‘NY Review of Books’ goes after the Israel lobby, Jewishly

on 23 Comments

The NY Review of Books has an important piece in its forthcoming issue on the idea that the American Jewish establishment has rigidly sided with Israeli leadership and abandoned liberal American values and endangered the Zionist project. I.e., the New York Review is slamming the Israel lobby from a Jewish place. Or giving it a friendly slap–the word "lobby" is never used. The author is Peter Beinart:

In Israel itself, voices from the left, and even center, warn in increasingly urgent tones about threats to Israeli democracy. (Former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have both said that Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state” if it continues to hold the West Bank. This April, when settlers forced a large Israeli bookstore to stop selling a book critical of the occupation, Shulamit Aloni, former head of the dovish Meretz Party, declared that “Israel has not been democratic for some time now.”) But in the United States, groups like AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace.

The result is a terrible irony. In theory, mainstream American Jewish organizations still hew to a liberal vision of Zionism. On its website, AIPAC celebrates Israel’s commitment to “free speech and minority rights.” The Conference of Presidents declares that “Israel and the United States share political, moral and intellectual values including democracy, freedom, security and peace.” These groups would never say, as do some in Netanyahu’s coalition, that Israeli Arabs don’t deserve full citizenship and West Bank Palestinians don’t deserve human rights. But in practice, by defending virtually anything any Israeli government does, they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire….

Not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as well. In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world’s most respected international human rights groups.

The piece concludes with good sociological insight and a call on American Jews to revive Zionism among the young, based on liberal anti-Sheikh Jarrah principles:

This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s…. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood—a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967—strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce.

But there is a different Zionist calling, which has never been more desperately relevant. It has its roots in Israel’s Independence Proclamation, which promised that the Jewish state “will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets,” and in the December 1948 letter from Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and others to The New York Times, protesting right-wing Zionist leader Menachem Begin’s visit to the United States after his party’s militias massacred Arab civilians in the village of Deir Yassin. It is a call to recognize that in a world in which Jewish fortunes have radically changed, the best way to memorialize the history of Jewish suffering is through the ethical use of Jewish power.

…What if American Jewish organizations brought these young people [protesting Sheikh Jarrah] to speak at Hillel? What if this was the face of Zionism shown to America’s Jewish young?

A few thoughts:

–The piece is undoubtedly important, because the New York Review of Books has power. Maybe now Rick Hertzberg of the New Yorker will write about the Sheikh Jarrah protest he attended. David Remnick will move further left on the issue. More centrist American achievement Jews will finally come out against the colonization program and even the East Jerusalem messianism, because they realize it won’t hurt their careers; Robert Silvers of the NY Review is saying the water is safe. Moshe Halbertal is at the Sheikh Jarrah protests, so is Bernard Avishai; they have helped to move the left-center, and good for them.

–The piece demonstrates the fact that the NY Review is a follower not a leader. All these ideas have been expressed before in Jewish life. Haaretz has expressed them, Jerry Haber at Magnes Zionist has expressed them, Rebecca Vilkomerson at Jewish Voice for Peace, Cecilie Surasky at JVP, Richard Silverstein, Daniel Fleshler, I could go on and on. Max Blumenthal has been a siren on the fact that Jewish-American liberal values are being corrupted by Israel’s militarism. Tony Judt said verbatim four years ago that American Jewish leadership thinks it’s 1938 and they’re nuts. The New York Review turns to none of these intellectuals who have done the tilling of the hard ground. It turns to one of George Bush’s useful idiots, to echo Judt, in Beinart, a man who helped push the U.S. to war in Iraq and who worked for AIPAC during the 2008 election and has evidently bethought his attachment.

–Beinart and the NY Review nowhere credit Walt and Mearsheimer here. The NY Review has never reviewed their bombshell book. But their ideas are remarkably similar to the ideas that Beinart is straining through his latke strainer, four years on. Walt and Mearsheimer are for the two-state solution, or were. Again, followership. Mike Desch has talked about the disastrous role of Never-again-ism in our foreign policy. Yes the Review has an enormous effect inside Jewish life, but does official Jewish life have a damn clue about where the conversation is now? No, they are following the conversation…

Beinart’s piece is avowedly parochial. And it is also very smart in many places. Maybe it represents a break with Marty Peretz? Yes: I hope he reaches the Jews, as I hope that J Street gets Jewish congressmen to stop speaking in tongues. But can you have any larger moral authority if you don’t talk about the massacre in Gaza and the Kent-State treatment by the Israeli army of Palestinian demonstrators? Beinart won’t go near either of these truths.

