The cultural importance of Peter Beinart

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“No longer are we necessarily a people that dwells alone. And no longer is it true that the whole world is against us.”

–Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a speech to the Knesset, July 13, 1992

“The Jews have beaten the Israelis.”

–Shimon Peres in 1996 after being defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu

In his recent essay arguing for equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians, Peter Beinart says the Jewish dehumanization of the Palestinians is the biggest threat to a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians, and he points to the misinterpretation of the Holocaust as a reason for that dehumanization. This “Holocaust lens,” Beinart claims, is what makes it so difficult for Jews to see Palestinians as created “b’tselem Elohim,” in the image of God.

That dehumanization includes the idea that Palestinians are motivated by antisemitism in their opposition to Israel. The claim, Beinart says, is a function of “Jewish trauma.” And, Beinart argues, it says more about us than it does about them:

The depiction of Palestinians as compulsive Jew-haters…stems less from Palestinian behavior than from Jewish trauma. As the late Israeli scholar Yehuda Elkana, a Holocaust survivor himself, has observed, what “motivates much of Israeli society in its relations with the Palestinians is…a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust … But this Holocaust lens distorts how Palestinians actually behaved: not like genocidal Jew-haters, but rather like other peoples seeking national rights.

Beinart says even the dreaded Hamas is more reasonable than you’ve been told, yet the Holocaust lens prevents American Jews from seeing this:

“It is because of the Holocaust lens that Jews who have spent decades developing relationships with Hamas leaders—like the late Menachem Froman, the former rabbi of the settlement of Tekoa, and Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Israeli cabinet minister—are ridiculed or ignored when they suggest that these leaders are willing to live in peace.”

If not for the “Holocaust lens,” it would be obvious that Palestinians are no different from anyone else. In other words, were Palestinians not so dehumanized in public discourse, it would be evident that they, too, prefer not to kill or be killed when they can achieve their rights in more peaceful ways. The political scientist Ilan Peleg describes the power of the Holocaust lens on the Israeli and Jewish imagination:

The Holocaust is used as the “final proof” for the eternal victimhood of the Jewish people. Thus, collective victimhood has emerged not merely as politically instrumental but even as a culturally cultivated and psychological internalized condition. (p. 5)

That’s why Beinart’s perspective on Palestinians and other “enemies” of Israel is found by so many to be threatening. It is not Peter Beinart’s politics that boils passions and elicits attacks from the Jewish right and, in fact, much of the Jewish establishment. Politics do not explain why Israeli rabbi and writer Daniel Gordis called Beinart “a traitor to the Jewish people” last week.

Rather, it’s Beinart’s refusal to show deference to the usual narrative of Jewish victimhood that raises ire. Beinart draws opposition in Jewish political culture because he challenges the mainstream Jewish narrative on Jewish and Israeli victimhood. Peleg offers more insight into the victimhood perspective:

The belief that the persecution is completely unrelated to the targeted in group and that it exclusively the product of actions taken by the outgroup (it is therefore assumed that the persecuted ingroup cannot impact the victimization.) (2)

Through the Holocaust lens the “persecution” of Israel is never a result of Israel’s behavior. According to the Jewish victimhood perspective, Israel is always acting in self-defense.

In mainstream Israeli and Jewish culture, to be a (good) Jew is to embrace the Holocaust lens and, indeed, a general narrative of Jewish victimhood. And it is this Jewish mindset that Beinart objects to. Like the rest of the world, Beinart sees Israel as the victimizer, not the victim. And Beinart finds the victimhood weltanschauung “a cancer” that damages not only Palestinians but Jews too.

But, unlike in the past, the outrage aimed at Beinart’s latest essay mostly comes from Israel. Beinart’s usual American detractors, the American Jews who claim to speak for the rest of Jews, are on the defensive. The “spokespeople for the Jews,” the influential American Jews who have previously confronted Beinart and his ideas, are staying out of Beinart’s way this time.

Compare this silence with the last time Beinart caused a cultural sensation in the Jewish world. Just contemplate what the charge was against Beinart the last time he gave the Jewish community a jolt to the system. In a 2010 column, “Why Israel Has to Do Better,” Beinart wrote:

“It has been a week since my essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” was published in the New York Review of Books, and the responses have largely congealed into a single critique. From Leon Wieseltier to Jonathan Chait to Jeffrey Goldberg to Jamie Kirchick to David Frum, the main complaint is that I didn’t spend enough time discussing the nastiness of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and extremist Muslims in general.”

