Israel Politics Pointed in Illiberal Direction


Peter Beinart blue.jpgPeter 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


22 comments on “Israel Politics Pointed in Illiberal Direction

  1. larry birnbaum says:

    Beinart is expressing an understandable distaste for certain elements of the Israeli political scene but I think mistakes politics for policy. It’s obvious why a liberal Jew would be grossed out and embarrassed by Lieberman but: (a) His presence in the cabinet is a result of Israel’s disfunctional political system (proportional representation in a parliamentary system isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, something the UK should keep in mind) combined with Livni’s unwillingness for Kadima to enter a coalition with Likud as a junior partner (i.e. without her as Prime Minister). This was somewhat understandable inasmuch as Kadima won more seats than Likud, but ultimately Likud held the cards because they could form a government without Kadima but not vice versa. (b) His authority seems limited perhaps even negligable — on core issues Netanyahu is clearly acting as his own foreign minister (occasionally it seems with Barak’s help).
    Similarly while many of the settlers seem pretty nuts (the ones who move deep into the West Bank, not those who are living in what are basically suburbs of Jerusalem at this point) again I would question their ultimate influence on policy. I don’t think the Israeli government authorizes settlements because it agrees with the settler’s goals of occupying all of historic Israel or because it thinks that will be feasible in the long run. I think it authorizes settlements because that puts pressure on the Palestinians to reach an agreement (something I happen to believe is actually useful). In sum I don’t believe that the majority of Israelis would allow the settlers to stand in the way of a resolution to this conflict if one actually seemed attainable. Again in other words I think Beinart is simply embarrassed, which is understandable but not all that important.
    Regarding Leon Wieseltier’s comment that Jews have historically worried about what is good first and only then “proceeded to the business of safety,” and that this is how they should continue to comport themselves, I think the meaning and implications of this are quite different for Jews and for Gentiles. From a Zionist perspective I think this would be viewed as a classic example of diaspora thinking: the failure to take responsibility for oneself.


  2. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Its actually quite illuminating seeing Kotz repeatedly defend Nadine. It is a clear window into his character.


  3. kotzabasis says:

    Who would you argue with if Steve banned Nadine? With your self’s intellectual masochism?


  4. Paul Norheim says:

    Correction: “Anyone can BREAK china”.


  5. Paul Norheim says:

    “Why do you fall for this, Clemons?”
    Probably because Steve knows that in politics, signature counts
    more than content. Anyone can brake china. What Petraeus said
    around Christmas about the unsolved I/P conflict and the US
    perceived bias endangering US troops was not an original
    thought, the important thing was who said it.
    The same applies to Beinart’s analysis of the Jewish-American
    positions on Israel: He certainly did a very good job
    documenting and arguing his case, but the most important
    thing was that Beinart said it, and not Paul Norheim.
    And the “bravery” Clemons speaks about is of course not a
    matter of risking his life, but connected to the future value of
    his signature.
    Most of us commenting here don’t have a valuable signature
    outside this bubble; our challenge is to provide “content” –
    thoughts, perspectives, arguments, facts (and we sometimes do
    a lousy job in this respect), in the hope that Steve and others
    will occasionally risk their names by signing our content.
    Ideally, the comment section should perhaps function more like
    a political laboratory where anonymous men and women in
    white lab coats can experiment without taking big risks – and
    less like a theater where partisan wars are fought out.


  6. DonS says:

    “You seem to have a big problem, btw, telling violent Islamists from Muslims everywhere. My reference to rusty scimitars was not a dig at “Muslims and Arabs” everywhere. It was a reference to reporters and artists who have actually been killed by Islamists, like Theo van Gogh or Danny Pearl and a very long list of Muslim names. THOSE writers are really brave.” (nadine)
    You are a conniving dissembler, and a perfect example of why it takes courage to speak out publicly against the lunatic zionist mafia. Acknowledging Beinart’s attempt to bring some truth and sanity to a monologue dominated by rabid zionist fanatics like yourself is unrelated to respecting others who have show courage and suffered for it.
    If it isn’t clear by now that you are a paid propagandist, you are otherwise seriously unbalanced. If the former, Steve should ban your access here to spread your vile propaganda.


  7. JohnH says:

    Hey Nadine, Wig, kotz, marcus: Happy Liberation Day!
    Too bad Israel didn’t learn anything from the experience and end ALL their occupations.
    Nasrallah just delivered a speech saying that only Israelis who flee will be safe in the next war. Feeling secure yet? Isn’t it time to negotiate instead of stonewalling to assure Israel’s future?


  8. JohnH says:

    I’ve long wondered about the schizophrenic value system of Jews who champion social justice in the United States but also champion flagrantly discriminatory and unjust practices in Israel. What are their core values, if any? Or are their values motivated by nothing more than calculated interest in themselves and those who pray like them?


  9. David says:

    “All during the late 60s and early 70s, my Jewish friends ALWAYS were on the side of the underdog. I know them too well to think that they will abandon the good fight now.”
    Starting with my experience at the University of Florida in the early 60s (Florida was de facto a white university in a segregationist context, although two, count them two, very bright, accomplished black girls were admitted as undergraduates in my junior year, I think it was, and the football team finally included two black students in ’67), Jews I knew were forthright, active champions of social justice and against the malignancy known as racism. Peter Beinart has renewed my faith in that Jewish imperative. JStreet was the first sign for me that that imperative was still alive and well.


  10. nadine says:

    “Aside from the not-so-subtle dig at Muslims and Arabs, Nadine predictably cannot accept the truth, and in fact gets a bit testy here, that anyone who critiques the conventional wisdom on Israel risks the entire establishment coming down on them in nasty ways, and cast into the outer darkness.” (DonS)
    What “entire Establishment” DonS? Isn’t Steve Clemons part of the Establishment? Isn’t he well-ensconced in the think-tank halls of DC? He approves, and so does at least half the Dem party, the Obama-led half – a very established and well-funded half. You’re preening about non-existent bravery. Peter Beinart’s career prospects will only improve because he is helping this left-wing establish create new pseudo-facts to bolster their case about why the alliance with Israel should be abandoned.
    You seem to have a big problem, btw, telling violent Islamists from Muslims everywhere. My reference to rusty scimitars was not a dig at “Muslims and Arabs” everywhere. It was a reference to reporters and artists who have actually been killed by Islamists, like Theo van Gogh or Danny Pearl and a very long list of Muslim names. THOSE writers are really brave.


  11. ... says:

    lots of folks fall for pomp and entitlement, which may or may not be the reason, but either way for someone like beinart to offer this suggests a tide change as mentioned up above and worth highlighting as steve has done…


  12. PeakVT says:

    “…the brave, china-breaking revelations that Beinart offers.”
    Beinart offers no “revelations” – other people have already made the same observations. He is just a person who is not expected to offer this particular viewpoint on Israel. Call it “contrarian cred” – the truth is given a lot more attention by the press and the establishment when it comes from an insider not expected to espouse it, even though it is no more true than when outsiders voiced it.
    Why do you fall for this, Clemons?


  13. PissedOffAmerican says:

    The key concept to be taken away from Wieseltier’s quoted comment can be summed up by employing one term; racism. Without actually asking the ovious question in direct terms, Wieseltier still poses the question;
    How is it that the apologists for the crimes of Israel can blame the Arabs for Israeli policies and actions that are based in racism rather than the pat excuse of “defending themselves”?????
    Not only are comparisons to Nazi Germany now apropos, but the similarities both in policy, AND motive, have become glaring.


