Because of my internet-induced ADD, I don’t read carefully anymore, and so after commenting on it endlessly over the last week, it wasn’t till last night that I lay on the couch and read Peter Beinart’s groundbreaking essay in the New York Review of Books with care. Let me start with the good news. The piece, titled "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," is very well written–and huge inside the Jewish community. It represents a significant and thoughtful break by a guy who worked for AIPAC in the last election. In its degree of reflection, it recalls Beinart’s mea culpas about Iraq. I was wrong about Iraq, he has said; I underestimated x, y, z– which is far more than others have done. This piece represents a similar gesture with respect to the blind support that AIPAC and the New Republic and the Washington Jewish establishment, Beinart’s social world, has given to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and its slide toward authoritarianism under Netanyahu.
Now the critique. The piece is a work of hermetic attitudinizing. It operates entirely inside a Jewish space, the Jewish "liberal" mind, and thereby erases any consideration of the structure of conditions outside the Jewish community. While it blasts the Conference of Presidents and AIPAC, it doesn’t blast them for their ultimate power, over American policymaking, as the Israel lobby, but their role within the Jewish community, policing attitudes. And by repeatedly stating that the choice for young liberal Jews is between turning their backs on Israel or becoming mindless stormtroopers of the right, it ignores the actual choice that many Jews are taking– supporting BDS as Naomi Klein and Jewish Voice for Peace have done, or going out into the occupied territories to help Palestinians fight the wall, as brave Israelis have done, or reading the New Historians about the refugees. These realities are simply too painful for Beinart as a Zionist, and so he must ignore them, and insist on such stretchers as his claim that there is a large movement inside Israeli society that questions the use of military force. 95 percent of Israeli Jews supported the Gaza onslaught.
That’s hermetics. Ignoring the architecture of the issue.
The paradigm of Beinart’s attitudinizing is his excitement over a veteran Israeli tv commentator named Tommy Lapid who on seeing footage of an old Palestinian woman hunting the ruins of her bulldozed house in Rafah refugee camp for her medicine says that it reminds him of his grandmother who died in Auschwitz. "Lapid captured the spirit that is suffocating within organized American Jewish life," Beinart says, and again and again in the piece he is urging Jews to make Lapid’s leap of universalist faith.
And yes I agree, that identification must be made. But what next? What does that leap add up to in Beinart’s view? Well it is always about attitudes. It is about having the sympathy, not really doing anything about it. Having witnessed the old woman, one must urge action for her sake and her children’s. If you took action, you would have to say the siege is collective punishment. If you took action, you would then have to consider the fact that the woman’s family was ethnically-cleansed 60 years ago and the world has repeatedly urged her restoration; and Israel, including liberal Zionists, have ignored the call– though their state was created as a response to Jewish refugees in Europe.
I agree that Beinart is taking a good first step. His attitudes are well-considered. The piece is often brilliant in its observations. "Security justifies everything," Beinart says of the Establishment. "Jews are licensed by their victimhood to worry only about themselves."
I don’t want to diminish Beinart’s achievement. This is a huge blow inside power politics, which is to say the Jewish Establishment, which dominates the public discussion of these matters. Barack Obama surely knows about this piece, it gives him more ground. But the piece is sealed off from an actual critical examination of power in a way that only an Establishmentarian could seal himself. Beinart talks about "the ethical use of Jewish power," but there is no consideration of what power actually means besides demonstrating in Sheikh Jarrah and then trying to jog Jewish attitudes.
He does not describe the power that AIPAC is wielding over the Congress by rushing letters to Obama from the Congress to stay his hand on East Jerusalem. Or the power that martyrs Goodman and Schwerner exercised in the 60s when they got their asses to Mississippi and gave up their lives because they were enraged by the oppression of blacks. Or the power that a young American exercised in 2003 by going to Rafah, the scene of the house demolition that Beinart is prepared to wring his hands about, and actually trying to stop a bulldozer. Rachel Corrie has had incredible power; and young idealistic Jews know that.