Beinart was, and is, trying to speak about Israel, but his critics only want to talk about Israel’s enemies. From the Jewish victimhood perspective Beinart’s sin is that he’s ignoring how evil Israel’s enemies are, that he’s discounting their hatred of the Jews in his analysis, that he is “blaming the victim.” He went on:

“It’s a little odd … because my piece never claimed to offer an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Iranian conflict. Rather, it was a plea for American Jewish organizations to take sides in Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians, and thus help save liberal Zionism in the United States. Those American Jewish organizations, of course, don’t need to be encouraged to criticize Iran and the Palestinians. It’s virtually all they do.”

Beinart told these other Jewish journalists, while you’re all mesmerized by Hamas, Netanyahu is becoming authoritarian and making a two-state solution impossible.

And that’s why these other Jewish journalists are now keeping a low profile. Standing up to Beinart now will only remind everyone of their ideological affinity for Netanyahu’s victimhood discourse; they were Netanyahu’s ideological allies in suppressing Beinart’s ideas here and in Israel. Andrew Sullivan was stunned by the “the assault on Peter Beinart.”

I’ve been through my share of personal vilification over the years – because of my stands on marriage, or HIV, or Iraq, or race, or Israel, or you-name-it. But this level of vicious personal obloquy from people who once advanced and supported him? It beggars belief.

Let’s consider an example of how Beinart’s and his opponents’ views play out in the real world. Contemplate the different reactions to the 2015 Palestinian “stabbing intifada.” Why were Palestinians suddenly stabbing random Jewish Israelis, as well as Israeli soldiers? Beinart does not need “antisemitism” to explain the Palestinian violence:

“[W]hen oppression meets hopelessness, the result can be nihilistic rage. In 2015, a ‘stabbing intifada’ erupted in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. These attacks, carried out by young Palestinians, were not coordinated; they expressed no political demands. The Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg called them ‘despair expressed with knives.’”

It’s clear at whom Beinart is aiming his Jewish J’accuse. Read what Bret Stephens made of the “stabbing intifada.” In his 2015 Wall Street Journal column, “Palestine: The Psychotic Stage,” Stephens said Palestinian “blood lust” arose from Jew hatred:

The significant question is why so many Palestinians have been seized by their present blood lust—by a communal psychosis in which plunging knives into the necks of Jewish women, children, soldiers and civilians is a religious and patriotic duty, a moral fulfillment.

Stephens warned his readers not to let “comforting fictions” distort the truth:

Above all, it’s time to give hatred its due. We understand its explanatory power when it comes to American slavery or the Holocaust…Yet we fail to see it when the hatred disturbs comforting fictions about all people being basically good or wanting the same things for their children or being capable of empathy.

Today in Israel, Palestinians are in the midst of a campaign to knife Jews to death, one at a time. This is psychotic. It is evil. To call it anything less is to serve as an apologist, and an accomplice. [emphasis mine]

Stephens said it was only political correctness that stopped people from recognizing the Palestinians’ (Jewish) “blood lust.” We all know the Palestinians are not “basically good,” and that they are not human beings “wanting the same things for their children or being capable of empathy,” Stephens proclaims.

This is the dehumanization Beinart is talking about.

And he goes further, saying it is “a cancer” in the Jewish community:

This dehumanization masquerading as realism is a cancer. It not only turns Palestinians into Nazis, it turns anyone who takes up the Palestinian cause into a Nazi sympathizer, guilty of antisemitism until proven innocent.

And those Jews who share the perspective that Palestinians are human beings are thought treacherous:

“In previous eras, excommunicated Jews were called apikorsim, unbelievers. Today, they are called kapos, Nazi collaborators … even when—as is often the case—the[ir accusers] have never cracked a book by a Palestinian author or eaten in a Palestinian home.”

From the victimhood perspective, it is verboten to look at the world from the other side. Why would any Jew role-take with Palestinians when it is antisemitism driving Palestinian nationalism? This is the cultural taboo Beinart is breaking. Beinart demands that Jews empathize with Palestinians. He doesn’t have the “victimhood” perspective, the “Holocaust lens,” of Bret Stephens and his readers.

And that’s what makes Peter Beinart so important. Beinart is cultivating and proselytizing a victimhood-free Jewish perspective. As I wrote two years ago when discussing Beinart’s ideological differences with Jeffrey Goldberg over BDS:

Both Goldberg and Beinart are making Jewish arguments. They are using Jewish authority to make their point. Beinart says the lesson of “anti-Semitism” is not to “dehumanize” BDS supporters, while Goldberg says the lesson of Jewish history is that BDS supporters should be treated like those boycotting Jewish stores in Nazi Germany. Peter Beinart represents an alternative Jewish moral clarity from the one Goldberg has been enforcing for so long, the one that now represents Jewish conventional wisdom.

It is because of Stephens and his ilk that so many believe, as American Ambssador to Israel David Friedman charged in 2016, that Peter Beinart and other J Street supporters are “far worse than kapos.” After all, according to Stephens, Beinart is “an apologist, and an accomplice”– and so are people who agree with him. According to Bret Stephens, if you don’t believe Palestinian violence is because of a psychotic Palestinian Jewish blood lust, than you’re either naïve or a self-hating Jew.

