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Professor Alan Johnson is a Senior Research Fellow at BICOM.
BICOM is pleased to present an in-depth interview with Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism, along with critical responses to the book from Jonathan Rynhold, Jeremy Newmark, Stephen Pollard and Hannah Weisfeld. We have invited Peter to write a rejoinder.
In 2010 Peter Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic, published an explosive and influential essay in The New York Review of Books. ‘The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment’ argued that a dangerous disconnect had opened up between younger liberal Jews and the older, more conservative communal leadership. Simply put, Peter argued that when forced to choose between ‘Israel, right or wrong’ and their liberal values, younger Jews were, more and more, choosing the latter. In a new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter expands that argument and gives it a programmatic edge; most controversially by calling for a “Zionist BDS”: a boycott of the settlements beyond the Green Line, albeit matched by “an equally vigorous embrace” of Israel within the Green Line.
This BICOM symposium has two aims; to provide Peter with the space to set out his argument, and to subject it to a searching but good-spirited critique.
Alan Johnson is a Senior Research Fellow at BICOM. In an in-depth interview, Alan and Peter explore several aspects of the book’s central thesis as well as debating a range of criticisms of the book: that it treats the two-state deal as being in Israel’s gift, robs the Palestinians of agency, and downplays Israel’s security challenges.
Jonathan Rynhold is Director of the Argov Center for Israel and the Jewish People at Bar-Ilan University. He claims that the book, “plays down the serious and growing threats to Israel’s security” in favour of a dubious psychology of Prime Minister Netanyahu that “misse[s] the big news in contemporary Israel: namely, that a large chunk of the Israeli centre-right has come to accept partition and Palestinian statehood.” He rejects Peter’s thesis that Israeli expansionism is primarily responsible for the failure to achieve peace. Rynhold believes that “Beinart is correct when he argues that Israel must ultimately withdraw from the West Bank in order to preserve its identity as Jewish and democratic state” but accuses Beinart of ignoring repeated failures by Palestinian leaders to accept generous Israeli offers. Rynhold also claims that the book “effectively decontextualises the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ by ignoring ‘the really big crisis … swirling across the Middle East, the region’s chronic instability and radicalism.” Neither the rise of Islamism nor the Iranian threat, suggests Rynhold, are seriously addressed.
Jeremy Newmark is the Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council. To Beinart’s critique of the US Jewish leadership he responds sharply: “that is not the American Jewish establishment that I know and work with closely.” To the idea that the younger generation are disconnected from Israel, he offers a nuanced critique. “Beinart is correct to point out that in younger circles there is more debate, more questioning and more wrestling with the issues (this is as true of UK Jewry as it is in the USA). However it is not axiomatic that this is an indicator of lack of ‘connection’… all of the wrestling, questioning and debate ultimately deepens the connection.” In a wide-ranging review, Newmark accuses Beinart of ignoring the complexity of the conflict by presenting it “entirely through the prism of Israeli policy.” More: Beinart falls prey to a ‘crass form of Orientalism’ that treats Arabs as capable only of “responding to conditions, not sophisticated enough to act according to their will.” He also indicts Beinart’s proposal to boycott the settlements as wrong-headed and indicative of “a failure to identify delegitimisation for what it really is – an irrational desire for the reversal of Israel’s existence.”
Stephen Pollard is the Editor of The Jewish Chronicle. Deeply unimpressed by the book, he disputes the evidence for a “disconnect” between younger diaspora Jews and Israel, and suggests that Beinart’s focus on the American communal leadership has little to say to the very different milieu of Anglo-Jewry.
Hannah Weisfeld is the Director of Yachad, a pro-peace, pro-Israel organisation based in the UK. She offers a much more positive reading of the book, finding a clarion call to face up to a “set of ethical responsibilities which for too long we have ignored to our own peril by blindly supporting an occupation.” But she is by no means uncritical, suggesting that Peter “overestimate[s] the power of a Jewish pro-Israel lobby” while his proposal for a limited boycott is “divisive and counter-productive, alienating Israel and other Jews, when in fact, we need to bring people into a conversation.” Weisfeld also worries that the obsessive focus by Beinart on what he sees as the sins of Benjamin Netanyahu risks instilling “false hopes amongst supporters of Israel that all is required is a change of administration, whereas the occupation and its impact, are, in fact, much more deeply engrained in Israel’s political system and its citizens.”
Finally, the editors believe that getting the tone of this debate right is almost as important as the substantive arguments. As Mick Davis, the chairman of the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) write in The Jewish Chronicle, “when we doubt the commitment of people who both love and yet wrestle with Israel we fuel a corrosive process that threatens to drive away some of its most effective allies and friends…we do the delegitimisers’ job for them.” In this symposium, Stephen Pollard disagrees sharply with Peter’s arguments but accepts that they were reached “from an avowed love of Israel.” Jeremy Newmark finds the book dangerously naïve but does not doubt Beinart’s “passionate Zionism and his commitment to Jewish values and the continuity of a thriving American Jewry.” We believe these critics strike the right tone.
The views expressed by the contributors are those of the authors alone, and not of BICOM.