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Ran Ukashi

Ran Ukashi: Land of Sour Milk & Hardened Honey: Has the promise of Israel been broken? Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism

by Ran Ukashi, Feb 26, 2013

A Review of Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism”

By Ran Ukashi


The Crisis of Zionism

By Peter Beinart

Times Books, 289 pages


Peter Beinart’s provocative book The Crisis of Zionism is an impassioned appeal for American Jewry to save Israel from itself. The crux of Beinart’s argument is that Israel is losing its democratic character, and runs the risk of becoming a full-fledged apartheid state that denies equal rights to Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip (“non-democratic Israel” versus “democratic Israel”); that is, unless Israel changes its ways, and changes now. To save Israel from this calamitous and “almost” inevitable fate, American Jewry must rise to the challenge and use its collective, monolithic, and all-encompassing financial and political might to sway U.S. policymakers in a direction that places great pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory.


Even more controversially, however, Beinart suggests that American Jews, along with the general public, should engage in a “Zionist BDS,” or boycott, divestment, and sanction campaign against products made and business operating in settlements, and for the U.S. to ban tax-deductible gifts to charities that fund settlements and settlement enterprises. In turn, companies operating within the pre-1967 green line should have greater investment by the same individuals Beinart suggests boycott settlement companies; a type of carrot-stick approach. Beinart’s quest is two-fold: First, Israel needs to salvage its democracy by relinquishing control over the occupied territories, ensuring a Jewish majority within the green line. Second, Israel must reconnect with true “Jewish values” which Beinart essentially equates to any “liberal” value Beinart holds dear.


To Beinart’s credit, his book illustrates the danger of prolonged occupation to Israel’s democratic character and security. His prescriptions are not issued out of malice or anti-Zionist fervor, but rather out of genuine concern for Israel’s well-being and a heart-felt commitment to Israel’s mission (albeit from a firmly Labor Zionist, and somewhat romantic perspective). What Beinart fails to do, is to recognize that Israelis are not only aware of Israel’s own moral triumphs and failings, but indeed agree to a large extent with Beinart on the symptoms of the problem, just not the treatment Beinart offers.


Beinart gives a detailed account of the various negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Oslo, Camp David, and so forth, making the case that Israel’s offers to the Palestinians were not as generous as publicly touted. For Beinart, Israel’s military and economic superiority to the Palestinians grants Israel the unique power to bestow statehood upon the Palestinians essentially by an act of sheer political will at a time of its choosing. The official anti-Semitic propaganda of the Fatah faction in the West Bank, and the notorious and genocidal statements of Hamas in Gaza are downplayed as problematic, but largely irrelevant in the face of Israeli intransigence to the peace process, particularly on the part  of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Beinart suggests that Israel has ignored more “moderate” proclamations on the part of Hamas, whereby the terrorist organization has expressed a willingness to accept a two-state solution. Beinart consistently grants the Palestinians the benefit of the doubt, while refusing to extend the same courtesy to the Israeli government, the Israeli citizenry, and the American Jewish establishment as a whole.


Beinart is concerned at the increasingly racist attitudes of the average Jewish Israeli, explaining it as an inevitable outcome of a protracted and increasingly arbitrary occupation of another people. Beinart’s reduces the phenomenon to a discussion of power relations which has but one simple remedy – the end of the occupation. Beinart is not so naïve that he suggests problems, including that of ensuring Israel’s physical security will vanish overnight, but he does believe that Israel’s “soul” will be mended by this one simple act. How Israel’s soul would fare should events not pan out as expected Beinart fails to illustrate.


The discussion of Israel’s soul and its need to disengage from the Palestinian territories is one that must be had, and is of primary concern to Israel and its citizens. Israelis, by and large, believe in a Palestinian state, and are willing to make extraordinary concessions, as long as security is not sacrificed. Israelis can tolerate disengagements, the arming of Palestinian police forces, allow for a limited “right of return” for Palestinians to Israel-proper, and even the potential division, or a mutually agreed upon administrative arrangement on Jerusalem. Israelis have made, and expect to make further sacrifices in pursuit of a just and lasting peace with the Palestinians. For Beinart though, the hourglass has nearly run out, and Israel’s primary benefactor must be leveraged to force Israel to disengage from the occupied territories at virtually any cost, before it is too late.


