Beinart’s hermetics

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 36 Comments

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.

36 Responses

  1. Mooser
    May 26, 2010, 10:40 am

    I read that piece very carefully, too. I got as far as “by Peter Beinart” when I realised there were new cereal boxes in the pantry with compelling nutritional information on the back.

    • Mooser
      May 26, 2010, 11:29 am

      Or as we used to call him, back in Iraq-invasion days, “prime fighting age material Peter Beinart”.

      But, dammit, he didn’t go.

  2. MRW
    May 26, 2010, 10:43 am

    This is why I like you writing this blog.

  3. Chu
    May 26, 2010, 10:56 am

    He took the first step. Let’s hope the second step
    is soon and not next year.

  4. pabelmont
    May 26, 2010, 11:00 am

    Phil, Heap praise on Beinart. The trip of 1000 miles begins with a single step. He is walking toward the outer door of his house–from the inside. soon he will walk outside and see the sun shining and realize there is a whole world, an important world, outside his house.

    I should think that–like you–he has “broken his rice bowl” within that house. Like you, he needs to find a “rice bowl” or at least employment in the greater world.

    He will learn that it is possible to be moral and just without basing that morality on Judaism or on Zionism. And like Goodman and Schwerner he will make common cause with the oppressed on general principles.

    • Philip Weiss
      May 26, 2010, 11:04 am

      smart man, peter, thanks for that. very helpful. i’ll keep that in mind, phil

      • Richard Witty
        May 26, 2010, 11:25 am

        I don’t think he’ll walk to the “whatever happens to Israel is ok” side of the fence.

        Like liberal Zionists in general, the farthest he will walk is to mutual humanization, as is reasonable.

        To walk further is to walk to “let live only”, rather than “Live and let live”.

      • Mooser
        May 26, 2010, 11:30 am

        The nut never falls far from the tree.

    • MarkF
      May 26, 2010, 11:30 am

      Great post and great reply. I feel Beinart’s piece is a powerful one and I’m thankful he wrote it.

      Look, it’s a great step period. The man that stood at an AIPAC podium calling them out for their corrupting role in the Jewish community is huge. We can criticize for not calling out AIPAC’s power, but AIPAC’s power base is in the Jewish community and if that support crumbles it may help lesson the grip and the narrative.

      Time will tell.

      • Richard Witty
        May 26, 2010, 11:43 am

        Beinart’s realization is rational. Current Israeli policy as far as apartheid-like features of its occupation in the West Bank, and Jim Crow-like features within Israel is indefensible (as policy), and amateurishly presented publicly.

        The ambiguities of the Palestinian identity and behavior still remain.

        There is still no consentable proposal offered. Still, no clarification of what “right of return” means for example.

      • Danaa
        May 26, 2010, 12:10 pm

        Witty, jumping the gun, as always. Or is it jumping the shark? Go get a rice bowl, Witty, so you can break something.

        Too bad you still live in that hermetically closed house, with nothing but a few slivers of light shining through the cracks. Even as you desperately try to seal them off, the minute the split in the paint shows up. Everyone here has been trying to get you to the window, so you can see that there’s life outside. But no luck this far. And still, you come to this blog, riveted more than ever.

        Too bad you still can’t trust a goy, much less an Arab. isn’t that what it’s all about for you? trust, or the lack thereof?

      • Mooser
        May 26, 2010, 12:37 pm

        Sure Richard, why go 1,000 miles when you’re completely exhausted by that single step? What is it these people want, already.

        Witty, you will spend the rest of your life trying to justify your failure.

        “Wen der fater gibt men tsu zun, lachen baiden. Wen der zun gibt men tsu fater, vainen baiden.”

      • Richard Witty
        May 26, 2010, 12:38 pm

        Wierd reactions.

      • MarkF
        May 26, 2010, 12:50 pm

        I feel the realization is the easy part. I think speaking out is pretty gutsy. He’s a voice that gets attention. He knew writing that piece was going to open him up to all sorts of attacks from the neocon goon squad.

        I don’t think it’s Peter’s place to offer proposals. Maybe it’s better for him to simply expose the fissions and the Israeli govt might realize they’re losing support for policies that are unsustainable.

