Peter Beinart’s liberal Zionist fantasy

The lie behind Beinart’s ideals was revealed a decade ago when he strongly supported the US invasion of Iraq.

Herzl imagined his Jewish state as a cosmopolitan land, where Jews could count Arabs as friends [GALLO/GETTY]

Irvine, CA Poor Peter Beinart. For the past two years, he has served selflessly on the front lines of a fight for the “soul of Zionism”, attempting to preserve – or better, revive – its supposedly liberal patrimony. The chances of success are so low that Ha’aretz has dubbed him “American Jewry’s most prominent prophet of doom”.

Beinart first entered the fray with the publication of a 2010 opinion essay in the New York Review of Books titled “The Failure of the Jewish Establishment”. In it, Beinart, former editor of the New Republic and current professor of journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, argued that, by refusing to criticise the never-ending occupation and support for a more liberal strand of Zionism, the organised Jewish community was in danger of losing the support of the emerging generation of Jews, who no longer accept Israel “right or wrong”, and refuse to defer to the policies of the Israeli government when they contradict their largely liberal sensibilities.

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And now Beinart has published a new book, The Crisis of Zionism, which calls on Jews in the US to defend the possibility of a democratic and Jewish Israel “before it’s too late”.

Beinart’s is neither the first nor the most sophisticated warning about the crisis resulting from the contradictions between Zionism’s ethno-religious exclusivism and the professed democratic ideals of the Jewish state. Ben Gurion himself warned of such a probability almost as soon as the West Bank and Gaza were conquered in 1967, and the liberal wing of the Israeli media, such as Haaretz and the (at the time liberal) Jerusalem Post, regularly lamented the weakening of Israeli democracy at least as far back as the 1980s.

In fact, Zionist leaders were warned by both local Arab and Jewish observers well before the turn of the 20th century that the treatment of the local population would doom Zionism to endless conflict. More recently, the Israeli view was perhaps most powerfully put forth by former General Yehoshofat Harkabi in his seminal Israel’s Fateful Hour, published just as the eruption of the intifada shook everyone’s preconceptions of both Israeli and Palestinian societies.

In the United States, progressive Jews have offered essentially the same criticism for deacades, from Tikkun Magazine‘s Michael Lerner warning of the dangers of “settler Judaism” two decades ago, to more recent calls by public intellectuals and artists such as Tony Judt and Tony Kushner, and groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace, for a much more far-reaching reassessment Zionism’s past, present and future. But these voices have largely been shunned by the mainstream media, while facing vicious attacks from the organised Jewish community, and particularly the US Jewish right.

Beinart is a card-carrying member of the US media-cum-political elite, educated at Yale and Oxford, and, at the young age of 28, hired as editor of the über-establishment The New Republic. He regularly appears as a guest on the major network news shows. His words thus carry far more weight than these other voices, precisely because he is willing to remain within the limits of acceptable criticism than are they (indeed, he doesn’t bother to engage any of these voices in his new book).

Intellectual and political timidity

And this is precisely the problem with The Crisis of Zionism and Beinart’s discourse more broadly. Its criticism is far too narrow and timid, while its proffered solution – a focus on settlements and more vigorous support for a two-state solution – is at least a decade out of date. It is almost entirely unrelated to the realities on the ground, which have rendered the creation of a territorially and economically viable Palestinian state a pipe dream.

The problems with Beinart’s argument are almost all apparent in the first few pages of the book; indeed in its first lines. He begins by declaring: “I believe the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic homeland, something enjoyed by many peoples who have suffered far less. As a partisan of liberal democracy I believe that a Jewish state must offer equal citizenship to all its inhabitants.”

Putting aside that there are other kinds of political arrangements that could guarantee Jews “protection” in their homeland besides the exclusivist Zionist one, the simple fact is that a Zionist state cannot offer “equal citizenship” to all its citizins, since the whole point of being a Zionist state is that in crucial areas it gives institutionalised preference to Jews, at the inevitable expense of non-Jewish citizens. If it didn’t give preference to Jews then it wouldn’t be a “Jewish” state in any politically meaningful sense; it would just be a democracy.

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Indeed, however laudable Beinart’s desire for Israel to behave “in the spirit of [the Rabbinic sage] Hillel” and “not do to others what Jews found hateful when done to them”, it is a century too late. Israel, like every other settler society, could only have been born out of doing things to the country’s indigenous inhabitants that they certainly would not have wanted done to them.