23 Responses

  1. Les
    May 17, 2010, 10:45 am

    David Remnick’s bias against Arabs and Muslims explains why he is in charge. Unless, that is, if you believe the publisher does not know?

  2. Siegfried al-Haq
    May 17, 2010, 11:02 am

    Interesting… as you note Phil, the significance of the piece is less in its content than in the author and his background. This is a bad day for Marty P and his club, it’ll be interesting to see how they spin what will no doubt seem to them to be a defection from their ranks.

  3. Les
    May 17, 2010, 11:15 am

    Oops! My criticism was of David Remnick of the New Yorker who has nothing to do with the NYRB. Sorry about that.

  4. Nevada Ned
    May 17, 2010, 11:40 am

    A while ago, Bill Moyers’ Journal covered the run-up to the Iraq war. Peter Beinart of The New Republic, one of the zillions of liberal hawks who were cheerleading for the disastrous war, looked particularly idiotic. Now I see that the NYR is “repositioning” itself by having Beinart denounce the more extreme American Likudniks. Beinart is advancing his career by “negotiating” the Israel lobby issue.

    Since Noam Chomsky was, a couple of decades ago, one of the few critics of Israeli policy, wouldn’t he be a logical person to write such a piece?
    Too bad Chomsky has been banned from the pages of NYR since sometime in the 1970’s.

    • Chu
      May 17, 2010, 12:04 pm

      Beinart was a Neocon, but since Neocons were exposed for questionable practices and loyalties, he now sees the glass is half full.

      I think David Frum has been taking the same conciliatory approach since he was recently dumped from AEI.

      “They’ll all crawl back to the left, with a hat in their hand,
      Career advancement’s gone, since the terror storm’s a past!”

      I wonder when Lieberman will follow suit?

  5. Leper Colonialist
    May 17, 2010, 12:17 pm

    Generally, i’m grateful for all favors, no matter how small, but this “favor” seems to fall somewhere on the scale somewhere between microscopic and infinitesmal.

    Beinart’s argument is not a new one, in spite of the fact that’s it’s infrequently heard and never heeded.

    What is new is the fact that Beinart is making it. As both Nevada Ned and Chu note, he may merely be trying to reposition or rebrand himself to strengthen his ongoing viability as a talking head pundit. Who, familar with Beinart’s past positions, would look to him for sage advice re the ins-and -outs of US foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is indeed a mystery. But i’m a mature adult and I flatter myself into believing that I’m able to handle reasonable levels of ambiguity and uncertainty.

    No, Beinart’s line of reasoning would have indeed beem worthy of note only if it appeared in The New Republic or Commentary, under the byline of Podhoretz or Peretz or David Harris or Charles Krauthammer or any other of like mind.

  6. DICKERSON3870
    May 17, 2010, 12:53 pm

    RE: “…I hope that J Street gets Jewish congressmen to stop speaking in tongues.” – Weiss
    MY COMMENT: Lol! Good one!

  7. annie
    May 17, 2010, 2:45 pm

    lots of baby steps and this represents one of them. i’m ready for the gallop.

    • annie
      May 17, 2010, 2:58 pm

      actually now that i have begun reading the article (have not finished yet) i’m finding some encouraging implications in the refreshing bluntness.

      fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal…….

      Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations 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.

      • Les
        May 17, 2010, 3:05 pm

        It looks like the NYRB is trying to resuscitate the corpse of something once called “liberal Zionism.” It’s way way too late.

      • annie
        May 17, 2010, 5:10 pm

        iit may have been called liberal zionism but listen to what he calls it in the article’s finale.

