This book tells the story of contemporary Israel, the people who live in Israel proper and those who live in the occupied West Bank, and the complex relationship between the state of Israel and the United States in general--and the American Jewish establishment in particular. A key point that permeates the author’s thinking throughout this book is that instead of thinking of themselves as perpetual victims, Jews now need to comprehend that they have real power.
Hence it is incumbent upon them to exercise this power ethically.
Commenting on the history of the Zionist movement founded by Theodor Herzl, the author makes no bones about the point that “while Zionism was a nationalist movement, it was also, from the beginning, a liberal one” (p. 13). So, even though Herzl did not want a Boer state of the sort that existed in South Africa, he knew fully well that Jews were “entirely capable of birthing a Boer state” (p. 13).
We are told that given the frequently inhospitable environment surrounding the land that the Jews call home, it is all the more important to ensure that the liberal origins of Zionism are not forgotten.
Despite the salience of ensuring this point, the author laments that what we see today in Israel is a situation in which illiberal Zionism beyond the so-called “green line” is destroying the possibility of liberal Zionism within it.
The author makes short shrift of two arguments that American Jews ought not to criticize Israel. As he rightly points out, if American Jews can’t criticize Israel because they don’t live there, then they also ought not to criticize the Palestinians because they don’t live in either Gaza City or in Ramallah. Yet “American Jewish groups constantly demand that Palestinian leaders change their policies...” (p. 50). Second, we learn that the argument that Israeli policy cannot be criticized because Israel is a democracy is specious, because American Jewish groups frequently criticize the policies of European nations towards Israel, even though these nations are also democracies.
Beinart spends quite a bit of time discussing the many Jewish influences that shaped the young Barack Obama’s thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ways in which this conflict might be dealt with in a just manner. For instance, in Hyde Park, where Barack Obama lived for a while, there existed a progressive Jewish community whose synagogue “enabled an extraordinary degree of interracial and interreligious harmony” (p. 85). Obama routinely mingled with left-leaning Jews, for whom a “progressive social justice tradition” (p. 89) was a defining feature of their Jewish identity. Despite these positive associations, the author laments the way in which, some years later, President Obama surrendered to organized Jewish groups in Washington, DC, and to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Unfortunately, Beinart is certainly right when he says that when “Obama, a Democratic president genuinely committed to ending the occupation [in the West bank] ends up capitulating to an Israeli prime minister whom many Democrats privately loathe, it is hard to imagine any American president significantly challenging Israeli behavior anytime soon” (p. 189).
Given Israel’s harsh and undemocratic policies in the West Bank and the failure of American Jewish organizations to criticize these policies, the state of Israel faces a definite problem--not from the Palestinians or from Iran, but instead from younger American Jews who either care little for Israel or care a lot about Israel and hence have great difficulties with illiberal Israeli policies, particularly those implemented in the occupied West Bank. As the author perspicaciously points out, this problem cannot be dealt with by, for instance, stopping the
BDS (boycott, divest from, and sanction) movement and by cleaning up Israel’s image. Why not? This is “because Israel doesn’t have a public relations problem; it has a moral problem. You can’t sell occupation in a postcolonial age” (p. 190).
This book suffers from some errors of commission and omission. For instance, the author’s equivocation on whether apartheid South Africa was the worst human rights offender in the world is puzzling. Second, he does not adequately explain why the response of the Republicans and the American Jewish organizations—to a proposal by President Obama to divide Jerusalem—would be “too ferocious to bear” (p. 148). Third, given that President Obama’s initial Israel policy was not costing him the support of American Jews in general, it is not clear why the loss of Jewish money should have bothered him so much. Finally, the author’s perspective that although it is okay to boycott the settlements, it is not okay to boycott East Jerusalem—even though Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not granted citizenship by birth—is perplexing. These caveats notwithstanding, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not say clearly that Peter Beinart has written a passionate and courageous book. This book provides plenty of food for thought for all readers who are interested not only in comprehending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also in understanding why democratic Israel today faces a credible threat from within.