Ethnocentrism and journalism (Beinart’s double standard for Israel and Iraq)

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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I’ll be praising Peter Beinart a lot in days to come. I think he’s bravely broken a taboo inside establishment Jewish life. But something he said at J Street the other night left me very cold.

On Sunday night a questioner asked Beinart about his “journey” through establishment institutions (Yale, the New Republic) to publishing a book that attacks the American Jewish leadership over its stiffnecked policy about Israel. Beinart answered:

I struggled with some of this stuff privately, I didn’t really write about it very much [even as] I wrote about other aspects of foreign policy for a number of years. Because I was conflicted, because I was worried about perhaps the ways it would be received amongst people I care about.

And because I didn’t necessarily feel that I had the right to speak about this, given that I didn’t live in Israel, given that I hadn’t yet given my life to try to understand the issue.

Somewhere along the line a series of things happened…

And Beinart cited the failure of Avigdor Lieberman’s rise to rouse the American Jewish community. So he was stirred to speak out. 

I can relate to Beinart’s silence. I’m not a Zionist, but I have an ethnocentric streak. And I deferred to Zionists in the Jewish community for years and stayed away from the Israel story– out of the feeling that pro-Israel Jews knew better than I did what was good for the Jews. Then the Iraq war ended my vow of silence.

And I could not help thinking about one of those foreign policy issues on which Beinart did not censor himself but offered himself as an expert: Beinart was a leading voice for the Iraq war. He pushed that invasion in The New Republic and wrote a whole book about the virtue of militant engagement, The Good Fight. Beinart endorsed a wholesale project of “spreading freedom in the Muslim world” by force:

Of all the things contemporary liberals can learn from their forbearers half a century ago, perhaps the most important is that national security can be a calling. If the struggles for gay marriage and universal health care lay rightful claim to liberal idealism, so does the struggle to protect the United States by spreading freedom in the Muslim world. It, too, can provide the moral purpose for which a new generation of liberals yearn.

The fact that Beinart had never lived in Iraq and had not devoted years of study to, say, Sunni-Shia divisions or Arab political culture– it didn’t stop Beinart for one second. And of course the invasion of Iraq destroyed an Arab society and caused over 100,000 deaths. Leave alone the huge damage in the U.S. and to so many young people here. 

And when you think about the difference between speaking out boldly on Iraq and stopping himself from a squeak on Israel, the difference is not just ideological (Zionism), it is social and ethnic: Beinart lived and worked in the Jewish community. He identified with other Jews, he didn’t know Muslims. His sense of allegiance to Jews and fellow Zionists stopped him from issuing the mildest criticism of Israel. But when it came to a foreign country that coincidentally was considered the eastern threat to Israel, Beinart was for steel and cordite.

One reason I admire Beinart is he is a reflective man who has done penance for his Iraq mistake. But my point here involves the importance of ethnicity in journalism. The other day the New York Times said that black journalists played a key role in pushing the Trayvon Martin case, because they could relate to the Martins and explain the issues. And we all know that the Trayvon Martin story would have died without their energetic engagement. Bless those journalists; I would have walked on by.

And when people say that Jewishness in the media doesn’t matter, it’s absurd to me. All Jews have had to struggle with the call from their community to support Zionism, every one of us. All of us have had to come to terms with the Jewish ethnocentrism that Beinart was (unconsciously) expressing.

And so I find that I interrogate Jewish reporters on this basis, trying to take their internal temperature on Zionism. Max Frankel of the New York Times– well he later admitted he was fighting for Israel when he was editorial page editor of the New York Times. The late Daniel Schorr was a Zionist and endlessly espoused Israel on air. I wonder about Wolf Blitzer given his AIPAC past, I wonder about Robert Siegel at NPR due to his fondness for Jeffrey Goldberg and Amos Yadlin (and his ability to pronounce Amos in the Hebrew way, something I don’t know how to do). And though I think, giving them the benefit of the doubt, that they are not Zionists, still I wonder about Joe Klein, David Corn, Howard Fineman, and Mark Halperin (whose father is a mucketymuck at J Street); I wonder how ethnocentric they are, and what lien Zionism has on their opinions. Because Jews’ lives are at stake in this conflict and Jewish leaders have said it is Jews’ sacred mission to protect those lives.

I admire the late I.F. Stone for struggling openly with his ethnocentrism and often criticizing Israel, I respect Eric Alterman for being plain about his ethnocentrism.  Just as I intuit based on her self-possession that Jodi Rudoren the new NYT correspondent is not a Zionist, and has come to a thoughtful self-understanding on this point. Just as I knew the moment I met him that Adam Horowitz cares only about human rights, not Jewish human rights– and on that basis I wanted to work with him and learn from him.

These interrogations– I realize they are a form of redbaiting. I’ve spent enough time moderating comments at this site to know that such explorations can give rise to vicious anti-Semitism. But Beinart’s admission upsets me. Zionism and the power of ethnic identification restrained him from saying a word on Israel and I am sure played a role in his support for that awful war.

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