        Let’s hope that Luntz’s students, in solidarity with their counterparts at Sheikh Jarrah, can foster an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. Let’s hope they care enough to try.

        this is Beinart’s version of zionism’s hope, what he hope to fosters. uncomfortable and angry zionism.

      • annie
        May 17, 2010, 5:16 pm

        argh. what he hopes fosters or what he hopes to foster.

  8. marc b.
    May 17, 2010, 3:46 pm

    I am fairly certain that Beinart (who I don’t take too seriously) is attempting to reposition himself on sliding relevancy scale. But who really gives a rat’s ass about Pete Beinart in the scheme of things? This paragraph from Weiss is the real point:

    Beinart and the NY Review nowhere credit Walt and Mearsheimer here. The NY Review has never reviewed their bombshell book. But their ideas are remarkably similar to the ideas that Beinart is straining through his latke strainer, four years on.

    A particular species of Zionist is fearful that it will lose control of the debate, meaning whose voice may or may not be heard. Thus Gentile cheerleaders are welcome, the lunatic Christian-Zionist fringe being the most ugly example, but even Gentile ‘realists’ such as the mildly critical W and M are not eligible for membership in the adult discussion group. Jewish-American anti-Zionists (the few that exist) get it worse of course, ‘ex-communication’ and threats of violence being part of the scheme of punishment.

    • annie
      May 17, 2010, 5:04 pm

      any repositioning that represents them repeating our narrative so as not to become obsolete can be taken a positive sign.

  9. Pamela Olson
    May 17, 2010, 4:23 pm

    It’s not perfect, but it’s fantastic — another chip in the wall. Another bit of breathing space opened up. And once the dam bursts… there ain’t no going back. Truth is a one-way valve.


  10. Miriam
    May 17, 2010, 5:19 pm

    and while the NYRBks was siding with the lobby for a change….ahem….the Sunday NYTimes book section published another swat at Tariq Ramadan using the same old empty rhetorical smackdown that has been passed around and getting a lot of communal use…..the same diatribes, claims and rants that Professor Ramadan is talking in tongues and abjures saying what he really means…..and of course that Professor Ramadan failed to properly select his grandfather, his grandfather’s associates & dad. What else is left? of course….dont forget ‘he’s antiSemitic’!…digging back in his 2003 writings complaining that he “angrily attacked….Jewish intellectuals….for supporting Israel and Zionism”. this is anti Semitic? I’ve been doing that since 2003 myself and I’m a Jew. So what? Oh the real pivotal giveaway was that some of the people he ‘charged’ weren’t actually Jewish. And he did it “Openly”!!! has the scholar no shame?? Well, that did it…I immediately went to purchase Ramadan’s “What I believe” before they burn his books..

    • MRW
      May 17, 2010, 5:24 pm


    • demize
      May 17, 2010, 6:18 pm

      Yes I read this today. Julias seems to be a one trick pony, he uses the review of Berman’s book to degrade Ramadan and lionize Hirsi Ali who is a tired hack INHO.

  11. MRW
    May 17, 2010, 5:28 pm

    Great comments on Beinart’s piece on sullivan’s site. And a wonderful quote about the “settler fanatic” Palin that applies equally to US and Israeli fanatics.
    link to andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com

    I’m currently reading Birds Without Wings, a novel by Louis de Bernières about the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Last night I felt very squeamish about a Palin candidacy after reading this sentence:

    “The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race, and it shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if they were done by any other.”

  12. seth
    May 17, 2010, 6:33 pm

    Comments about the author aside, I thought it was a great piece. I don’t agree with the hopes about liberal Zionism, but he nailed a lot of what’s going on quite well.

  13. Richard Witty
    May 18, 2010, 7:18 am

    The logic of the pro-Israeli vanguard is nearly identical to the logic of the Palestinian solidarity.

    That is to defer to those that “know better”.

    • Richard Witty
      May 18, 2010, 7:18 am

      When both need the friendly voice of conscience, asking all the time, “is that a good thing to do?”

  14. sammy
    May 18, 2010, 11:59 pm

    Its really bizarre. You have people talking about “liberal Zionism” and “Israeli democracy”. Its a military occupation by a colonial state that favours Jews. Half the natives have no suffrage and live under occupation! How people delude themselves.

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