It may be surprising to hear that Beinart blames Israel’s failures not so much on Israel itself, as much as he blames the American Jewish “establishment,” because it enables Israel to act with wanton disregard. By “establishment” Beinart refers to the organized Jewish community which has, according to Beinart, traded its traditionally liberal, left-leaning perspectives in favour of more hawkish, conservative, and inegalitarian views on Israel and issues of social justice.


The establishment has alienated secular Jews to the point that this category of American Jewry has “lost interest” in Israel, and either severed any connection to Israel because of their disgust with Israel’s behaviour toward the Palestinians, or at best, have an ambivalent and tenuous connection to Israel while exerting their efforts and talents in other causes closer to their hearts. Essentially, Israeli policies, buoyed by American Jewish political influence and financial support, is alienating large swathes of American Jewry, which is bad for not only Israel’s soul, but for the broader Jewish community’s identification with Israel. This establishment is so influential that Beinart suggests that U.S. President Barack Obama cannot be honest in his foreign policy positions on Israel, lest he face their wrath. This is quite the assertion given that President Obama has enjoyed some 80 percent of the American Jewish vote despite much consternation with Obama’s Middle East policy on the part of the “establishment.”



Beinart does make salient points regarding the need for Israel to extricate itself from a situation in which it controls millions of Palestinians, one way or another. Furthermore, Beinart’s criticism of Israeli settlement expansion, especially in areas that are virtually guaranteed to constitute a Palestinian state is a position that is worthy of debate. The greater problem with Beinart’s book is that the arguments contained within it often confuse cause and effect, and take great pains to portray Israel as irrationally consuming Palestinian land and making life miserable for Palestinians in an effort to create a “Greater Israel” from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu is portrayed as autocratic, whereby Netanyahu issues orders and people follow, leading to the growth of settlements and the forthcoming end of Israel as a Jewish state. The growth of settlements is an old issue which predates Netanyahu’s terms in office, and Netanyahu’s realistic influence over American foreign policy is largely speculative, weakening Beinart’s argument of Israeli and “establishment” heavy-handedness in American politics.


Moreover, Beinart suggests that a Zionist BDS campaign is part of this solution, and will force Israel to relinquish Palestinian territory more quickly. Realistically speaking, the effect this would have would be merely symbolic, as the revenue from Israeli exports on goods produced in the West Bank is a mere drop in the bucket compared to those goods exported from Israel proper. If symbolism is what Beinart is after, then he should be aware that he is not the first individual to come up with this idea, but if he is searching for an instrument by which to force Israel’s hand, this would surely be ineffective. Additionally, his suggestion that secular American Jewry is alienated to the point where only right-wing secular and Orthodox Jews are now at the helm of American’s organized Jewish community, misses a crucial point. The assimilation of American Jewry naturally lends itself to a situation where the values of the majority replace the values of the Jewish community. It is not so mysterious that those who hold Jewish values to be dear are those more observant in their practice of the Jewish faith. Whether this is a positive or negative development for the State of Israel is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that the disengagement of American Jews from Jewish life is a product of assimilation, which is a combination of the failure of the Jewish community to inculcate Jewish values to the next generation (which Beinart touches upon), and the competition of ideas in the public realm which challenge Jewish values. Like any other ethnic group, Jews must value being Jewish for continuity to be viable. The scope of this review does not allow for a detailed discussion on this topic, but suffice it to say that pinning American Jewry’s disengagement from Jewish life on the “establishment’s” views on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is not particularly convincing.


Beinart’s positions have been roundly criticized throughout the Jewish community, but any honest reckoning of his work must recognize that he has also enjoyed a significant amount of Jewish-Zionist support. Beinart’s views need to be contended with because uncomfortable truths, remedies, opinions, and thoughts are part of the free exchange of ideas and democratic discourse, and also, because many well-meaning Jews who have a stake in Israel and the Jewish community’s future share his sentiments. Despite the shortcomings of Beinart’s book, he makes some salient points which have touched a nerve with many friends of Israel who are as concerned with Israel’s future as Beinart is. The Jewish People are known as those who have “wrestled with God;” but the harder challenge will be for the Jewish People to wrestle with itself and come to terms with the plethora of views on Israel, Jewish life, and the Jewish future.

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