Herzlean fantasies

Most troubling is Beinart’s attempt to ground a renewed liberal Zionism in the philosophy of the father of the movement, Theodor Herzl. It is true that Herzl imagined his Jewish state as a liberal and cosmopolitan land, where Jewish leaders could count Arabs as trusted friends and assistants and even speak Arabic. But that idea, laid out primarily in his novel – Old-New Land – is little more than a fantasy with absolutely no bearing to realities on the ground in Palestine.

Herz’s fictional state might seem like “an impressive place”, as Beinart declares, but the state depended on the indigenous population selling all its land to the Jews, before joining the Jewish society, while the working class of both societies were to be ruled by a technocratic elite that, if history is any guide, would certainly have been none too liberal.

As important, however pleasant was his fictional Palestine, Herzl well understood that Zionism would likely have to “spirit across the borders” the majority of Palestinians who wouldn’t accept such a deal. Indeed, Herzl imagined the Jewish state as a “rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism”.

Such language is not surprising, even coming from a “liberal” such as Herzl, because 19th and early 20th century European liberalism was intimately tied to European imperialism – the same people who wrote paeans to freedom and individual liberty thought nothing of conquering every bit of the non-West as they could get their hands on in the name of both enlightenment, civilisation and of course, profit. It is thus not surprising that so many of the early Zionist leaders, men such as Arthur Ruppin and Otto Warburg, had significant colonial experience before joining the Zionist movement.

While Beinart quotes Herzl’s diaries to demonstrate his disgust with Afrikaner nationalism, (“We don’t want another Boer state but a Venice,” he reminds us) Herzl’s main problem was with the atavistic and un-cosmopolitan nature of Boer nationalism. He had no problem, for example, with British arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, to whom he wrote admiringly and even asked to “put the stamp of authority on the Zionist plan” precisely as a “practical visionary” in all things “colonial”.

To the extent that the Jewish state could resemble Venice, it was precisely because the “liberal humanitarian values of contemporary European civilisation” that Herzl so admired had little to do with Judaism.

As Herzl scholar Jacques Kornberg explained in the preface to the standard edition of Old-New Land, by the time he wrote the novel, Judaism was meaningful in his Jewish state only as a “passing thought”.

It is hard to imagine that this is the kind of “Jewish state” that Beinart, who publicly defines himself as an Orthodox Jew, would like Israel to be.

‘Original sins’

In order to save Zionism’s soul, Beinart and other liberal Zionists need to imagine that, at least at the start, Zionism was pregnant with the possibility of a liberal co-existence with the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. While there were certainly many early Zionists who advocated such a relationship (which, by the 1920s, produced a bi-national movement, Brit Shalom – another voice from whom Beinart might have taken inspiration from), the reality is that once Zionism hit the ground in Palestine, its survival and success depended on the economic, territorial and political “conquest” of as much of the country as possible.

History of an occupation

Quite simply, the “pioneers” who began arriving in significant numbers beginning around 1904 quickly realised they could not compete with Palestinians or integrate into their economy. The only way an emerging Zionist Jewish society could survive was through the conquest of jobs and land in order to create Jewish-only economic and political spaces, as epitomised by the quintessential rural and urban Jewish settlements – Kibbutz Degania and Tel Aviv – in 1909.

While there were numerous instances of co-operation between rural and urban Jewish settlements and the surrounding Palestinian society, it was clear to the Zionist leadership on the ground that they were engaged ultimately in a zero sum competition. It’s not surprising then, as Kornberg points, that while Herzl might have found Boer nationalism distasteful, leaders of the emerging Zionist polity saw in the experience of a European settler movement carving out a society in a “hostile and threatening environment” a “model” for their own predicament.

It is Beinart’s inability to accept and grapple with what Israeli scholar Benjamin Beit Hallahmi has called the “original sins” of Zionism that is the most important fault with his argument (indeed, his book Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel, would be valuable reading for most liberal American Jews, including Beinart).

Beinart desperately wants to save Israel by resuscitating the Oslo Peace Process, but even assuming this would be a good thing, it would remain impossible without an honest and difficult (at least for most Jews) re-examination of the political and ideological dynamics and processes of more than a century of Zionist colonisation in Palestine.

If Beinart had studied the history of the country and the realities of Jewish/Zionist-Palestinian interaction and conflict, he could not hold onto the myth of an original liberal Zionism that somehow could still inspire a different future today. But by holding onto that myth, he can imagine that there is a kernel of liberalness within Zionism that might still save the day.

