Roger Cohen: The dilemmas of Jewish power

LONDON — Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism” is an important new book that rejects the manipulation of Jewish victimhood in the name of Israel’s domination of the Palestinians and asserts that the real issue for Jews today is not the challenge of weakness but the demands of power.

“We are being asked to perpetuate a narrative of victimhood that evades the central Jewish question of our age: the question of how to ethically wield Jewish power,” he writes. That power, for 45 years now, has been exercised over millions of Palestinians who enjoy none of the rights of citizenship and all the humiliations of an occupied people.

Beinart, a prominent liberal journalist, is right to invert the treacherous victimhood trope. This is not 1938 revisited, or even 1967. Israel is strong today, a vibrant economy and the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed state. Its unwavering ally, the United States, is home to a Jewish community that has never been more integrated or influential. Turbulent Arab states are focused on their own reinvention, not Israel; Iran’s principal regional ally, Syria, teeters on the brink.

Threats persist, of course. The annihilationist strain in Palestinian ideology, present since 1948, has not disappeared. Arab anti-Semitism festers, although at least in Tunisia it’s being debated. Hezbollah and Hamas have their rockets and missiles. Iran has a stop-go nuclear program. Terrorists can strike in New Delhi or Tbilisi.

Still, the greatest danger by far to Israel is that it will squander the opportunities of power or overreach militarily (Iran) through excess of victimhood, rather than that any imaginable coalition of its enemies will deliver a crippling blow.

Yet, as Beinart chronicles, major American Jewish organizations, their agendas often swayed by a few wealthy donors (like the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson), have in general made uncritical defense of Israel — rather than constructive criticism — the cornerstone of their policies and viewed deviation from the ever-refreshed victimhood narrative as unacceptable dissent. He quotes Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League: “Israeli democracy should decide; American Jews should support.”

Such prescriptions worked for an embattled little Israel and a generation of Holocaust survivors; they fall short today. “In their support for a halt to settlement growth and their comfort with public criticism of Israeli policy,” Beinart writes, “the mass of American Jews are to the left of the organizations that speak in their name, organizations that almost always oppose U.S. pressure on Israeli leaders and blame the Palestinians almost exclusively for the lack of Middle East peace.”

Blaming Palestinians — for disunity, for grandstanding, for seeking not the 1967 lines but Israel’s disappearance — is easy enough, although increasingly an exercise in misrepresentation of the major Palestinian shifts under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The blame game would, however, be far more credible if the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had shown the least interest in peace; it has not. Subsidized West Bank settlement expansion continues, a claim in concrete to the land Netanyahu calls Judea and Samaria.

Beinart notes (well-meaning Israeli diplomats who would “rebrand” Israel take note): “Israel does not have a public relations problem; it has a policy problem. You can’t sell occupation in a postcolonial age.” That occupation, prolonged in perpetuity, would mean, as President Barack Obama has put it, that “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled.”

What Netanyahu and major American Jewish organizations miss is that, in Beinart’s words, “the less democratic Zionism becomes in practice, the more people across the world will question the legitimacy of Zionism itself.” Israel, he states rightly, is a democracy within the green line “but in the West Bank it is an ethnocracy, a place where Jews enjoy citizenship and Palestinians do not.”

Some of the most fascinating pages of “The Crisis of Zionism” trace the ideological backdrop to the bitter clash between Obama and Netanyahu. Beinart demonstrates the strong liberal Zionist influence of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf on Obama during his Chicago years. Wolf hated the idea of “an Israel besieged by anti-Semites;” his teaching was “interfaith” and “integrationist.” It cleaved to the liberal roots of American Zionism and the ethical teachings of the prophets who, as expressed in Exodus, commanded Jews not to oppress strangers “having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The contrast with Netanyahu — raised in the Jabotinsky strain of Zionism by a father who viewed Arabs as “semi-barbaric” and rejected an “emasculating moralism” in favor of a new warrior breed of Jew — could scarcely be greater. Beinart paints a persuasive picture of a Netanyahu dedicated at his core — despite embracing two states late in the day — to the prevention of any viable Palestinian state. His portrayal of Netanyahu’s early friendship with Adelson and other right-wing American Jews is particularly intriguing — the very Adelson who of late has been funding Newt “an-invented-Palestinian-people” Gingrich.

It is depressing that Netanyahu won. Obama, who started out saying settlements must stop, ended up vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution to that effect. He had to shed his liberal Zionism for American political survival. There could not be a clearer demonstration of why Beinart’s book is so important
and timely for the future of Israel.

Source, NYT, 2/13/2012