Monday, April 16, 2012

Beinart's Crisis of Zionism

I've just finished reading Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism which was also reviewed in yesterday's NYT's Book Review. The book doesn't deserve a full review insofar as it is not a very weighty book. But let me make a few points:

1. The book is not well-structured, and by no means constitutes a discussion of Zionism. It is rather a series of fairly disjointed chapters, though chapters 5 through 8 constitute a tendentious journalistic account of the first 3 years of the Obama-Netanyahu standoff.  The book is more about current trends in American Jewish communal life than it is a book about Zionism.

2. The best chapter by far is chapter 5, entitled "The Jewish President," which contains original reporting on the relationship between Chicagoan Obama and Hyde Park's liberal Jewish intellectual community, beginning with Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf and the 1970s short-lived liberal Zionist group Breira. The conclusion of the chapter, that Obama is somehow an authentically "Jewish" President, is absurd.

3. In Beinart's conclusion, there is a (strange) two-pronged call for (1) an increased use of Jewish parochial schools in American Jewish life and (2) a "Zionist BDS" against what he calls "undemocratic Israel" -- the settler economy of the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank. As with Beinart's long essay from the summer of 2010 in which he highlighted the so-called "distancing hypothesis"-- younger American Jews are growing more alienated from the entire matter of Israel as compared to older American Jews -- this book identifies a couple of positions that have long been held by a certain small subset of baby-boomer American Jews. As a journalist and advocate, he is not breaking new ground, but merely giving voice to trends already in place for decades. The call for devoting more communal money to Jewish education goes back to the 1970s, and the practice of observing the "Green Line" and thus treating the settlement undertaking as illegal and illegitimate has been similarly part of the liberal Jewish agenda for 35+ years. Nothing new. Or as one Israeli reviewer put it: "Too little, too late."

4. This book constitutes neither good reporting, nor good scholarship. The reader learns virtually nothing about Zionism, nor the A-I conflict. Omissions of fact and strange twisted narratives of events abound. Even as an account of the Washington-Jerusalem tug-of-war between the years 2009-2011 (which constitutes the core of the book), it is quite mangled. For one example -- the tumultuous events known collectively as the "Arab Spring" garner no more than a single mention.  I cannot recommend the book as a worthwhile read.