Peter Beinart’s Grotesque Utopia (Part One)
This article is published as a series of three posts, which will appear on consecutive days. Part 1 is below.
In the years I spent as a grad student first in New York and later in England, I was often buttonholed by opinionated young Jews who wanted to give me an earful of “criticism of Israel.” Some of it was ignorant blather, some of it was quite serious. Some of it I disagreed with politely (whenever that was possible) and some of it I agreed with, even wholeheartedly, as my own views evolved. I heard it all, and I’d like to believe (though I’m no doubt being very generous with myself), that I was able to listen and engage with most of it, but I did notice after a few such encounters that there was one claim which led me, entirely by reflex and not by will, to shut down. Maybe it says more about my own weaknesses, I don’t know. But conspiracy-mongering didn’t make me stop listening, nor did Holocaust inversion or comparisons with apartheid. Such nonsense was upsetting, to be sure, and it did occasionally result in a raised voice or a bruised friendship, but it never caused me to just stop listening.
What would cause me to stop listening was the word “brave.” Anyone, and especially any young American or British Jew at a fancy university, who saw himself (and even though ignorant anti-Israel obsessiveness was distributed across genders, the “bravery” complex was almost always a symptom of male carriers) as brave for daring to criticize Israel was just not capable of thoughtful discussion. The claim of bravery, the self-image of a dissident voice speaking out against rigorously enforced dogma, was so patently ridiculous that it was impossible to take seriously anything that a person so afflicted might have to say about a topic that I knew well.
And so it was that I encountered Peter Beinart’s recent fatwa on the Jewish state from Twitter posts hailing him as brave. Pro-democracy writers in Hong Kong, to say nothing of mainland China, merit the description “brave.” So too do LGBT activists in Egypt or Iran. To call a comfortable Upper West Side American Jew “brave” for writing something against Israel says very little about bravery and very little about Israel, but it says a great deal about what the person making the compliment thinks about Jewish power in American public life.
This was the barely repressed subtext of the two big New York Review of Books essays with which Beinart reinvented himself as a “critic of Israel” a decade ago — and which I critiqued seven years ago. In all the years since, each time I was approached for a comment about some new bit of “bravery” from Peter Beinart, I always declined. My explanation whenever I was asked why was that I didn’t disagree with the views Beinart claimed he held — for a Jewish state, against the occupation — I just didn’t believe those were his actual views.
It turns out I was right to doubt him.
In my 2013 piece, I identified four themes to Beinart’s writing on Israel: (1) He makes sweeping judgements on scant evidence, that rely on out-of-date and out-of-context quotes. (2) Any observable outcome or effect or result of the Arab-Israeli conflict is for him an Israeli policy or the action of an Israeli subject on a Palestinian object. (3) He has no expectation of any kind of self-criticism by Palestinians or pro-Palestinian partisans and no capacity for a critical engagement with their actions and the effects they have on the conflict. (4) He consistently presents ideas that have been around for a long time as something new which he has just discovered, and thus manages to make them into a progressive reaction to Israeli actions rather than part of a long-standing rejection of sovereign Jewish life in the Middle East.
In 2013, this was most clear with his historically blind discussion of boycotts, which were central to the Arab strategy to prevent a Jewish state from coming into being and then, when that failed, to strangle it economically. In 2020, this is how he processes the old-new idea of one non-Jewish state in land of the former Mandate as an expected reaction to Israeli intransigence rather than the longstanding political program of those who never accepted a Jewish state and never will.
Beinart is now openly advancing this old-new idea, though, it being Beinart, he has branded it under the most sanctimonious name possible, “equality.” People opposed to legal abortion call themselves “pro-life,” but no one with a modicum of intellectual integrity thinks that asking why your opponents in a policy discussion “are against life” is a winning argument. If you oppose the end of Jewish sovereignty (but weirdly, no one else’s), then apparently you are against equality. This is the level of argumentation Beinart routinely resorts to now on Twitter when confronted with Israeli voices who actually aren’t so eager to see their hard-fought state be dismantled. Beinart, however, isn’t concerned with engaging with Israelis in any constructive way, and he wouldn’t know how to if he were.
