Why Peter Beinart is driving the ‘pro-Israel’ establishment crazy

Peter Beinart’s latest book has not only angered the Israeli left, but has caused fury amid the right.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu 'regularly invokes Nazi Germany to describe Iran' [EPA]

Washington, DC – Almost all the criticism of (and controversy about) Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism comes down to two major complaints:

The first is that he is a “liberal Zionist” which, by some definitions, means he is just as indifferent to Palestinian rights as a right-wing Zionist. For example, he believes in the idea and reality of a Jewish state and is primarily motivated by his sense of urgency about preserving it. He also does not support granting the right to return to Israel to all the Palestinian refugees (dating back to 1947) and their millions of descendants, viewing full return as a means to ending Israel’s existence.

And, worst of all to some on the left, Beinart favours the so-called “two-state solution” which, although repeatedly thwarted primarily by settler-supporting Israeli governments, Beinart sees as the only means to achieve a solution fair to both peoples.

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The second source of disapproval (fury, actually) toward Beinart’s book emanates from the “pro-Israel” right – and the intensity of their condemnation dwarfs the criticism of those who attack from the left.

After all, the anti-Zionists primarily view Beinart as misguided and naïve, still a prisoner of the Zionist ideology on which he was raised. But the “pro-Israel” right (and that includes virtually the entire “pro-Israel” organisational establishment) views Beinart as evil, as a traitor and, as ridiculous as this sounds, an enemy of the Jewish people. No matter that his goal is a secure Israel living side by side a secure Palestine and that his love for Israel suffuses his entire book, or that he is an observant Jew; for the “pro-Israel” right, Beinart is the enemy.

Understanding the feelings of the US right about Beinart may be more the job of a psychologist than a pundit, because the sentiment is so irrational that it cannot be addressed by merely citing facts. It is a mark of how crazy the debate over Israel has become in this country that the vitriol exceeds anything that goes on in Israel, which itself has more than its fair share of right-wingers.

For instance, take a look at this video from the top-rated Israeli show “Big Brother”, a television reality show in which a group of young people move into an apartment and live their lives on camera. These shows are popular worldwide, but the brilliant exposition of the evils of the occupation that one character made on the Israeli show last week is unimaginable here (US reality shows avoid politics like the plague. But this is Israel).

There is one other striking thing about this video (besides the fact not even a Jewish community centre would dare show it in the US). It is that the young man making the case against the occupation is the kind of person Zionism was supposed to produce: a proud Israeli afraid of nothing. These are the kind of Israelis we don’t see much of in the United States anymore (in contrast with the period before Israel became obsessed with maintaining the occupation and confronting Iran). You know, the Paul Newman (“Exodus“) kind of Israelis who – although a stereotype – are rooted in reality. The reason we don’t see them is because an Israeli government that is always making the case for the status quo based on fear would be ill-served by proud, unafraid Israelis speaking to Americans.

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For instance, take Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose mind seems to be in 1938 Europe. In 2006, speaking about Iran, Netanyahu told an audience in Los Angeles: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany”. He said that the Iranian president who “denies the Holocaust” is “preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state”.

Note that Netanyahu’s warning of the imminent danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon was delivered six years ago and that this was far from the first warning from Netanyahu that Iran was on the brink of achieving a nuclear bomb. It was also not the first time he said that the present day was reminiscent of 1938, although he has sometimes invoked 1942 or 1944.

The difference between Netanyahu and the young Israeli in the video (and most Israelis, I believe) is that, for them, the situation today is nothing like the situation in the 1940s. If it is, then who needs Israel, which justifies its very existence as the ultimate guarantee that “Never Again” is more than a slogan? It is a reality backed up by one of the most effective militaries in the world and 200 nuclear weapons. Israel is not the Warsaw Ghetto, a comparison that insults both the memory of the Holocaust and Israel itself.

And Netanyahu is far from the only person in a leadership position to make that comparison. Beinart reminds us that Jews

…tell ourselves that we are still history’s victims whose primary responsibility is merely to survive. Consider the language of prominent Jewish leaders. In 2009, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, declared that ‘anti-Semitism (is)… reaching a peak this year that we haven’t seen since the tragic days of World War II’. In 2010, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor devoted his entire speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference to an extended analogy with the Nazi era. That December, Malcolm Hoenlein, the powerful executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, gave a speech entitled, ‘Is It 1939?’

Beinart then offers this chilling image that sums up the Holocaust fixation and how it affects attitudes toward Israel today:

A few years ago, a journalist reported that Malcolm Hoenlein … had a photo in his conference room of Israeli F15s flying over Auschwitz. It is a photo of a fantasy. Israeli jets never bombed Auschwitz and never will. What they have bombed, in recent years, is the Gaza Strip, a fenced in, hideously overcrowded, desperately poor slum from which terrorist groups sometimes shell Israel. Hoenlein, in other words, has decorated his conference room not with an image of the reality that he helps perpetuate, but with an image of the fantasy he superimposes on that reality.

It is that fantasy that is producing such vitriol against Beinart in the “pro-Israel” organisations and among their cutouts. Beinart, born in 1971 in Massachusetts and brought up on stories about Israeli pioneers and heroes, absolutely refuses to accept the idea that Israel is some helpless little ghetto on the verge of extinction. He does not see the existence of Israel as an extension of the Holocaust but as the guarantee that there will never be another one. His Israel is one of daylight while the “pro-Israel” establishment sees only night and fog.

Add to that, his belief that the secure Israel of his dreams can only exist if Palestinians are secure, and it becomes clear why he produces such rage. To put it simply, the “pro-Israel” establishment is so invested in the dark past that it will not tolerate the image of a bright future – especially if that future can only be achieved by compromising with a people they have decided are German Nazis. It is pathological. Fortunately, I think it is Beinart who represents the future.

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJayRosenberg