jimsleeper.com » Peter Beinart Unbound?

Peter Beinart Unbound?

By Jim Sleeper – May 19, 2010, 10:25AM

Anyone who actually writes anything about Israel that perfect strangers are likely to read had better believe he’s got the wisdom, pointillist clarity and courage to unmask others’ myopia and bad faith. Too often, though, the would-be Truth-teller, no matter where he stands on a political or religious spectrum, is less wise about Israel than he is driven by swift, dark currents in history and in himself that he may not have explored or even acknowledged.

Fortunately, I alone have gone the distance and exited the hall of broken mirrors and flying brickbats where public discussion of Israel rages. So I can explain, as no one else can, how both Israel’s brutal, devious nationalists and its arch, airy universalist scourges are getting everything wrong.

Of course, I’m joking. Yet, posting this from a vest-pocket park on Masaryk Street in Tel Aviv, I’m glancing at the Israeli workers, students, and mothers and toddlers taking breaks here or passing through, and I’m also glancing at my laptop whenever the intellectual pinball machine that is the blogosphere lights up with a new explanation of former New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s much ballyhooed conversion from his old magazine’s Zionist perversity to The New York Review of Books’ waspishly busy reprovals of that perversity.

A lot is missing from the Beinart fracas, some of it right before me at this moment. Also missing is an understanding of how Beinart’s pilgrimage began in Lithuania before he was born, and how it ran through Cape Town, South Africa, long before it took him from Martin Peretz’s desk to Robert Silvers’. Is this a pilgrimage of conscience, or a career move, or smart politics — or all three? There are several ways to approach that question. Let me at least turn over a few stones.

When Beinart was at The New Republic, he was an ardent promoter of Joe Lieberman for President in 2004 and a shrieking scourge of anti-Iraq war liberals through 2006. I recount some of this record in a review of his new book The Icarus Syndrome, which bookforum.com has just posted and which I urge you to read for grounding.

Now, in The New York Review, Beinart has come out with an apostate’s-over-compensatory ardor against the American Jewish establishment’s self-destructive efforts to align public opinion and policy with Israel’s ugliest gambits and conceits.

The liberals on my screen, among them TPM’s own redoubtable M.J. Rosenberg, an earlier and even more ardent apostate from the Israel Lobby, are touting St. Peter’s epiphany on his road from the Council on Foreign Relations and The New Republic to J-Street and The New York Review. I give Beinart my own, more measured, applause in the bookforum.com review.

Sitting here half a kilometer from the spot where Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing religious zealot, I agree with Beinart that Israel’s energetically slippery American strategists and its governing coalition in Jerusalem are further isolating and degrading the Jewish state. Yet, looking up from my laptop, I see something that’s not on screen or in Beinart’s article and book, which barely mentions Israel in its penitential survey of American foreign-policy hubris across a century. Let me try to explain what’s missing by saying something about the Israeli civil society I’ve encountered on this and other visits.

Tel Aviv’s many shabby Bauhaus buildings and cheaply built plazas suggest to some a failed politics and aesthetic as urban renewal efforts have done in many American cities. But while Israel’s wistfully modernist dimension has little elegance and even less that’s exotic, it has refreshingly less pomp or pretension of the sort one encounters in, say, Vienna. What Israel has instead is an easy elan that’s hard to dismiss and is not as compromised as many readers really insist on believing that it is by the racism or militarism that are commonly ascribed to the whole country.

When you’ve been on your own here (not in a tour group) for even just a few hours (I’m not talking about myself, since I’ve been here a bit longer than that; my first involvement in Arab-Jewish encounters here was in 1969), your aesthetic and moral centers of gravity begin to shift from American pieties and protocols of consumption to the more frank and trustworthy relations of a society whose synapses actually work. For all the growing inequalities, among Jews as well as between Jews and Arabs, that Israel’s conservative free-marketeers have pushed under banners of religious nationalism, people aren’t living as frenetically as Americans do on “need-to-know” networking and courtly ingratiation.

Jews and Arabs walk Israeli streets at any hour with none of the fear of street crime that urban Americans have coded into their body language. You can feel that curse lifting by your second day. There is very little binge drinking and alcoholism. Body language tends to be more supple and just plain relaxed. (I’ve just come from New York, okay?) Go to Israel’s health clinics and hospitals — it has one of the best and most universal public-health systems in the world — and you see Palestinian doctors, nurses, and patients alongside Jewish ones.

There are fewer Rambos because there are fewer loners, and that’s because most Israelis are or have been part of a citizen army where no one salutes anyone and everyone knows everyone through others they already know. There’s an unadorned, level-headed candor and solidarity in everyday encounters, out of uniform as well as in.

Many Americans would envy Israelis’ casual confidence that a stranger will honor a simple request or agreement. The shared civic-republican entitlement and mutual obligation are earned by exposing one’s body and life to and for others in ways most of us haven’t done. “Life is With People” was the silly title of a schlocky Schocken book about shtetls, but in Israel you feel it in a thick, civic-republican sense that makes the bad architecture seem ancillary or at best ornamental. As your center of gravity shifts, new nerve ends start growing.

Most TPM readers think of the military as too militarizing, especially in places like Israel, and so do I. But the universality of the army here complicates its norms with civilian ones in ways not so easy to parse or condemn. In America the abolition of universal conscription in favor of a volunteer army was actually a conservative master stroke against a civic-republican spirit that had been aroused by a sense of shared public destiny and the outrages of the Vietnam war. There is no doubt about a shared, imminent destiny in Israel, and you needn’t be a Zionist to know it.

So people here still get out of their cars and direct traffic to clear up jams without waiting for cops, although it must be added that they are driving like maniacs and paying the price. Employees behind counters think and respond realistically rather than euphemistically to your inquiries and requests, a refreshing contrast to even the best American response, which is usually something like, “No problem.” To me that phrase has always implied that even a simple request is almost a problem for a temp worker who’s been put there without any real training or public incentive to perform.

I am not excusing anything. Israel’s unpretentious, reliable public felicity and trust are fraying, and they’re often (though not always) missing in relations between its Arab and its Jewish citizens within the old borders; and beyond that, they unravel completely in pretty much the ways they have done at the borders of American Indian reservations and urban ghettos and in the American South, whose civic graces eddied around color bars.

But, actually, things are more complicated in Israel, owing to conflicting senses of belonging and danger that are much older and deeper than anything that even paranoid American Tea Partiers can imagine. There are too many forces intent upon Israel’s total elimination, and most of those forces come from societies that aren’t nearly as democratic.

The dark side of Zionism has several sources of its own, as I’ll indicate here, but one of them — and it maddens even the “polite” eliminationists when I say this — is a source you could understand if you could imagine what America would be like if it had had thousands of suicide bombings, proportionate to the 250 or so that drove Israel nearly crazy in the middle of the last decade but that Israel’s critics never ponder. And yet, for all the paranoia, there was more than enough civic indignation in Israel last week to force Netanyahu’s bone-heads to rescind their barring of the 81-year-old Noam Chomsky from entering the West Bank to teach at the Palestinian Birzeit University.

Chomsky embarrassed Netanyahu anyway by declining the new offer of admission and delivering his talk by video from Amman. Bully for him. I am not giving this government any credit for deciding to let Chomsky enter the West Bank; in George Bush’s America a few years ago, Chomsky had “no problem” addressing an auditorium full of cadets at West Point. He was even given respectful applause and a plaque.

Yet I’m wary of characterizing Israelis any more harshly than we ourselves would have wanted to be characterized when Bush was our president and the Iraq War was emblematic of our country’s national security strategy. Should our universities have been boycotted by the rest of the world, our scholars disinvited by other countries, on account of our brutal foreign policies? Weren’t we all implicated — in much the same way that we casually implicate all Israelis — since Bush had won in 2004 by a clearer margin than Netanyahu would win by five years later? By that logic, shouldn’t a boycott like the one proposed against Israeli universities have been proposed with extra vigor against Britain’s under Tony Blair? Why wasn’t it? Don’t Americans and Britons have a lot more to answer for?

Again, I am not excusing anything. Israel has never seemed to me more sad and disgusting than when Ehud Olmert touted it as America’s junior partner in George Bush’s war on terror or when it has mimicked Americans’ gluttonous consumerism or Singapore’s go-go, lockstep capitalism. (That got Israel admitted last week by unanimous vote to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.) Even the almost perfectly idiomatic if faintly neo-connish American English of Benjamin Netanyahu, who grew up in Washington diplomatic and academic circles, is as cloyingly off-putting as the patter of an Anglophile Jew who’s trying to get something for nothing by pretending to be something he isn’t.

Such postures evoke everything foreseen by Hannah Arendt, who assisted solicitously at Israel’s birth and worked for world Jewish organizations for many years but warned in the 1950s that if Israelis “continue to ignore [partnerships with neighboring] Mediterranean peoples and watch out only for the big, faraway powers, they will appear only as… the agents of foreign and hostile interests. Jews who know their own history should be aware that… the anti-Semitism of tomorrow will assert that Jews not only profiteered from the presence of the foreign big powers… but had actually plotted it and hence are guilty of the consequences….

“The big nations that can afford to play the game of power politics have found it easy to forsake King Arthur’s Round Table for the poker table,” Arendt continued; “but the small, powerless nations [the Jews in Palestine] that venture their own stakes in that game, and try to mingle with the big, usually end by being sold down the river.”

Beinart invokes Arendt, who nettles myopic neo-cons so much that they sputter every few years over her supposed betrayals of the Jewish people. They cannot acknowledge or review the brilliant collection of her Jewish Writings, edited by her literary executor Jerome Kohn, from which the above excerpt is taken. Adam Kirsch couldn’t do it a few weeks ago in the New York Times as he went out of his way to tie the sometime Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger about Arendt’s neck – but not about the necks of Heidegger’s other Jewish adepts, including Leo Strauss, whose philosophy was more Heideggerian than hers.

Like Arendt, Beinart, the scourge of Israel’s apologists, nettles The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, an often-reasonable and likable apologist for too much that Israel has done wrong. It is Chait who observes, on my screen here in a Tel Aviv park, that Beinart’s AIPAC-bashing is “overwrought” because he hasn’t outgrown the jejune idealism and moralism that made him declare a “liberal” war on Islamo-fascism in 2006. Beinart’s bellicosity then heartened neo-conservatives, even though he tried to distance his war-whooping and left-bashing from their war whooping and left-bashing. Should liberals really be heartened by his new moral ardor now?

Chait casts Beinart’s 180-degree turn now in terms somewhat reminiscent of the aphorism, les extremes touchent, meaning that a spectrum’s ideological poles sometimes have more in common with each other than with the middling positions in between. Stalinists become neo-cons without altering anything in their cankered and bitter psychology; Beinart, yesterday’s American hegemonic warrior against the multilateralist, anti-nationalist left, becomes Beinart, today’s apostle of multilateralism against the nationalist, power-politicking right. His mental habits don’t really change, and his moralism doesn’t abate, because he sustains it more to restore his own good odor and emotional equilibrium than to deepen his insights and convictions and to reach out to ordinary American Jews or the ordinary Israelis around me in the park.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg notes that “the essay’s placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart’s goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it. Who is he trying to convince? Timothy Garton Ash? Peter should have published this essay on Tablet, or some other sort of publication not associated with Tony Judt’s disproportionate hatred of Jewish nationalism.”

The supreme irony for Beinart is that the extremes at both ends of the Israel controversy touch each other within him in no small part because he carries both of their ethno-cultural inflections. These do matter: In the Israel controversy’s public discourse and bare-knuckled politics, it’s predominantly the descendants of Russian and Eastern European Jews — whether American neoconservatives like Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol or members of the Knesset like Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman — who drive the cankered, bitter Jewish nationalism, with its opportunistic abuses of religion and its contempt for any social-welfarism that reminds it even fleetingly of the Communist totalitarianism that some of them escaped.

At the other extreme of the controversy, it’s Britons — and British Jews who are unlucky enough to have internalized British stereotypes of Jews in their formative years — who dominate the cankered, bitter, obsessive, and hypocritically fine-spun loathing of Israel. Political decay, impotence and bitterness slither out of people in peculiar ways, and, for too many Brits, who have so much more to regret and apologize for and so much more bottomless hypocrisy to plumb than Israel ever will, the anguish of decline slithers out against the Jews in eerily disembodied, oddly passionless ways:

“How odd of God to Choose the Jews,” runs a characteristically disdainful verse by the 20th Century British journalist William Norman Ewer. (To which my own riposte is, “Moses, Jesus, Spinoza; Marx, Einstein, and Freud; no wonder the gentiles are annoyed.”)

Well, there are lots of annoying people and things in the world, but British Jews who swallowed Ewer’s hook on some playground or classroom in their early years seem condemned to writhe with it, much as American blacks who’ve internalized a standard of idealized whiteness turn it toward vicious detestation of blacks who are darker-skinned than themselves, and much as German Jews who’d internalized an idealized German kultur loathed the embarrassing Ostjuden from… Russia and Eastern Europe. Here – and let us not mince words – we are talking about self-hatred, a cold, fine-spun, exacting usurper of sound judgment.

Beinart’s ancestors came from Lithuania, but before World War I they migrated, with a sizable contingent of other Litvaks, to South Africa. In the interwar years of Wilsonian nationalist awakening In Lithuania and all over Europe, many more Lithuanian Jews saw what was rising around them in their home of 500 years and opted for Zionism, transforming their ancestral, liturgical Hebrew into an old/new language and migrating to Palestine in the 1920s and 30s. Still others opted for the more universal promise of Communism in Europe and Russia, and others for capitalist opportunity in America. Those who stayed put were slaughtered — more than 135,000 of them in the woods and fields around their towns and were buried in mass trenches by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian recruits in the summer of 1941.

Some Lithuanian-Jewish Communists had fled not to the USSR but to South Africa as well as to America, among them Joseph Slovo, a founder of the African National Congress. A few of the next generation of South African Jews were ANC sympathizers, like the young Ian Shapiro, now a political scientist at Yale. And some of these leftists later became neo-conservatives or bureaucratic apparatchiks in the manner I’ve mentioned, grafting an old mental morphology onto Established Power rather than onto a revolutionary pursuit of Power.

Beinart’s family and most other South African Jews weren’t leftists. They came seeking freedom from persecution and bourgeois. But in South Africa they internalized the idealized British standards I’ve mentioned, and few were immune to internalizing the “odd” but unrelenting British discomfort and pretended bemusement about Jews.

All this prompts many a British Jew’s own efforts at expiation and projection. Even young Beinart, although he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and attended the Buckingham Brown and Nichols School and then Yale, where he was influenced by the Jewish nationalist political theorist Steven Smith, eventually spent a year at Oxford reckoning with whatever aspirations and insecurities the Brits of South Africa had implanted in his parents and, through them, in him.

This is a recipe for the unsavory mix of aspirations and fears we encountered in his writings and his trajectory as I sketch them briefly in bookforum. Although I don’t share their positions, Chait and Goldberg have a point: Beinart, like the estimable Tony Judt, himself a British Jew, is right in principle about Israel’s worst apologists, but he overstates his case for reasons having more to do with swift, dark currents in history and himself than with the complicated realities in Israel and Palestine.

How is Beinart resolving this? He is fulfilling a certain British stereotype of Jews. Above on this page, Bernard Avishai notes that Beinart recently “told Jeffrey Goldberg: ‘…my grandmother used to say, “the Jews are like rats,” we leave the sinking ship. So yes, I’m a Zionist. I’m close enough to people who still have their bags packed.’ He takes for granted that American Jews constitute a distinct ‘community,’ replete with communitarian institutions and an ‘Establishment'”

I don’t like what kind of American this makes him. Yes, history has often forced Jews to live with their bags packed. But if America is about anything, it’s about becoming a republic where no one has to live that way. In Beinart I sense a shiftiness about this — from his bombastic, crude, and suspect patriotism of a few years ago to what he tells Goldberg now — that troubles me.

Again, I’m not excusing anything about Israel. There are plenty of dark, swift currents swirling around me here in Tel Aviv, to say nothing of Jerusalem and occupied Palestine. I’m just looking at hundreds of decent, ordinary people around me at the moment and realizing that there are wiser ways than Beinart’s to be right about what their American Jewish cheerleaders and supposed champions are getting wrong.

Israel’s Tragedy, America’s Folly

Nine columns by Jim Sleeper

Written in January and February in response to Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, these trace the arc of a thought-process about the State of Israel’s posture in the Middle East over the past 40 years. Many others have come painfully to conclusions like mine without articulating them as I do here.

Below these are two more columns, about not-so-young American neo-conservatives who cheered the miscarriage of American public thinking and policy under George W. Bush.

Israel’s Tragedy

The first column, “Can There Be Politics in Tragedy?”, confronts Israeli policy toward Gaza over the past 40 years through the eyes of a young but formidably well-informed American who has worked in Gaza. Finding his account revelatory yet incomplete in its understanding of Israel, I pose questions about the history and intentions of both sides.

The second, “How Dysfunctional Is Israel?” probes the dominant Israeli mindset in the war – and a dominant but untrustworthy mindset in some of its critics.

The third, “Gaza Needs a George Orwell Now,” warns Israel’s critics against a too credulous or one-sided reading of reports from Gaza. Hideous though Israel’s destruction has been I note that while Franco the fascist was the great villain of the Spanish Civil War, Orwell found evil, as well, in the supposedly heroic Stalinist resistance. He also found that no one wanted to know. This short column prompted a 20 minute NPR interview that is also linked below,

The fourth, “How and How Not to Assess Israel’s Moral Self-Destruction,” carries the search for full reportage (and sound premises) into a critique of Gaza reporting by Chris Hedges (a moralistic critic of Israel) and Jeffrey Goldberg (a neo-connish apologist for the war.) Instead I endorse the thinking of Avraham Burg and Jonathan Schell.

The fifth, “U.K., U.S., Drop Their (and Israel’s) Grand Strategy,” written shortly before Obama’s inauguration, summons an observation about Zionism by Hannah Arendt as my endorsement of recent comments by the British Foreign Secretary about the inutility of the “war on terror.”

The sixth, “Israel’s Only Way Out,” written shortly before the Feb. 10 elections, draws together these themes, criticizing Michael Walzer’s apologetics for the war and proposing a new way of thinking about Israel and wars of this kind.

Two other columns consider the uses of “coercive non-violence” in people’s resistance, as applied (or not) to Palestine and Israel.

American Neo-cons’ Folly 

 “The Pity of It All, about young American Jewish writers who’ve gone wrong, and

“U.S. Neo-cons Jump Conservative Ship,” about their ideological confusion, as expressed in essays such as Sam Tanenhaus’ “Conservatism Is Dead.”