Beinart raises key questions on Israel

“The Crisis of Zionism” by Peter Beinart.

THE CRISIS OF ZIONISM by Peter Beinart. Times Books. 304 pages. $26.

A generation ago, the state of Israel was for many Jews still a mythical place: a democratic oasis in the Middle East determined to secure its future for the generations to come.

Today, Zionism is in serious trouble, according to Peter Beinart. In his passionate new polemic, “The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart spells out the problem in a heart-rending interpretation of the current political impasse, not just between Israelis and Palestinians but within Israeli and American society.

“As a Zionist, I believe that after two millennia of homelessness, the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection,” Beinart writes. “As a partisan of liberal democracy, I believe that to honor that history of suffering, a Jewish state must offer equal citizenship to all its inhabitants. ... At the heart of the Zionist project is the struggle to reconcile these two valid but conflicting ideals. If Israel fails in that struggle, it will either cease being a Jewish state or cease being a democratic one. Today, it is failing, and American Jews are helping it fail.”

So Beinart is among those calling for a selective boycott of all Israeli goods and services that originate within the West Bank, or “nondemocratic Israel,” as he prefers to call it.

“We should lobby the U.S. government to exempt settler goods from its free trade deal with Israel,” he writes. “We should push to end IRS policies that allow Americans to make tax-deductible gifts to charities that fund settlements. We should urge the U.S. government to require Israel to separately mark products from the settlements, as the European Union now demands.”

A big problem is that too many Zionists have largely failed to confront the new reality of Jewish power, according to Beinart. Gone are the days when American Jews were poor and marginalized, and gone, too, are the days when the threat of annihilation loomed over Israel and fascism in Europe culminated in the Holocaust.

Anti-Semitism remains a concern, and Jews must remain vigilant. But Beinart insists, “we need a new American Jewish story, built around this basic truth: We are not history's permanent victims. In a dizzying shift of fortune, many of our greatest challenges today stem not from weakness but from power.” And with power comes responsibility.

At the heart of Beinart's argument is an insistence that American Jews, who are generally liberal politically and concerned with human rights, are increasingly abandoning the idea of Zionism, whether because their political affinities contradict the brutality of the Israeli occupation or their cultural affinities adhere less and less to Judaism.

Without a Jewish-American community willing to strengthen its cultural ties and pass on their heritage to their children, it will increasingly cede the secular-liberal ideals of Zionism to religious fanatics and right-wing political extremists, he writes. And if Israel is controlled by such people, with their talk of population transfer and insistent expansion of Israeli settlements, then it will lose forever what's left of its democratic character.

His solution is perhaps unrealistic: Beinart would have Jewish Americans throw their financial support behind the development of Jewish schools that teach children about their history, culture and religion. By strengthening Jewish identity (the liberal, American kind), Jews in the U.S. can exercise their influence on Zionist policy, helping to reinvigorate the democratic character of Israel.

The middle part of his important book is devoted to a penetrating analysis of the tense relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has managed to get his way and humiliate Obama, who has allowed the Israeli leader to trample upon his long-standing sympathies with liberal Zionism and exploit the “special relationship” of the two countries, Beinart shows. It's a brutal accounting of Netanyahu's stubborn self-destructiveness and Obama's failures to save Israel from itself.

In his effort to explain the crisis of Zionism, Beinart leaves a critical issue insufficiently discussed: Whether democracy in an ethnically and religiously diverse land and Zionism ever can be reconciled. The former insists on secular egalitarianism; the latter on a state defined by its religious and ethnic identity. For Beinart, the answer to this dilemma seems to be a halfway solution in which the Palestinians get a state, Arab Israelis get full rights, but limits remain. Where limits remain, often so does conflict.

It is questionable whether the liberal Zionism that set the wheels of the Jewish state in motion, requiring the displacement of Palestinians and appropriation of their property, can also save the Jewish state. Indeed, Beinart is too quick to exonerate the secularist founders he admires such as Theodore Herzl and David Ben-Gurion.

For those who care deeply about Israel's fate, “The Crisis of Zionism” is a difficult book to read. Its brutal honesty and passionate arguments are clearly the result of a lifelong dedication to both Judaism and Zionism, offered by a man who no longer can remain silent. Members of the old guard in the U.S., with their outsized influence and allegiance to the Israeli government as opposed to Zionism itself, surely will attempt to discredit Beinart, but they are a fading minority.

More and more American Jews are closing their ears to the hyperbole and rant. For years the majority of American Jews have favored a two-state solution and objected to settlement growth, surveys cited by Beinart show. Yet American Jewish organizations often condemn anyone who dares to criticize Israel.

“There is a terrible irony here,” Beinart writes. “Perhaps no group of Jews has ever made liberalism — the belief in individual freedom and equality of opportunity, irrespective of gender, religion, race, or creed — as central to their identity as have American Jews.” So why is an American Jewish community so concerned with social justice represented by leadership reluctant to insist on liberal democracy in Israel?

“The answer is simple,” Beinart writes. “Today's American Jewish establishment was not born from American Jewish liberalism; it was born as a reaction against it.”