For two years, Beinart had a regular column in Israel’s high-brow broadsheet Haaretz. It should have been an ideal venue for him. It is a left-wing paper read by cosmopolitan Israelis where his opinions (Bibi bad, Trump bad, etc.) met a sympathetic audience and, in a country without any widely read opinion journals, the best place to have an impact on public intellectual life. The column ran in Hebrew translation for about two years, and I honestly cannot recall anything he wrote having even a minor impact or becoming a topic of public conversation or even manufactured controversy.
The column stopped running sometime in 2018 without anyone much noticing. It’s worth reminding his American acolytes who take his every pronouncement on this country as holy writs (and who find themselves having to conform to his increasingly pietistic demands regarding who must share a stage with him) just how little he understands Israel and how little purchase his ideas have even among left-wing activists and thinkers.
Beinart doesn’t understand actual Israelis because he doesn’t care about the actual Israel. “Israel” for him is a projection, a cave shadow with which to imagine an argument with people and organizations in American Jewish life that Beinart resents deeply. Even as Beinart’s views on Israel have changed and changed again, his wrath at American Jews has stayed constant and his message consistent: American Jews must choose between their liberalism and their Zionism, between membership in good standing in the community of the good or, sounding almost like someone who tags a synagogue with graffiti, “our community’s complicity in the oppression of Palestinians.”
One could make a career out of correcting the errors in Beinart’s writing about Israel (and maybe somebody else should), but I’ll narrow my focus to just three things he gets wrong: the past, the present, the future.
Past: A Stately Home
If someone had asked me this morning what I was in the mood to eat, I might have answered oatmeal or an omelet or maybe just some yogurt and granola. I also would have asked for a cup of coffee. But faced with the same question twelve hours later, it’s likely that my answer might mention steak or tacos or even a hearty salad and no coffee. You might rack your brains trying to analyze the reasons for this sudden shift. Did my tastes change in some dramatic way over twelve hours? Was I a committed vegetarian who left the fold, and, if so, why did I do it? Maybe a marketing campaign or a particularly persuasive friend had convinced me to change my entire approach to cooking and eating?
Or maybe you would just note that you asked the first question at 7:00 in the morning and the second at 7:00 in the evening, and that I hadn’t changed at all, but breakfast hunger and dinner hunger are not the same thing.
The second method clearly didn’t appeal to Beinart in considering why Zionists were by the 1940s so insistent on statehood rather than some of the more abstract ideas about a Jewish “home,” as had occasionally been mooted in the half century before. Just as he does with the Arab-Israeli conflict, so here he is unable to see any observable fact without assuming that it can be explained entirely by Jewish or Israeli action — that should be judged as uncharitably as possible.
But it wasn’t Zionism that changed. The world changed in at least three very significant ways that required the cause of Jewish self-determination to take into account. First, the norm of state sovereignty went from a vaguely north Atlantic ideal to a global norm. Second, there was a Holocaust. And third, there was a conflict with the Arab (and to a certain extent, Muslim) world that impinged on personal and communal security of Jews in the Middle East and throughout the world.
In a world where most of central and eastern Europe together with nearly all of western Asia consisted of multinational empires — and other parts of Asia and most of Africa consisted of distant imperial possessions — imagining a Jewish home in the Land of Israel as a protectorate or dominion made sense. Very little of the world’s land surface in the late nineteenth century was actually covered in sovereign states. The post-1945 world is absolutely nothing like this. Today, almost every piece of land except Antarctica belongs to a sovereign state. The entire surface of the world is covered in water, ice, and sovereign states. To be sure, the principle often comes up short in application. Borders are disputed; old colonial powers still exercise enormous influence in newly free and ostensibly independent possessions; functional responsibilities are occasionally distributed across boundaries or even among supranational organizations.
And so it was that Herzl and others spoke in a flexible language of self-determination for the Jewish people, occasionally referring to a “state” and occasionally using terms like “charter” or “protectorate” or “commonwealth” or “dominion” or even just “national home,” and eventually settling for a new legal concept after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire — “mandate.” You’ll notice that in today’s world there aren’t very many protectorates or mandates or dominions around.
There is, ironically, still a Jewish autonomous province centered around the Russian far eastern town of Birobidzhan. And, unarguably, some Jews do prefer to live in an autonomous Jewish district rather than a Jewish state (roughly 1,600 versus 6.8 million), but I should think this argument has been adequately settled. (I was there in 2016, and I urge everyone to visit. The street signs are in Yiddish and Russian!) I’m not sure why Beinart wouldn’t mention Birobidzhan, especially given the long ago Communist affiliation of the magazine which he edits and which ran his encomium.