Blame it all on Netanyahu

As important, such a view leads him to blame Prime Minister Netanyahu as one of the primary culprits in the slow death of liberal Zionism and to propose such actions as a “Zionist BDS” – a boycott of settlement products – as a way of counteracting the power of the settlers and the ultra-nationalists epitomised by Netanyahu.

But here again, Beinart’s ignorance of the actual history of Oslo harms his cause, since the primary reasons for the failure of the process – the rapid escalation of the settler population, the strengthening of the Israeli matrix of control over the West Bank, the continued dominance over the Palestinian economy and the refusal to deal honestly with issues such as East Jerusalem and refugees – were all designed into the peace process by Oslo’s liberal architects.

And so, if Beinart wants to excoriate the present prime minister, he must also lay blame at the feet of the country’s current president, Shimon Peres.

Moreover, the settlements and the companies operating there are so integrated into the larger Israeli economy that the idea of making a meaningful distinction between a “settlement” and “Israeli” economy, or that merely boycotting settlement products would cause enough pain to lead the government to re-evaluate its policies is nonsensical.

Israeli settlements on Palestinian land expanding

In fact, in terms of the impact on Palestinians, the forced imports into the occupied territories, which have, from the start, served as a captive market for Israel – and whose own economic and development has been systematically frustrated since the first days of the occupation in order to stifle any potential competition for Israeli exports – are far more damaging than Israeli exports from the occupied territories. But admitting this might lead to support for a broader boycott and so it can’t be part of the equation.

Is liberalism worth saving?

If the problem with Peter Beinart’s liberalism were limited to Israel and American Jews, we might still imagine that liberalism itself could be worth saving. But the lie behind Beinart’s liberalism was revealed almost a decade ago when he gave strong support to the US invasion of Iraq, strong enough so that one commentator judged it among the most important opinion voices in support of the war.

Beinart later recanted, in his book, The Icarus Syndrome, but his ultimate problem with the war was the hubris of the politicians behind it.

Not the idea of invading a sovereign country that did not pose an imminent danger to the United States and 500,000 of whose people had already died as a result of US sanctions. Not the role of the military industrial complex in fomenting wars – most recently Iraq – that generate billions (and now trillions) of dollars in profits. In fact, the word “imperialism” doesn’t even appear in the book’s index.

But Beinart can’t escape his support that easily. Simply put, the US invasion of Iraq was the single most important moral issue of our generation. If a self-professed passionate liberal could support a war that was so clearly illegal and based on lies – clear to anyone who wanted to see that and who had even a passing familiarity with the history of Iraq and of US imperialism – then either that person’s credentials as a liberal must forever be lost, or liberalism has no meaning.

And this is perhaps the biggest problem with the world view of commentators such as Beinart and “liberal” groups such as J Street, which aims to be a liberal answer to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – and to which Beinart has strong ties.

They can only get a seat at the table of power to the extent they refrain from offering the kind of systematic, historically grounded and ruthlessly honest critique of policies that would show the flaws in the system to be fundamental and irreparable – precisely what those in power work so hard to ensure no-one understands. And so, J Street has publicly distanced itself even from Beinart’s mild settlement boycott, while also refusing to hold Israel to account for the Gaza war.

If Beinart had spent some time reading the Hebrew prophets before writing The Crisis of Zionism, he might have realised that half-hearted critique gets you nowhere. Yet at the same time, the prophets offer some of the most angry and damning criticisms ever penned against one’s own people. They also offer some of the most radical inspiration and hope for a different future the world has ever seen. The moral and spiritual narratives of not only Judaism, but Christianity and Islam as well, would be unimaginable without them.

And that is perhaps the saddest part of Beinart’s argument: By remaining within a narrow and flawed historical and political liberal vision, Beinart and other so-called “left Zionists” are unable to imagine a truly progressive future for Israel, one in which all Jews and Palestinians can, in fact, achieve security, justice, peace and democracy – without fundamentally denying the same to the other.

Whether it is bi-nationalism, parallel states, confederation or some other form of political and economic association still to be imagined, there are many ways for Israel to remain what Beinart so desperately wants it to be – a haven for Jews – while allowing Palestinians the full share of rights they have for so long been denied. It would take great imagination and courage to design and push for such a vision, but if the future of Israel and its relationship with American Jews is as threatened as Beinart imagines, there’s no excuse for not trying.

Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming