My reaction to Peter Beinart's essay on the tension between American Jews' Zionism and their liberalism, like Phil's, is to observe that the problem is with the latter ideology. I think this is largely a function of misinformation; most American liberals, whatever their religion, seem not to understand the empirical truth about what's going on in Israel.
Jonathan Chait picks out what most struck me about Beinart's piece:
[T]he stridency and clarity of Peter's argument comes at the cost of shaving off the rough edges of reality that would otherwise intrude. ... Peter, for instance, twice writes that Palestinians "wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders." It's an odd contrast with his description of the Israeli polity, every problem with which he portrays as reflective of a deep cancer on the Israeli soul. Moreover, if you examine the respective public opinion, it's not actually true - most Palestinians want to undo the Jewish state altogether, while most Israelis accept the need for a two-state solution.
I suspect there is something about American liberals that makes this uncomfortable truth so hard to accept that they shunt it behind a blindspot (though Chait, at least, seems to have overcome this tendency). Somehow, Israel's critics seem to have either not noticed that the Palestinians held an election in 2006 in which Hamas won, or not processed the implications of this fact. A sea change in Palestinian political culture is a prerequisite for a two-state solution; one cannot even begin to engage the debate on what Israel can do to encourage this sea change without assimilating the facts on the ground. Most American liberals, Jewish or not, simply haven't done so. (The same goes, by the way, for the rump of the Israeli far-left, represented by Meretz and its American political export-import operation, J Street.)
Chait identifies other problems with Beinart's essay, including his misstatement of Benjamin Netanyahu's current views, his tendentious treatment of the controversies over anti-Israel bias at international human rights organizations, and his tendency to "over-react to the most recent political setback" and thus to assume that Israel is "falling almost inexorably into the grip of the far right." Chait actually understates how overstated Beinart's argument on this front is. Really, how horribly illiberal can a country where the right-wing Prime Minister personally intervenes to cut through red tape for a gay man and his sons possibly be?
The tendency to wildly overstate the illiberalism of the right, whether in Israel or in American, is hardly limited to Peter Beinart -- witness roughly 98% of what liberal op-ed columnists have written about the Tea Party movement -- and while the temptation toward hyperbole about the other side's views is by no means limited to the left, it makes it difficult for liberals to get an unblinkered view of the rightward drift of Israeli politics.
One final point. "Conservatives wish to define Zionism as a conservative idea, so that any sympathizer of Israel must support the Republican Party," Chait writes, by way of objecting to this idea and noting that Beinart no doubt also objects to it. Liberal Zionists who wish to neutralize this argument will have to find Democrats who treat the Jewish State a whole lot less shabbily than the current administration has.
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