Zionists didn’t suddenly get greedy about having a state rather than a home, as Beinart wishes to believe. The change that happened with the rapid collapse of empires in the eastern Mediterranean and, for that matter, throughout the world was entirely external to Zionism. In Herzl’s Altneuland, Jewish self-determination may have been expressed as an autonomous district in a continental empire, but that’s the kind of thing you might think of in 1896. It’s also full of references to telegraph use. Is email a betrayal of early Zionist ideal as well?
A second thing happened that was external to Zionism: the genocide of the Jewish people in Europe in the early 1940s. Beinart is certainly right that the Holocaust “fundamentally transformed Jewish thinking about sovereignty,” though hardly in the egregiously tacky way he presents it (in a quote from historian Dmitry Shumsky) as a cynical “new contract.”
Nineteenth century Zionists couldn’t incorporate the fact of the Holocaust into their thinking because it hadn’t happened yet and they couldn’t possibly imagine that it might. No one could have before it happened. Very few could even while it was ongoing. Many still struggle today to fully comprehend it. But there really was a Shoah, and it would be unusual in the extreme for any kind of Jewish liberation movement to just look at it and say, “Right, well, that was certainly a bump on the road, but nothing there to cause any reassessment.”
That the industrialized mass murder of six million Jews made the need for a Jewish state feel more acute to those that survived isn’t some lamentable distraction; it’s an entirely realistic response, maybe even the only realistic response. Herzl sought to establish a Jewish state (and he used the word “state,” however much Beinart tries to redefine it) by seeking at turns the sponsorship of the Turks and the Germans and the British. But even the Jewish National Home established by a League of Nations Mandate ultimately provided very little protection for Europe’s abandoned Jews. Only a state could do that, and it is entirely appropriate that this would be the Zionist conclusion. What Beinart leaves out of his discussion of a “Jewish home” is that it is not a fresh idea or even a recovered old idea never tried. There was a Jewish National Home in Palestine from the 1920s right through the Holocaust itself. It was and remains perfectly reasonable for Jews to conclude that a “home” is insufficient.
Finally, there was a third development in the early 20th century which upended Jewish life, and this one, even more than the emergence of a global sovereignty norm or the impact of the Holocaust, is the one Beinart most struggles to come to terms with. Antisemitism had always existed in the Arab world, to be sure. But a cosmic hatred of Jews as such a totemic feature of Arab political life is a 20th century phenomenon. It has made its impact felt not only in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, but throughout the Middle East and throughout the entire world as Jews have been consistent targets for jihadist violence for decades.
This is such a central feature of Jewish life that it’s almost bizarre how easy it is to miss. But when your first intellectual commitment is to the notion that Jews act and Arabs only react, it’s easy to chalk up any anti-Jewish violence to revenge or anger about the occupation or the various defeats in Arab-Israeli wars. This is, to say the least, rather ahistorical. The rise of nationalist sentiment in the Arab world after World War I led to violence against minorities everywhere, and especially violence against Jews — almost exactly as it did in central and eastern Europe. The fall of multinational empires rendered minorities vulnerable everywhere, but the situation was particularly precarious for minorities who were nowhere a local majority.
Pogroms against longstanding Jewish minorities in the Arab world preceded the Arab defeat in 1948 and were carried out before there was even a single Palestinian refugee. Thus it was in Cairo, in Alexandria, in Aden, in Tripoli, and most notoriously in Baghdad. Protecting Jewish minorities in newly independent Arab states in the 1940s and 1950s was the manifest interest of all those states. It would have kept in Iraq and Tunisia and Yemen populations that were key drivers of economic development. It would have denied the hated Israeli state a demographic advantage just when one was necessary. And it would have suited the anti-Zionist propaganda claim that the Jews were merely a religious minority and not a people. But, of course, neither the mobs nor the regimes in charge could help themselves. If they genuinely believed that Jews were not a people and that Middle Eastern Jews had nothing to do with a European settler colonial enterprise in Palestine, then seeking “revenge” against Jewish minorities wouldn’t have been the first instinct. And yet in country after country, that is precisely what it was.
