As an American-Israeli Jew engaged in raising her children to have a knowledgeable and loving relationship with their faith and heritage, as well as a healthy (and, indeed, faith-based) respect for the imperatives of democracy and human rights, there’s something genuinely heartbreaking in some of the responses bubbling up to Peter Beinart’s book Crisis of Zionism*.
I don’t mean the responses about which JJ Goldberg recently wrote
One positive thing you can say about Peter Beinart’s critics is that none of them has smacked him in the face with a rifle butt. Not yet, anyway.
I mean the responses in which liberal American Jews admit, in the wake of the Beinart’s writing, that they have chosen not to think very much about Israel, rather than face the venom (aka: almost-a-rifle-butt) that awaits any who dare stray from institutional Jewry’s conventional wisdom.
The first such response I saw was in late March. Dana Goldstein, at The Nation, opened her piece like this:
I write about Israel-Palestine issues only occasionally, because the onslaught of emails and comments calling me a self-hating Jew can be emotionally overwhelming. It’s also difficult to weather the respectful but strident disagreement from some friends and members of my family, who consider me insufficiently pro-Israel because I support the international community moving with deliberate speed to pressure the Netanyahu administration to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian state.
A few weeks later, another American Jewish writer, economist Paul Krugman, wrote at The New York Times:
The truth is that like many liberal American Jews — and most American Jews are still liberal — I basically avoid thinking about where Israel is going. It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide — and that’s bad for Jews everywhere, not to mention the world. But I have other battles to fight, and to say anything to that effect is to bring yourself under intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.
But it’s only right to say something on behalf of Beinart, who has predictably run into that buzzsaw.
Then this past Tuesday, political author and Rolling Stone columnist Rick Perlstein wrote
Peter Beinart’s recollections, in his powerful new book The Crisis of Zionism, seem[ed] very familiar – which felt uncanny, because I thought I had been alone.
Perlstein describes the ways in which the Jewish community of his youth used the Holocaust to build identity, ignored the realities of his generation as it came of age, and reduced God to little more than a cheerleader for Israel’s military.
This was the moral education that I found so dissatisfying in my youth… a disingenous muddle of a irrationalism, intellectual double standards, and whiny special pleading. I learned that because Israel was a “democracy,” with Arab citizens and political parties, discrimination against those Arabs was not a problem – but also that it was appropriate for the Israeli Defense Forces to harass Arabs at random because, I remember hearing, “they don’t wear signs around their neck saying ‘good Arab’ and ‘bad Arab.’” I was solemnly informed that groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were biased against Israel and that the State Department was full of anti-Semites…. I got the message, loud and clear, that those of us living lives of bland comfort far from enemy-circled Israel had no right, no standing to criticize the Jewish state; and to just shut up and send the check to Jewish organizations….
All of which led for Perlstein, as an adult, to this:
As for Israel, I don’t think of it much. Even in a career as a political writer given to disputation, the sheer viciousness… faced by those who criticize not merely Israel, but certain specific de rigeur formulations about Israel, turned me off the entire subject.
One response to all this was an open letter from J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami asking Krugman to “reconsider [his] opinion.”
I invite you to not let a vocal minority silence your voice. You are a Nobel prize-winning economist and leading American thinker whose contribution to the marketplace of ideas on so many issues is such an asset to this country’s democracy. I invite you not to let their smears cause you to sit this one out.
I agree with Ben-Ami — and not just because I’m a J Street supporter, but because asking folks to be open and honest about what Israel is doing and where it’s all leading has become my life’s organizing motif. I’ve spent more than a decade now calling for greater, deeper engagement (and not incidentally, dodging my fair share of the viciousness).
Yet for all that, I can understand why American Jews often don’t engage. It’s awful, and it’s painful, and life comes with troubles enough, unbidden. Why walk into a buzzsaw that not only cuts deep but serves to alienate you from your own?
But I do hope that those currently lined up to Beinart-bash, as if he were some sort of kosher piñata, might take a moment to read the responses of folks like Goldstein, Krugman, and Perlstein (all people who, it should be noted, don’t generally shy away from taking controversial stands as a rule). A not-insignificant section of the American Jewish community is beginning to inch aside the mehitza the gate keepers set up years ago, and what we’re seeing behind it throws into question all their old assumptions of how best to protect the Jewish people.
And it’s heartbreaking.