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Posted by on May 20, 2010 in Media, Politics, Religion, Society | 0 comments

The Betrayal of Jewish Values

Peter Beinart’s long and thoughtful article in the New York Review of Books has received quite a bit of notice in the blogosphere — and I will point to a few of what I consider the most interesting commentaries shortly. But first, I want to flag one paragraph near the beginning of Beinart’s piece (and especially one sentence in that paragraph, which I have bolded) that struck me quite forcefully because it expressed exactly how I have felt for many years now about the attitude of mainstream, often liberal, American Jews to Israel:

Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives.

Exactly. I am constantly amazed by Jewish liberals who oppose racially insensitive and discriminatory policies, speak out against aggressive militarism in U.S. foreign policy, and embrace the politics of social justice, cultural and ethnic diversity, and racial equality in their own country, and everywhere else in the world — but who morph into racist warmongering imperialists when it comes to Israel. How can the same liberal Jewish activists who marched against the Vietnam war or the Persian Gulf war or the Iraq war or who opposed the U.S. sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s or who oppose attempts to disenfranchise African Americans and poor Americans, or who decry the problem of homelessness in America, stand silent, refusing to openly or publicly condemn, or even mildly criticize, massively disproportionate military attacks, with tanks, bombers, and the full might of one of the world’s most powerful armies, against hundreds of thousands of essentially defenseless people, mostly civilians, in a tiny strip of land from which there is no route of escape — when the tanks and bombers are Israeli and the defenseless civilians are Palestinians? Indeed, I have seen self-defined liberals — both of my generation and decades younger — actively celebrate, the disproportion in power and, with no hint of shame at all, cheer the Goliath versus David imbalance in defensive ability.

There are many Jewish liberals whose liberalism does not vanish when the subject of Israel comes up. Ezra Klein — who does not usually write on this subject — has a smart and (as always) elegantly articulated piece on the Beinart article at his WaPo blog. I particularly love his definition of what American liberalism is about, and how he applies that definition to Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians:

Moreover, as Beinart says, most American Jews are liberals. And the fundamental project of American liberalism is bringing compassion to economic power and restraint to military power and equality to political power. Now that Israel is as empowered as it is embattled, its reckless application of military power (as in Gaza), counterproductive use of economic power (subsidies and support for the settlements), and embrace of a racially unequal politics (Lieberman suggested excluding Israeli Arabs from serving in the Knesset altogether) brings it into direct conflict with the American liberals who provide it with such substantial support. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has decided to support the further expansion of the settlements even at the cost of his relationship with the United States.

Spencer Ackerman, who was on staff at The New Republic when Beinart was a top editor there, thinks Beinart deserves kudos for writing a piece that would have been too hot for TNR.

To get the inevitable out of the way: back when I worked with Peter, the magazine we worked for, for all its professed love of Israel, would never be as frank and as brave and as honest and as morally urgent to publish a piece like this. It would be a hurtful shame if it continues its current pattern and instead either attacks Peter for writing it or dismisses the points he raises. Whatever some of you think about Peter, it takes a brave and reflective man to write this. Don’t hate, congratulate.

And if you can’t bring yourself to congratulate, at least make a serious argument. In his response to Beinart’s essay, Jeffrey Goldberg isn’t hateful — just silly:

I’ve only read through Beinart’s essay quickly (though not so quickly that I haven’t already exchanged a couple of e-mails with him about it) and I think it is in many ways analytically valid, if unsympathetic to some of the existential challenges faced by Israelis. But the essay’s placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart’s goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it. Who is he trying to convince? Timothy Garton Ash? Peter should have published this essay on Tablet, or some other sort of publication not associated with Tony Judt’s disproportionate hatred of Jewish nationalism.

So, in other words, if Beinart had published the same essay in Tablet, Goldberg would have been full of praise for it?

Spencer Ackerman calls this “associative reasoning“:

A deeper problem is the associative reasoning that infects us within the Shtetl. J Street embraces Peter, and so that’ll be enough for some readers to marginalize Peter’s piece. After all, how many times have you read a Jewish author writing that someone’s views about this-or-that are “Walt/Mearsheimer-esque” or some other evasion? It’s a technique to preemptively discredit something as opposed to dealing with it, but it only discredits the author. Sadly, you see Jeffrey Goldberg writing not a word of substance over Peter’s piece, but instead lamenting that Peter published it in the presumably-anti-Israel crowd at the New York Review of Books! Goldberg says that he’ll follow up with Peter and get into the guts of the actual critique, and I hope he will. But we should all stop ourselves if we notice that we use an association to describe an argument as opposed to the argument-itself.

And here is Beinart’s response, at… guess where? Tablet!

Why did you publish the essay in the New York Review of Books, which has a reputation of being distinctly left-wing, particularly on the question of Israel?
In all honesty, it was originally supposed to be New York Times Magazine. I don’t have any ill will, but there was a stylistic disagreement, not an ideological one.

There are not very many places anymore where one can write long, serious essays. Secondly, although my piece is a piece about liberal Zionism—I don’t believe in a binational state—Jeff Goldberg is my friend, but I disagree with him when he says NYRB is an anti-Israel. It publishes some of the most important people on the Israeli left. … We should draw inspiration from those people who share our values in Israel. If you’re going to tell me the New York Review of Books is an anti-Israel publication, that just makes no sense. I don’t think I’m anti-Israel. I think people throw around these terms way too promiscuously.

But doesn’t this make it easier for those who disagree with you to simply dismiss the piece given where it appeared?
I did think about that. You’re right: People will say that. And I think it’s a little bit silly. I wrote 5000 words. If you disagree with what I said—and there are reasonable disagreements—if you just say, ‘Oh well, it’s in the New York Review,’ that’s a sign that you’re looking for an opportunity not to engage with it. Tell me where I’m wrong! I can think of counterarguments.

Maybe we’ll hear some of those counterarguments when Goldberg gets around to his follow-up.