There is not a Jewish community in the world that hasn’t been touched by the need to conform to the security demands that this hatred imposes. It has been decades since anyone visibly Jewish has felt entirely comfortable boarding a metro train or walking in all neighborhoods of a European capital. This is usually excused as blowback from a terrible conflict, which is odd since there are many diaspora communities from many different conflicts in Europe and the Americas (including conflicts where one side is Muslim and the other is not), and we don’t often see Armenian bakeries getting trashed or Greek Orthodox churches getting stoned or Ukrainian cultural festivals needing multiple perimeters of security each time there is a flare-up. We won’t begin to understand Arab antisemitism if we only insist on seeing it as an effect of the conflict rather than as one of its causes.
Before the contours of the conflict were widely understood, many early Zionists naively imagined all sorts of scenarios where Zionist goals were compatible with Arab nationalist aims. Jabotinsky himself dreamed of rotating Jewish and Arab prime ministers in a Jewish state. It’s notable that Herzl was actually much less naïve than he is remembered. One of the subplots of Altneuland is the political campaign of a fanatical Jew seeking to deny Arab citizens their equal rights; he is ultimately defeated.
There were also Jews who argued passionately in this period for a kind of binationalism, like the one Beinart proposes now. Beinart refers to Brit Shalom, the main pre-statehood organization dedicated to binationalism as evidence of an alternative path not taken, but never mentions that besides failing to convince more than a tiny minority of Jews of their cause, they were even more fatefully never able to find any Arab partner at all.
Beinart can’t see the contribution of this to Zionist thought because he is simply unable anywhere in any of his writing to assign any agency at all to the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. When I challenged him on this seven years ago, he rushed to defend himself with five putative counter-examples, all of which actually proved my point. But now, the mask has dropped and he no longer even pretends to meet the challenge, instead resorting to cheap sloganeering on Twitter that “‘You’re not granting Palestinians agency’ is hasbara for ‘You’re not blaming Palestinians for their own oppression.’”
It’s such a recurring lacuna in his writing on his Israel that it must reflect a deeply held commitment on his part. He can’t see Arab or Palestinian choices, and he can’t see the cataclysmic hate for Jews in the Arab world as anything more than an effect of the conflict, rather than as one of its animating causes. Beinart is the Basil Fawlty of modern Mideast history, hissing under his breath to everyone to not mention the Arab antisemitism!
This isn’t just true for distant historical events either. To take just one minor example, Beinart describes the cause of the 2015 “stabbing intifada” as “oppression meets hopelessness.” But the spate of stabbings had a very clear cause behind them which Beinart prefers to ignore. They were incited by rumors of a Jewish attempt to damage the al-Aqsa mosque. There was nothing new about these rumors. For roughly a century now, rumors that Jews were conspiring to harm Muslim holy sites have been deployed to incite violence against Jews about once a decade.
This paranoid antisemitic conspiracy theory can be explained in several ways — partly, it is obvious transference of what Arabs did to holy Jewish sites during the brief 19-year period in the mid-20th century when Old Jerusalem was under their control — but it cannot be explained by the occupation or even the existence of the State of Israel, since it was just as potent in fomenting anti-Jewish violence before 1948 as after. In fact, it was more effective before. In the 1929 pogroms, many more Jews were killed as a result of this conspiracy theory precisely because they lacked then what they have now: a sovereign state to defend them. Why does Beinart want to return six million Israeli Jews to this position of vulnerability again?
There’s something almost precious in the way Beinart asks, “How did Zionism evolve from an ideology that encompassed alternatives to Jewish statehood into one that equates them with genocide?” Because in order to pose such a silly question you’d have to be completely ignorant of all three of the historical developments alluded to above — one of which involves an actual genocide against the Jewish people and another of which involves the ecstatic and gloating promises of a genocide which were thankfully beaten back by Jewish arms in 1948 and 1967. Or, and this is more likely Beinart’s case, you would have to be so fully committed to a historical method that sees only Jewish causes for a conflict involving Jews and only Jewish neuroses as explanations for fears Jews might have for their safety that you are simply blinded to the weakness of your argument.
This essay continues with part 2 here.
Shany Mor is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism and a research fellow at the Chaikin Institute for Geostrategy, both at the University of Haifa. He is also an associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter at @ShMMor. This series was originally published as one article at Medium.