  14. DonS says:

    “Steve, why the hell do you keep calling Beinart brave? You think some neocon will cut his head off with a rusty scimitar? (nadine)
    Aside from the not-so-subtle dig at Muslims and Arabs, Nadine predictably cannot accept the truth, and in fact gets a bit testy here, that anyone who critiques the conventional wisdom on Israel risks the entire establishment coming down on them in nasty ways, and cast into the outer darkness. But to Nadine I suppose it is rightful — and makes Beinart happy as ‘a pig in mud’ to be called anti-Semitic, and a self-hater, and to have the propaganda forces of AIPAC arrayed against one. But she wouldn’t recognize such acts as nasty since she is a main purveyor of such calumny.
    Beinart is brave indeed to put such a truthful, iconoclastic analysis out there. Anyone who says its not brave is just trying to cowardly change the subject and demean the author.
    As I said on the previous Beinart thread:
    “Beinart shows a comprehensive understanding the the forces in play, especially in American Jewery. He clearly identifies an calls out all those who see such criticism and analysis as his ‘self-hating’. And he frames his piece as a warning call to the fast fading best interests of Israel and an identification with humanist Jewish tradition.
    “Essentially, Beinart documents the big lie that continues to grow which has been ignored, squelched actually, in America. And the resident TWN right wing Zionist commentators are checking with their script writers right now to discredit Beinart in ways large and small. Nay, to destroy him.”
    Enter the naysayers and destroyers.


  15. samuelburke says:

    from phil weiss over at mondoweiss dot net.
    Republican Party aligns itself with settler movement


  16. nadine says:

    Steve, why the hell do you keep calling Beinart brave? You think some neocon will cut his head off with a rusty scimitar? There’s nothing the least brave about Beinart’s foolish rant. All he risks is lots of attention and praise from his fellow Lefties. He’s happy as a pig in mud, I’m sure.


  17. nadine says:

    Yaacov Lozowick, a very thoughtful and by no means right-wing Israeli historian, wishes “that Peter Beinart and his many comrades in ignorance would pontificate a wee bit less about all the things that are wrong about Israel, even as his very choice of sources, not to mention his outlandish conclusions, speak volumes mostly to his lack of information.
    Yesterday he followed up his previous piece with one called Why Israel has to do Better, which mostly left me scratching my head in perplexity. It contains ideas such as that the Palestinian leaders since Arafat are eager to reach a two-state solution but Israel isn’t (Ehud Olmert, anyone?); settlements are ever encroaching on Palestinian land and pulling them out will cause civil war (Gaza, anyone? – Not to mention that the myth of the encroaching is true only if you cast the facts in a very specific way); Hamas and Fatah would have created a unity government amenable to negotiating with Israel in 2007, but Israel and America thwarted them (How, exactly, did they manage, and how come it was never reported in any knowledgeable media outlet I’ve seen, not even Haaretz?); Israel is at least partially to blame for the Hamas rockets from Gaza – he actually does say that. And so on. He has also allowed Edit Zertal and Akiva Eldar to convince him that the settlers are a cancer in the Israeli polity, and someone has convinced him that the Haredim have taken over Jerusalem (Nir Barkat, anyone?).
    I’ll allow him a pass about the cancer in the polity one. It’s conceivable he’s simply ignorant about the heritage and provenance of that term, though it’s not an ignorance to be proud of.”
    I will add that the Left has settled into a disturbing tendency to make up their own facts and repeat them until they believe them, which Beinart is displaying here. He doesn’t know wtf he is talking about, so his conclusions are out of touch with reality. Worse, his reaction to being challenged is to proclaim his superior morality and spout some more pseudo-facts.


  18. ... says:

    here’s the article to read by peter beinart here.. powerful stuff telling it like it is like that…


  19. ... says:

    Peter Beinart – w&m part 2… the tide is turning and while ever so slow, it’s a good change..


  20. downtown says:

    All during the late 60s and early 70s, my Jewish friends ALWAYS were on the side of the underdog. I know them too well to think that they will abandon the good fight now.


  21. John Waring says:

    The Jewish ethical tradition was a vital and heroic component of the civil rights struggle in the United Sates.
    Let me offer two quotes for us to keep in mind.
    “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”
    “Just to be is a blessing. Just to be is holy.”


  22. JohnH says:

    The more Israel is seen as the prime instigator of US behavior, the harder it will be on Jews in general when that behavior leads to a disaster, such as an attack on Iran. To avoid being scapegoated, US Jews should really be vociferously opposing Israel


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