        Clarifications are for those negotiating, in my opinion. Bush set the worst precidence by agreeing to let Sharon keep the major sttlement populations. He had no right to do this and it showed Isreal that they don’t have to “really” negotiate with the Palestinians, which was Sharon’s goal.

        As far as proposals, do we need to list them? Road Map, Saudi/Arab, etc. It’s a fools erand because of the lobby. Bush set forth the road map, Israel contacted those in the lobby and the administration to voice opposition, proposal dies.

      • Frances
        May 26, 2010, 12:50 pm

        WEIRD! W-E-I-R-D! Are you oblivious to the silent red scream of Spell Check?

      • James
        May 26, 2010, 1:22 pm

        entirely appropriate actually…

      • LeaNder
        May 26, 2010, 2:12 pm

        Mooser you will make me learn yiddish. At the moment would you please explain the giving of what exactly makes all the difference?

      • Mooser
        May 26, 2010, 2:12 pm

        “Too bad you still can’t trust a goy,”

        What? Richard doesn’t trust Gentiles? Gosh, I thought endorsing Zionism shows that you worship Gentiles. Or is there some Jewish endorsement of colonialism, racism (in this Arab-Jewish context) and conquest by force hidden in the Talmud I’m not aware of? Or did I just not listen in Hebrew School?

        Zionism is the ultimate Jewish paen to the Gentiles. Nothing says “We Jews are as good as you Gentiles” like Zionism.

      • Mooser
        May 26, 2010, 3:01 pm

        I am no expert on Yiddish, (if only I had paid attention to my Cousin Helen, I would be, but I didn’t.) and there are several good Yiddish glossaries on the web. I use mostly The Gantseh Megillah

        “When the father gives to the son, both laugh, when the son gives to the father, both cry”

      • LeaNder
        May 26, 2010, 3:50 pm

        Hmm? in that case I should simply have ignored the “men” from a German perspective. And it does make sense too.

      • Mooser
        May 26, 2010, 4:06 pm

        “The ambiguities of the Palestinian identity and behavior still remain.”

        But, but, what about all that diversity of opinion in the democratic Haredi-deedy-dos, Richard? No ambiguities there?

        And of course, having ambiguities of identity and behavior is a capital crime? No wonder Hitler hated the Jews, and no wonder Germany felt that only the most strenuous efforts would suffice. Damn those ambiguities! How smart we were to get rid of them! Yes sir, nothing ambiguous about us Jewsies!

  5. samjnickels
    May 26, 2010, 12:04 pm

    I appreciate your recognition that the piece existed solely within a Jewish space, firmly within the Jewish establishment. As a non-Jew, I had a sense of that while I was reading the piece, but I couldn’t identify exactly what I was feeling. For me, if the conversation doesn’t go further, into how this Zionism, that he describes, affects US foreign policy and how it drains dollars from the budget, then the conversation remains distant for non-Jews.

  6. Parity
    May 26, 2010, 12:31 pm

    It disturbs me that you comment on articles without having read them carefully.

    • Philip Weiss
      May 26, 2010, 3:10 pm

      yes i know it’s disturbing. it disturbs me too. but looking back on it i was pretty right, and this is the blogosphere. the horse of history runs by the window once and you have to decide to jump out in that second

      • Danaa
        May 26, 2010, 3:54 pm

        You got it right there, Phil – horses of history galloping by, indeed. Hop on board or forever hold your peace.

        Waiting for perfection/completeness means never having to say you are sorry. But then it can also mean not saying much while the saying is good.

        I should know. I am still working on my kabuki theatre piece of the Mabhoud Dubai killings. problem is, while I’m still casting the parts, and sharpening my divination sticks, the audience has moved on to the next big shtick.

        Here are the rules: one can be divine, quick, or deep true. now pick two of the three.

      • Danaa
        May 26, 2010, 3:57 pm

        Correction: “Hop on board or forever hold your piece”

        That’s what I get for picking quick and deep true.

        And there I was, thinking me done, specializing in divine, with hints of shallow true.

