There’s a reason why most Israelis find it difficult to listen patiently to lectures from liberal American Jews. For Israelis, their country is a real place filled with real people and perplexing dilemmas that have no easy solutions. But for all too many American Jews, Israel is a dreamland—a place for intellectual tourism where we can project our own insecurities and anxieties on the Jewish state while expressing our moral superiority over the lesser beings who live there and lack our wisdom.
Which brings us to the problem of Peter Beinart.
Beinart, the former editor of The New Republic and columnist for The Atlantic, sought to carve out a place for himself as the leading liberal critic of Israel with his 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism. The book was as spectacularly ignorant as it was arrogant in its refusal to acknowledge the reality of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The conceit of the work was that Israelis needed to rise above their fears and recognize that a two-state solution was within easy reach. Anything that contradicted his assumptions—like the nature of Palestinian political culture or the continued rejectionism and obsession with the fantasy of Israel’s destruction—was either rationalized or ignored. Too immersed in their unseemly quest for security and profit, Israelis could only overcome the “crisis” of the title by listening to the wisdom of Beinart, a righteous American pilgrim, whose manifest good intentions should have generated respect and deference from his recalcitrant Israeli pupils.
Much to Beinart’s chagrin, rather than take the advice of a leading American public intellectual to heart, Israelis ignored it. In the eight years since then, Israel has endured more violence and political controversy while the Palestinians have continued to reject peace, whether along the lines laid out by President Barack Obama (whose alleged bona fides as a friend of the Jewish people was discussed at length in his book) or the less generous terms offered by President Donald Trump.
Instead of moving closer to moral and physical collapse as Beinart has been prophesying, Israel has only gotten stronger. Much of the Arab world has tired of Palestinian intransigence and largely abandoned advocacy for their cause, as many now perceive the Israelis as a vital ally in the struggle against Iran, as well as a needed resource in the areas of technology, agriculture and clean water. Peace with the Palestinians is not in sight. But until it becomes possible, the Jews of Israel will hold on and continue to thrive.
All of this has left Beinart deeply troubled. He understands that events on the ground have refused to conform to his ideas. So rather than stick to his tired mantra about two states, Beinart has decided to junk it.
The result is an 8,000-word essay in Jewish Currents—the far-left magazine where he now writes on Jewish affairs after having decided that the ultra-liberal Forward was no longer woke enough for him—and a shorter version published in The New York Times in which he decides it’s time to give up on two states or rather the whole idea of a Jewish state. His “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine” is a manifesto calling for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state, replacing it with a binational entity where Jews and Arabs will share sovereignty over all of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.
Such a country will supposedly respect the rights of both peoples and provide a path to peace that was rendered impossible by the insistence of the Jews on having their own state in order to protect them from their unreasonable fears of another Holocaust. Having thus divested themselves of their unfair demonization of Palestinians, Israelis will prosper as Arabs mourn the Shoah and Jews will join them in lamenting the nakba (“disaster”) caused by the birth of the Jewish state.
There is, of course, nothing new about binationalism. It was championed by a small group of Jewish intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s whose naive and fearful approach was rendered obsolete by the Arab terror and rejectionism of that era. If Jewish life were to persist in its ancient homeland, sovereignty and self-defense were a must.
As scholar Daniel Gordis has written of Beinart’s foolish essays, acceptance of his premise requires not so much imagination as ignorance even greater than that of the author. This means ignoring the fact that Palestinians still conceive of their national identity as inextricably tied to the destruction of Zionism and Jewish life, not a desire for peaceful co-existence. That Beinart’s essays were published in the same week that the Fatah and Hamas movements announced their decision to join forces to oppose any compromise with Israel is not so much ironic as it is telling.
Beinart’s call for a new Yavne—a reference to the place where Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai built a yeshivah where Judaism could be revived after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—is also deeply symbolic. The real-life Jews of today are not defeated, but are flourishing in their reconstituted Jewish state. But that’s meaningless to Beinart because he believes the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel is a good enough reason to abandon the whole project. So he’s prepared to throw in the towel and with it, not only Jewish security but also the revival of Jewish life and culture that was made possible by Zionism.
Should Israelis treat his intellectual journey as if it were the epic event that he and his friends at the Times think it is?
Beinart’s chutzpah and self-importance demand satire, not respect. The notion that the state created by the sacrifice, blood, guts and brains of millions of courageous Israelis should be trashed because it doesn’t measure up to the hopes of one presumptuous intellectual living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is something so silly that you’d have to be an idiot (or an editor at The New York Times) to believe it.
While we do well to mock Beinart, we still shouldn’t ignore him.
Beinart’s anti-Zionist broadside in America’s leading newspaper represents more than just his own appalling egotism. His abandonment of the Jewish state is also indicative of the crisis of faith within much of American Jewry, whose loyalty to liberal patent nostrums exceeds their love of their fellow Jews or the vibrant society that has flourished in Israel.
His delusions are also to be found in the boardrooms of all too many liberal American Jewish institutions and philanthropies. Their talk of disillusionment with Israel and along with their judgmental attitude towards the hardheaded realism of the overwhelming majority of Israelis is not dissimilar to Beinart’s ideas.
The contempt for the achievements of Zionism and the fearful refusal to contemplate a future in which Jews can succeed despite the fact that insoluble problems remain unsolved has become part of the narrative of American Jewish life. Though Beinart’s ideas are as unoriginal as they are lacking in insight, they have the virtue of mirroring the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of much of the liberal American Jewish establishment—both philanthropic and religious—that is more interested in kowtowing to a Black Lives Matter movement linked to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism than it is to standing up for Zionism and the Jewish state.
The retreat of the defeated to Yavne is an image that has nothing to say to Israelis. Rather, it is an apt metaphor for the failures of an American Jewish organized world drenched in ignorance and Jewish illiteracy that is suffering both a demographic implosion and a crisis of faith. The surrender of the self-described leading exponent of liberal Zionism speaks volumes about the failures of American Jewry.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.