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Book review: Peter Beinart's 'The Crisis of Zionism' sounds call

The author wants American Jews to force changes in Israeli policy to protect the democratic legacy of Labor Zionism. He also explains why that's unlikely to happen.

May 12, 2012|By David Lauter, Los Angeles Times
(Times Books )

Nearly all the considerable attention generated by Peter Beinart's "The Crisis of Zionism" has focused on its final 81/2 pages. There, warning that the "hour is late," he calls for liberal supporters of Israeli democracy to engage in "direct action" against Israeli occupation of the territories occupied after the June 1967 war. To save Israel from what he sees as the corrosive effects of settlement in the West Bank, he says, American Jews should boycott products made in the settlements and push the U.S. government to ban tax-deductible gifts to charities that fund settlers.

The preceding 188 pages, almost despite him, largely lay the case for why none of what Beinart calls for is likely to happen. And so a book intended as a polemic reads more like an elegy.

Beinart mourns twin historic groups: Labor Zionism and the liberal rabbis who provided the public face of American Jewish leadership for much of the 20th century.

Labor Zionism midwifed Israel's birth and provided the nation's leaders from David Ben-Gurionto Golda Meir to Yitzhak Rabin. In their most broad-minded moments, the Labor pioneers dedicated themselves to a state that would provide not only a refuge to the world's Jews but also a model of democracy and social equality — including civil rights and liberties for the nation's Arab minority. Reality often departed from their lofty sentiments, but Israeli Jews can still boast that their Arab co-citizens — those living within the borders of pre-1967 Israel but not those in the occupied territories, who lack citizenship — enjoy more rights than the subjects of many an Arab dictator, emir or king.

Beinart exemplifies the liberal rabbis with three names — Stephen S. Wise, Arnold Jacob Wolf and the scholar and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. Each supported Israel but also believed that the teachings of the Jewish prophets commanded action to support the poor and downtrodden at home. Wise, in addition to his Zionist activities, was a co-founder of the NAACP. Heschel prominently marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a commitment to civil rights carried forward by Wolf. As leaders of a small minority, they and their colleagues had an outsized influence on post-World War II America.

But Rabin was gunned down in 1995 by an assassin inspired by some of the most extreme rabbis of Israel's settler movement. In the years since, power in Israel has shifted decisively to leaders who are more militantly nationalistic and politically beholden to settler groups. National policy has become more hostile both to Arab rights domestically and to further withdrawals from occupied territory, particularly after Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip, then watched control pass to a Hamas movement committed to destroying the Jewish state.

In America, Wolf died in December 2008, a month and a half after his friend and Chicago neighbor Barack Obama won the presidency. By the time of his death, leadership of the largest American Jewish organizations had long since passed into the hands of men — and a few women — with a more exclusive focus on Israel, conservative politics and little, if any, passion for social justice at home.

That shift in leadership is both cause and product of a growing distance between Israeli Jews and a majority of their American cousins. To Beinart, that gap makes up one of the twin crises of Zionism. The other is the erosion of Israeli democracy that he sees as the inevitable result of 35 years of occupation. The argument is a familiar one: If Israel keeps control of the territories, the higher birthrate among Arabs sooner or later will guarantee that Jews become a minority in the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. More immediately, the experience of occupation has reduced both support for Arab rights and tolerance for political dissent in Israel proper.

To save the democratic legacy of Labor Zionism, he believes, American Jews, the spiritual grandchildren of Heschel and Wise, must rise up and force changes in Israeli policy.

Unfortunately for Beinart's cause — as his book describes — most of those spiritual grandchildren are otherwise occupied. A minority of American Jews remain passionately committed to Israel — they are disproportionately older or Orthodox and often sympathize with the Israeli right wing. Those who are both passionate Zionists and liberals are a minority of a minority. The rest, seeing the problems of the Middle East as intractable, have moved on to other things.

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