Beinart is simply wrong

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Stephen Pollard is editor of the Jewish Chronicle and a widely published political columnist.

I can’t imagine anything an editor wants to hear less about a book he’s sent out for review than that the response is one of boredom.

Anger – wonderful. Praise – just as good. But indifference? I’m afraid I can summon neither the anger nor the praise that Peter Beinart’s Crisis of Zionism has engendered from so many commentators since its publication earlier this month.  All I can summon is a yawn.

Far from being ‘the book you have to read’, as the acres of coverage it has attracted implies, Beinart’s screed is predictable, usually trite and has little to say that hasn’t been said by many people before. It is, I’m sorry to say, just rather dull.

But it’s important to state first off that Beinart in no way merits the opprobrium that has come his way. Yes, he calls for a boycott of Israel, and whatever his motivation that puts him firmly in the camp of Israel’s enemies. As such, his argument needs to be taken on and beaten.

But his motivation does matter. He may be misguided, he may give succour to Israel’s enemies. But he does so from an avowed love of Israel, and that does matter. It means that the more hysterical cries of ‘self-hating Jew’ and other easy to toss off epithets are misdirected. Beinart is wrong. That does not diminish his right to call himself a Jew, or to describe himself as a friend of Israel. It means, rather, that those of us who take a different view need to up our game and explain why it is that a man who has spent so long defending and loving Israel has taken such a wrong turn.

As for that turn: Beinart is simply wrong.

His argument is, essentially, that the leadership of American Jewry is too slavishly supportive of whatever Israel does, as younger Jews are increasingly ashamed.

In a devastating review for Tablet, Bret Stephens shows that, even on Beinart’s own terms, his argument falls apart:

Stephens describes the results of a survey by Brandeis’ Theodore Sasson.

“82 per cent of American Jews feel that U.S. support for Israel is either “just about right” or “not supportive enough”—and that’s just among those Jews who describe themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal.”’ Among those calling themselves ‘middle of the road,’ the figure rises to 94 per cent. Regarding the settlements, just 26 per cent of even liberal Jews think Israel should dismantle all of them; among moderates, the figure drops to 10 per cent. Generationally speaking, there even seems to be a rightward tilt among younger Jews. Consider Jerusalem: 58 per cent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 oppose re-dividing it. Just 51 per cent of their parents and grandparents feel the same way.”

As Stephens concludes:

“Yet Beinart would not be toned down. Findings such as Sasson’s,’ he wrote, ‘are misleading because they include only those Jews who identify by religion, and a growing number of the least Israel-attached young American Jews identify only culturally.’ (My emphasis.) Interesting if true. Except it isn’t true. Reviewing the original Sasson study’s statement on methodology, one comes across the following:

Jewish respondents were initially identified by a question about religion. In addition, two items were asked of panel members of no religion in March 2010: whether respondents considered themselves Jewish for any reason and whether they had a Jewish mother or father. … In total, the sample eligible for analysis consisted of 1,243 respondents, of whom 1,089 were Jewish by religion and 154 were Jewish by other criteria.”

As Stephens observes, “If Beinart wants to argue that the Sasson study should have sampled a greater number of ‘cultural Jews,’ fine. That’s a discussion worth having. But to use the word ‘only’ when he means ‘mostly’ should alert readers that no assertion of fact in The Crisis of Zionism can be taken at face value.”

To judge from his words when visiting the UK, Beinart believes there is a similar cleavage here between the establishment of Anglo-Jewry and younger Jews.

But the dispute is, if anything, that the official bodies are not robust enough in their defence of Israel – that they are too deferential in the presence of power. On any number of times I have been told by students and younger activists that they are dismissed as headstrong by their elders. And similarly in reverse – that is exactly the language used by the office holders of Anglo-Jewry when asked about the ‘upstart’ activists.

Almost always what lies behind that is the idea that the younger activists lack ‘nuance’ in defending Israel (as one senior office holder once put it to me, when defending his entirely spineless refusal to attack the UK government’s criticism of Israel).

The central problem with Beinart’s book for a British Jew is that it pretends to be offering something new –  the idea that official bodies are too right wing – which is not merely a rehash of an entirely clichéd criticism, but is actually the very opposite of the situation it thinks it is describing. Far from being too ready to defend Israel, the challenging critique of Anglo-Jewry would be that it isn’t ready enough.