This is not just the Likudnik Stephens’s perspective. Jeffrey Goldberg, the supposedly liberal editor of The Atlantic, sounds like Stephens, and not like Beinart and Gorenberg, in his article, “The Paranoid, Supremacist Roots of the Stabbing Intifada: Knife Attacks on Jews in Jerusalem and Elsewhere Are Not Based on Palestinian Frustration over Settlements, But on Something Deeper.”

Israeli security experts and academics are almost unanimous that Beinart’s more thoughtful view of Palestinian motives reflects reality. Unlike Stephens and Goldberg, Israeli experts don’t find antisemitism in the knife attacks. And the security of the state of Israel requires that their answer to this question be as precise as possible. When the Shin Bet studied the issue for their superiors , they found that most of the attackers were motivated by “personal issues,” notably “a dire personal or financial situation,” such as “domestic violence … lack of respect for the family, matriculation failure … and serious psychological issues.” While Bret Stephens sees a “psychotic” community seized by blood lust and seeking moral fulfillment in murder, the Shin Bet discovered that most of the attacks were not even nationalistic, let alone antisemitic. But the victimhood perspective is the only kosher one in Israel. The only possible justification for the call for vigilantism by Israeli politicians is the that the Palestinians are driven by a Jewish blood lust. 

Carolina Landsmann in Haaretz described the political atmosphere during the knife intifada, quoting several leading legislators:

Naftali Bennett states that “terrorists must be killed, not freed”; Yair Lapid clarifies, “You have to shoot to kill anyone who pulls out a knife or a screwdriver”; Bezalel Smotrich cries, “A terrorist who sets out to murder Jews, whatever his age, must not return alive”; and Gilad Erdan declares, “Every terrorist must know he won’t survive the attack he is about to commit.”

This discourse would not be possible if not for the mistaken idea that Palestinian violence is always about the Jews.

Or consider this video of what “suicide by the IDF” looks like. This young woman is a far cry from Bret Stephens’ Nazi/Jihadi. And while Stephens sees Palestinians “seeking moral fulfillment” by killing Jews, the ex-head of the Mossad finds Palestinian violence entirely understandable, if not justifiable.

Nor do academics need antisemitism to explain Palestinian violence. The sociologist John Murray Cuddihy made an argument that anticipated Beinart’s “dehumanization” critique when discussing a Palestinian terrorist attack that targeted women and children in 1978. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said in The Jewish Press, that the victims were killed

“only because they were Jews, only because they were citizens of Israel. They fell at the hands of murderers who pointed their arrows at the Jewish heart.”

Cuddihy argued that Begin’s wording, “only because they were Jews,” says more about Begin than it does the terrorists:

To make this point clearer, let me use a fanciful example. Suppose that the Irish, deeming themselves the “lost tribe of Israel,” had, in a fit of irredentism, returned in force and occupied Palestine in 1948, thus inheriting all the Arab world’s hatred that Jews have, in fact, inherited. Suppose, further, that Arab terrorists had blown up a bus full of Irish women and children on March 11, 1978, and that the Irish prime minister cried out, “These women and children were slain by murderers only because they were Irish.” Would it not be clear to almost everyone that they had not been killed for their Irishness, but rather for their behavior, for what the Arabs believed they had done, for their actions, their occupation?

Cuddihy claimed, in other words, that these terrorist attacks occurred not because Israelis were Jews, but because they had occupied Palestinian lands.

The “only because they were Jews” mindset toward Palestinian violence is now conventional wisdom in the Jewish world. Yet it was not always so. Beinart points out that even early Zionists recognized why Palestinians were killing Jews:

[P]rominent pre-state Zionists themselves depicted Palestinian resistance not as genocidal but as understandable. “Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized,” wrote the hawkish [Vladimir] Jabotinsky in 1923. “That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing.”

Pre-state Zionists recognized that the violence and hatred they engendered was “for their behavior, for what the Arabs believed they had done, for their actions,” in Cuddihy’s words.

And this victimhood perspective, argues Beinart, results in a profound lack of Jewish sympathy for Palestinian suffering:

Academic research suggests that the more deeply Israeli Jews have internalized a narrative of historic Jewish persecution, the less sympathy they have for Palestinians.

That is why seeing the Israeli Palestinian conflict through the Holocaust lens is a “way station on the road to hell.” Believing the Palestinians are motivated by a hatred of Jews might very well lead to transfer and ethnic cleansing if Israel annexes the West Bank, Beinart warns.

So why is it Bret Stephens’s view of the Palestinians that dominates in Israel and in the American Jewish community? And why is that view so prevalent when even Israeli security officials see the world as Beinart does?

