Peter Beinart’s important New York Review of Books essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” outlining a generationally bifurcated American Jewish community in which Israel-focused institutions are increasingly dominated by zealots while more liberal American Jews are disconnected from the Israel enterprise has drawn some strong critical responses.
Authors of some of the leading responses to Beinart are Leon Wieseltier, Jonathan Chait, Jeffrey Goldberg, Jamie Kirchick, and David Frum.
All of the above essayists offer smart and interesting critiques of the brave, china-breaking revelations that Beinart offers. What is interesting is that Beinart marshals data-supported empirical observations in his portrayal of a structural shift in the American community while most of these critics focus on whether or not Beinart is playing fair in not starting off with ritual condemnations of Israel’s enemies.
Beinart offers an effective response here — and interestingly tries to remind the New Republic‘s Leon Wieseltier what he used to be like and how he used to think — ending his piece by saying we need the real Leon Wieseltier back.
From the end of Beinart’s essay which should be read in full at the Daily Beast:
Finally, it’s hard to see how the misdeeds of Hamas, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad or anyone else in the Muslim world explain–let alone justify–Avigdor Lieberman’s campaign to delegitimize and disenfranchise Israeli Arabs, the vast majority of whom don’t support either Hezbollah or Hamas, and simply wish to be equal citizens of Israel. The plight of the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish gets short shrift in the American press, but it may be the greatest of all of Israel’s challenges. In the words of Israeli civil rights lawyer Yoella Har-Shefi, “If we don’t give Arab citizens this chance to become Israelis, the country will come apart. We are sitting on the edge of a volcano.”
The grim truth is that there are powerful, internal trends pushing Israeli politics in an illiberal direction. In 2000, there were 200,000 settlers in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem); now there are 300,000. About a quarter of them are Gush Emunim-style fanatics, and many of the younger settlers are so violent they actually scare the old guard. Shin Bet warns that if another prime minister of Israel tries to follow in Barak and Yitzhak Rabin’s shoes, they should expect an assassination attempt.
Settler fanaticism is a cancer that has grown from within Israel; you can’t blame it on Ahmedinejad. Nor are Iran’s mullahs responsible for the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews, who burn Christian holy books and assault women who try to pray at the Western Wall, have virtually taken over the city of Jerusalem. Their contempt for liberal values would have been problem enough had not the Israeli government bribed them with housing in the West Bank, thus joining their zealotry to the settlement enterprise. This too cannot be blamed on Hassan Nasrallah.
One last point. Leon, Jeff, Jon, Jamie, David and I are all Jews. In some sense, therefore, Israel’s crimes–unlike those of Hamas or Ahmedinejad–are committed in our name. We have a special obligation to expose and confront them. And we have a special obligation not to use the crimes of Israel’s enemies to excuse behavior that dishonors a Jewish state, and the Jewish ethical tradition that we all consider precious.
In 1994, after settler fanatic Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron, a man I once looked to for guidance on these matters expressed it better than I ever could. “When the comparative impulse becomes primary, accounting becomes apologetics. The really striking thing about the ethical texts of the Jews in exile is the extent to which they are silent about the adversity that the writers of these texts were regularly experiencing. For most of two millennia, the Jews had the standing alibi of anti-Semitism, if they wanted to take it up; but they did not want to take it up. They held themselves to the highest standards of conduct and then proceeded to the business of safety. One is not better merely because others are bad. And the better is not the same as the good.”
The man who wrote those words is Leon Wieseltier. We could sure use him today.
— Steve Clemons