There’s a long profile of Peter Beinart (author of The Crisis of Zionism) up at New York Magazine by Jason Zengerle. I’ve avoided it because the piece is very good for me personally, in that it quotes me and grants me a measure of mainstream approbation; but many friends have told me how disturbing the political values of the story are. a, The discussion of Beinart is entirely a Jewish conversation. No one else is licensed to speak about Israel in the U.S. b, Zengerle hands the microphone to a lot of rightwing Zionists to trash Beinart– the blood is in the water, one friend says.
And c, Zengerle assails Beinart for greasy ambition. If we are going to disqualify successful journalists on that basis, we would empty every editor’s desk in Manhattan by 2:30 this afternoon. “The real story is a gigantic NY mag piece ridiculing Beinart in every way possible,” MJ Rosenberg told me. “Even using antisemitic tropes like Sammy Glick, ambitious climber, parvenu. He sounds more like a Jewish caricature like Dershowitz or young Podhoretz than the classy Ivy guy he is. There are no limits. Beinart had no idea… And why? Because he dared….”
Lizzy Ratner wrote me: “As far as I can tell, the thesis of the piece seems to be that Beinart’s book got everyone’s panties in a bundle because he’s a shmendrick with a bad personality — unlike the jovial Jeffrey Goldberg. The possibility that the establishment might actually be scared of Beinart and his position, non-revolutionary though it is, never really enters the equation. Craven.”
I read the piece today and am reminded that Beinart has shown real bravery with respect to his community, which is almost exclusively Jewish. It takes a lot for anyone to break with his or her community, and Beinart has done so by publicly faulting Israel, which is the worship object of the American Jewish community.
Zengerle allows Beinart’s critics to trash him personally:
Even in a profession populated by striving careerists whose every relationship is transactional, he’s drawn unwanted notice for his ambition. Fellow journalists still remember the self-written biographical sketch he circulated early in his career that listed his various achievements, including this entry: “Beinart won a Marshall Scholarship (declined).” In a 2010 essay for Commentary, Andrew Ferguson recalled a voice mail Beinart once left him when Beinart was editing TNR and Ferguson was writing for Bloomberg News, which then hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner’s most exclusive after-party. “The message commenced with 90 seconds of flattery, densely packed, followed by an insistence that I had to write for his magazine, simply had to,” Ferguson wrote. “My faithful fan made noises as if to ring off. And then came the sudden turn, in a voice that had the texture of Vaseline: ‘Oh, one other thing. You know it’s so odd, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to the Bloomberg party! You don’t suppose …’ ”
In talking to various Jewish journalists about Beinart over the past few months, I heard the words shmegegge and “Sammy Glick,” as well as this joke: “A yeshiva student goes to his rabbi and says, ‘Rabbi, I had a dream last night that I was the leader of a Hasidic court and I had 300 followers.’ The rabbi says, ‘When 300 Hasidim have a dream that you’re their leader, come back and we’ll talk.’ ” More than one called attention to the large picture of Beinart that greets viewers when they visit Open Zion.
And you know the tall poppy syndrome? That the tall poppies– those with ambition– must be cut down? Zengerle does the honors:
But the vitriolic tenor of much of the criticism from the center-left has less to do with substance than with Beinart’s tone—a moral self-righteousness and an accompanying self-certainty. There is a belief, shared by Beinart’s admirers and detractors, that he is not content to merely be a liberal Zionist writer but that he wants to be a liberal Zionist leader.
Folks, there is a historic crisis unfolding in Israel and Palestine. People should want to be leaders! Good for Beinart!
But this is an all-Jewish conversation and there are rules about how you are to conduct yourself. You have to make an oath first:
More than anything, it’s the spirit of Beinart’s criticism that many of his critics find off-putting. The American-Israeli rabbi David Hartman is fond of telling American Jews that when they criticize Israel, they should do so like a mother rather than a mother-in-law. In other words, they should do so out of love, not to belittle. To many of Beinart’s detractors, he sounds like a mother-in-law. “I came to the book as a friend of Peter’s and as someone wanting to see it succeed and see it have a major impact on people’s thinking,” says Peter Joseph, a prominent liberal Jewish philanthropist who gave Beinart money to help launch the Open Zion blog, “but unfortunately what I’ve seen is the book has led to greater polarization, and that doesn’t serve Israel’s best interests.” Beinart’s critics on the center-left don’t actually seem to disagree with him much; his biggest sin has been in not choosing to talk about Israel the way they expect Israel to be talked about.
These critics are on the right, actually. Though I must hand it to Zengerle on the Peter Joseph quote, excellent reporting. This shows how imprisoned my community is by rightwing funders’ attitudes.
Lastly, several friends have pointed out that Zengerle polishes up the handle on the big front door of Jeffrey Goldberg: he climbs over Beinart to burnish the reputation of the man Zengerle calls, accurately, the most important Jewish journalist in the U.S. Like printing this stupid joke:
When our conversation is interrupted by a fleet of Marine helicopters flying over the Potomac River, Goldberg deadpans, “AIPAC, by the way, owns those helicopters. They have their own fleet of Cobras and Blackhawks now.”
From a former Israeli prison guard, that is an insult to anyone who is trying to understand AIPAC’s power in U.S. politics.
Then there’s Zengerle’s good reporting on a meeting of national-security journalists with Obama. Among them were Beinart, Goldberg and David Remnick.
When another journalist asked Obama about what Netanyahu’s new coalition government might mean for the peace process, the president joked, “You should ask Jeff. He knows a lot more about this stuff than I do.” Goldberg won bigger laughs with his reply: “I’m not authorized to talk about that.”
A dual loyalty joke in the White House. Not funny.