It is social science that can help us unpack the Stephens’s weltanschauung, which I call “hasbara culture.”

In Victimhood Discourse in Contemporary Israel, the social psychologist Yechiel Klar defines the term “PIVO”:

The perpetual ingroup victimhood orientation (PIVO) is the belief that the ingroup (e.g., the Jewish people) is an eternal victim persecuted by different enemies. This orientation views victimhood as the ingroup’s destiny given the persistent and unyielding hostility and malevolent intentions of many groups towards the ingroup…

Even under different guises the hatred towards us is basically the same:

[A]ll our enemies throughout history share a common denominator—the will to annihilate us (p. 110).

The reason Peter Beinart is such an important figure in Jewish culture is that he is the most influential American Jewish journalist without a PIVO worldview.

But though Stephens and the rest of the Jewish literati have in the past accused Beinart of naivete or perfidy, there has been remarkable degree of silence from those quarters now. It was left to the Anti-Defamation League to remind Beinart that he was taking the side of Jewish enemies. Ken Jacobson of the ADL said that Beinart’s opinions are “emboldening to anti-Semites.”

But Beinart has changed; the new Beinart no longer has deference to the Jewish victimhood discourse. In response to Jacobson, Beinart tweeted: “I’m pursuing this because the ADL has for years abused the moral authority it claims as a result of our people’s tragic history to smear critics of Israel.”

Beinart is telling the ADL: you do a lot of hating for supposed hate-fighters. Beinart’s accusations against, and his defiance of the ADL shows he will no longer yield to the Jewish guardians of the victimhood narrative.

And it is this battle for “moral authority” between Beinart and the ADL over whose worldview best represents Jewish opinion that is going to shape American, Jewish, and Israeli political culture. Whether it’s one state or two states, the Jews in Israel who share Beinart’s perspective will be able to reach an accommodation with Palestinian nationalism. It is looking at the world through the Holocaust lens that is the obstacle to a peaceful solution to the century long struggle between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism.

In her chapter in Victimhood Discourse in Contemporary Israel, “Transforming Victimhood,” the Israeli scholar Irit Kenyan speaks about the role people like Peter Beinart play in prolonged conflicts:

Even in groups involved in prolonged conflicts there exists a minority of group members that do feel empathy for the victims of the other side. The challenge is to employ this minority as a lever to arouse such feeling in the rest of the community. (p. 142)

How persuasive Peter Beinart and his ideological allies are in the diaspora and Israel is going to determine whether the future is one of peace, or as it looks to be now, a way station on the road to hell.

P.S. Related reading: How Beinart replaced Goldberg as the most important Jewish journalist, in 2016.

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“It is because of the Holocaust lens that Jews who have spent decades developing relationships with Hamas leaders—like the late Menachem Froman, the former rabbi of the settlement of Tekoa, and Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Israeli cabinet minister—are ridiculed or ignored when they suggest that these leaders are willing to live in peace.” Worth reposting: https://www.timesofisrael.com/islam-is-more-than-ready-for-peace-with-israel-says-rabbi-who-has-met-with-the-whole-strata-of-radicals/ An interview with Rabbi Michael Melchior, who spent a lot of time talking to Palestinians: “Islam is ready… Read more »

“An Attack on Edward Said’s Legacy—An Analysis” (26 July 2020) by Professor Lawrence Davidson  http://www.tothepointanalyses.com Must read!! EXCERPT: “Part I—Meeting Caroline Glick” “I traveled to Israel and the Occupied Territories in the early 2000s with the progressive group Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. We made an effort to gain insight into most of the players in the conflict, and so a series of interviews was arranged with members of the Israeli right wing. I remember that… Read more »

I strongly agree that Peter Beinart humanizes Plestinians. I’ve also seen his tweets that if he’s invited to discuss the conflict in a panel he will only join if there is a Palestinian in the panel. I don’t agree that the “Holocaust lens” is the cause that Zionist Jews see themselves as victims. It’s the other way around, the Holocaust lens is the instrument: the only way to combine Israels settler colonialism with a moral… Read more »

This sort of thinking is not unique to Zionism or Israel. More often then not the oppressors see themselves as the oppressed and historically wronged. White supremacists in the US talk about white genocide and various conspiracies against them. Yes even Nazis saw Germans as being victims of Jewish oppression.

(Excerpt, cont’d) “Things haven’t gotten much better when it comes to Ms. Glick’s worldview. She is now a senior columnist at Israel Hayom (Israel Today, a pro-Netanyahu newspaper owned by the family of Sheldon Anderson) and contributor to such questionable U.S. outlets as Breitbart News. She also directs the Israeli Security Project at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. There can be little doubt that she continues to see the world through the distorting lens of a particularly hardline variant of Zionism.  “Part II—Glick’s… Read more »