      • Mooser
        May 26, 2010, 4:22 pm

        After what Beinart wrote concerning Iraq, is he entitled to a careful reading? Nope, he deserves to be shown the same consideration he gave.
        I wonder how many young American Jews were inspired to join up and invade Iraq by Beinart’s bleatings? Will he ever be called to account for that?

  7. annie
    May 26, 2010, 1:45 pm

    phil, good start.. my sentiments are aligned w/peter, heap more praise.’re right, he could have said more but it may have then seemed overloaded, i think as an opener it was a magnificent effort.

    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.

    i think you need to read more into it, especially the last 2 paragraphs @ nyrb. he references the jewish students protesting in sheikh jarrah and talks about challenging young american jews What if the students …. had been told that their generation faces a challenge as momentous as any in Jewish history: to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth? and goes on to propose bringing some of those students to US hillels.

    this is not a choice of “turning their backs on Israel “. it seems to me beinart steps it up a notch both in his criticism of the israel lobby and in his calling to young american jews in his followup @ daily beast written in response to chait. here is his last paragraph:

    In referring to the young American Jews who might revive liberal Zionism in the United States, the last line of my piece was “I hope they care enough to try.” But in his focus groups, Frank Luntz found that the best way to make young, secular American Jews identify with Israel was, in fact, to link Israel to their belief in free expression, human rights, and peace. That requires introducing them to those Israelis struggling to sustain Israeli democracy, people like David Grossman, Yaron Ezrahi, Akiva Eldar, and the students protesting at Sheikh Jarrah, people who love Israel enough to speak in anger about what is happening to it. Jon should try it sometime.

    • annie
      May 26, 2010, 1:47 pm

      i meant to say my sentiments are aligned w/pabelmont’s critique.

      • LeaNder
        May 26, 2010, 2:31 pm

        i meant to say my sentiments are aligned w/pabelmont’s critique.

        Mine, were. Admittedly I have no specific memories of Beinhart-the-WWIII/IV-warrior. Maybe there were too many. Neither did the article feel like an exclusively Jewish space. That’s not more relevant now than it would have been then, and then I decided it wasn’t worth a comment. But yes, I was a bit puzzled. I remember why the hell does Phil write, I am paraphrasing: It’s too long.

        Ahh, ADD, he thought it must/should be long …

  8. wondering jew
    May 26, 2010, 3:31 pm

    Phil’s usage of the term “mindless stormtroopers of the right” indicates that the rhetoric of the scum of the comments section receive encouragement from the authors of this blog.

    • Mooser
      May 26, 2010, 4:25 pm

      Call the cops then, idiot. Maybe they will have a line-up and you can point us out.
      And why shouldn’t the comment writers draw inspiration from the blog’s author?

      But whatever you do, please don’t leave us, wondering, that would kill us!

      • Mooser
        May 26, 2010, 4:28 pm

        Ah, what a way we’ve come! People identifying themselves as Jews writing comments to defend the mindless stormtroopers of the right from defamation! Only in America!

        Yeah, wondering, you just stick with those stormtroopers. You know who your friends are.

  9. eGuard
    May 26, 2010, 4:48 pm

    I read more of the piece than Mooser did. The first five paragraphs are about a 2003 research. 2003!
    They want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its flaws. Seven years ago. But now I need to check my new cereal boxes texts for healthy reasons.

  10. Julian
    May 26, 2010, 5:13 pm

    Groundbreaking essay? It’s the same old Liberal whining from a whining liberal.
    “How hard it must be for Beinart to ally with his employer, the New America Foundation, and Haaretz, Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, the New York Review of Books, the Nation magazine, the New York Times editorial and op-ed pages, Time magazine, the American Conservative, the American Prospect, Mother Jones, the entirety of the British and European media, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’tselem, J Street, J Call, the New Israel Fund, Richard Goldstone, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, the European Union, the British Foreign Office, the European Council, scores of NGOs, Walt and Mearsheimer, Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim, Tony Judt, Tel Aviv University, every Middle East Studies department, George Soros, the Ford Foundation, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter, Andrew Sullivan, Noam Chomsky, Mondoweiss, and … well, you get the picture.”
    link to

Leave a Reply