual in the Jewish world right now. The above passage of Packer’s appears to serve almost as a guide to the young heavyweight’s (Beinart is now a few months past his 40th birthday) personal creed: avoid hubris and cultivate wisdom; develop good judgment through hard experience; rather do things than dream of doing things. And so it’s no surprise that the body blow he’s currently delivering to mainstream American Jewry, by far the richest and most influential community in the Jewish diaspora, has a precedent in an immensely influential – and, for some, disgustingly infuriating – essay he wrote for the New York Review of Books in 2010.
Titled, unflinchingly, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” the piece argued that the Jews of America are becoming increasingly polarised: between younger members of the community, many of whom believe in human rights and the questionable (if not reprehensible) behaviour of the Jewish state towards the Palestinians, and older members of the community, many of whom are ardent Zionists and believe the Jewish state should not be questioned.
“Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral,” Beinart wrote. “If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States – so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel – is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.”
Indeed. But no one of the right age demographic, with the right schooling (Beinart attended Yale and received a Rhodes scholarship for graduate study at Oxford), the right intellectual credentials (see above, plus consider that in 2005 he delivered the Theodore H. White Lecture at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government), and the right amount of “Jewishness” (he keeps kosher, attends an Orthodox synagogue every week, and sends his children to a Jewish day school), had ever made the point before. Not implying, to reiterate, that the point was new; just that Beinart – unlike, say, Thomas Friedman or, on the extreme radical left, Noam Chomsky – was making it as a very member of the group that’s most pissed off by the status quo.
And the reaction from the keepers of the status quo was as swift as it was vicious. Among others, Abraham Foxman, head of America’s Anti-Defamation League (an organisation created to expose and deal with all forms of anti-Semitism), trotted out the party line that sees everything from the point of view of the Israeli government, including this moralising passage in a letter to the New York Review: “There’s no evidence, contrary to Beinart, that there’s a fundamental change in Israel away from peace and away from concessions. What there is is a justified cynicism about the willingness of the other side to end the conflict and a confusion about what real options Israel has regarding its dilemma of how to withdraw and still have security.”
Remember this from Larry David – “Hey, I may loathe myself, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I'm Jewish”? Well, Beinart got that too; the default position of the “right-thinking” Zionist when faced by a member of the tribe whose politics are deemed offensive. In fact, if he had a dollar for every time he’s been called a self-hating Jew, he might have had enough clout to really terrify the American Jewish lobby.
As it was, after the New York Review piece was published in 2010, he did scare them a little – by galvanising a movement of young American Jews who refuse to back the Netanyahu administration “right or wrong,” by becoming a folk-hero for that movement, and by emphasising the incontrovertible truth that the Jewish lobby is run by a small group of rich philanthropists who have no interest in ending the occupation.
Now, with the recent release of The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart’s heft has begun to attain properly damaging proportions. An extended take on his points in the New York Review essay, the book delves into Israel’s security situation, arguing that since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the country has been guided by a series of administrations unable – or unwilling – to understand that its greatest long-term existential threat emanates from continued settlement in the territories.
In other words, according to Beinart, the occupation is the cause of Israel’s security problems, not the result of them, and he cites former heads of the Israeli army and intelligence to back up his view.
The result of this apparently moderate, well-researched argument? An unbelievable outpouring of hatred and vitriol from the Jewish American right, on a scale that’s not been seen in recent times towards another Jew, even in Israel itself. And that’s because Beinart’s attendant argument to his points about long-term security get to the very heart of the Jewish American lobby’s paranoia, especially as regards its collective feelings about the Holocaust.
For Beinart, Netanyahu’s repeated claims – loudly applauded by AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations – that the year is 1939 and Iran is Nazi Germany read as fantasy, conveniently designed to perpetuate the lie of victimhood. After all, when Israeli fighter jets fly over Auschwitz, as they repeatedly do on Holocaust Memorial days, what’s being celebrated is the opposite of victimhood.
Which brings up Beinart’s solution to the occupation dilemma, as outlined in a monumentally controversial New York Times op-ed published on 18 March. In it, he called for the West Bank and other occupied territories to be termed “non-democratic Israel”, where he urges American Jewish support for a B.D.S. programme (boycott, divestment and sanctions).
“As I write this, I cringe,” he noted near the end of the column. “Most settlers aren’t bad people; many poor Sephardic, Russian and ultra-Orthodox Jews simply moved to settlements because government subsidies made housing there cheap. More fundamentally, I am a committed Jew… Boycotting other Jews is a painful, unnatural act. But the alternative is worse.”
The alternative, in Beinart’s estimation, is an end to all hope of an eventual two-state solution. If we take him at his word that his proposal is painful to him – and there’s no reason not to, given all the flak he’s enduring – we begin to understand what is perhaps the deepest source of his power: the belief amongst his growing horde of young Jewish American followers that he actually cares, that he’s not doing this for the celebrity or the royalties or the status. But even if his motives are less than 100% pure, it’s okay. What Beinart is effecting in the real world, on a level that older and more experienced Jewish intellectuals haven’t managed to come close to, is a long-awaited fracture in the hegemony of the so-called mainstream.
As Daniel Levy wrote on 3 April in The Atlantic magazine: “When Amos Oz and David Grossman, Israeli teachers, Peace Now, and Peter Beinart call for variations on a settlement boycott, they are not laying the next rail tracks to Auschwitz. To accuse them of doing so is a deeply insulting and inappropriate accusation. In any case, boycotts, as Raphael Magarik notes, are ‘the best tactic Jews have for censuring other Jews, a tactic that dates at least to the Talmud.’”
Maybe, with luck, this Talmudic tradition will extend eventually to South Africa, where the myopia of the Board of Deputies and the Orthdodox rabbinate has been consistently on par with the Jewish American lobby. DM
- Peter Beinart on Charlie Rose, 2010.
- Air America, in the New Yorker.
- The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, in the New York Review of Books.
- Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, responds to Beinart in the New York Review of Books.
- Why Peter Beinart is driving the 'pro-Israel' establishment crazy, in Al-Jazeera Online.
- Peter Beinart: Admired, Reviled, and Impossible to Ignore, in Tablet magazine.
- To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements, in The New York Times.
- Peter Beinart homepage.
Photo: Peter Beinart and his third book – The Crisis of Zionism.