The Crisis of Zionism: Undeterred by unavoidable realities

Joseph Dana writes: Expanding on his landmark manifesto in the New York Review of Books called, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”, Peter Beinart sets out to address American Jewish silence on Israel in a new book, The Crisis of Zionism. For Beinart, a generation of young American Jews can no longer identify with Israel as an occupying country. Reconciling their upbringing, soaked in victimhood and Holocaust memory, with the colonial actions of the Israeli government in the West Bank and Gaza is near impossible in the age of new media. Without honest engagement, American Jewish support for Israel risks its own liberal values.

Evidently not strong enough for him to emigrate from New York to Jerusalem, Beinart has a deeply emotional relationship with Zionism. His book is a personal chronicle of his development as a Zionist, which began, of all places, in South Africa. He presents raw reflections about his personal process of awareness of Israel’s immoral treatment of Palestinians, but is careful not to denounce them by always providing an Israel caveat.

Beinart’s arguments are not new or even particularly original, let alone based in reporting from Israel. His analysis draws on a variety of books and reports which don’t capture the entire dialogue taking shape in cafes in Tel Aviv, let alone Ramallah, but allow him to present a slightly new analysis of why the two-state solution has failed. Even those he holds responsible for Israel’s present ills – chief among them revisionist Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – are the traditional enemies of American Zionists who start to feel uncomfortable when racism towards Palestinians is clearly articulated, as opposed to quietly carried out.

At its core, The Crisis of Zionism is an ode to liberal Zionism – that confusing ideology which rallies behind the idea Israel can exist as a Jewish and Democratic state – a place where liberalism coexists with tribalism.

Yet, Beinart’s liberal Zionism is a paradox. Zionism, as an ideology and practice, privileges one ethnic group over others. Ignoring this and other bothersome aspects of Israel’s liberal democracy, like the absence of a constitution or the existence of discriminatory laws directed at Israel’s Palestinian citizens, Beinart diverts attention to Israel’s occupation as the root of the country’s problems. West Bank settlers and their allies are portrayed as fanatics, blinded by religious zealotry, which have hijacked Israel’s liberal democracy for their own messianic purposes.

Beinart takes the argument to the extreme in The Crisis of Zionism and a subsequent opinion piece in the New York Times, where he argues that there exists a “democratic Israel”, namely the liberal democracy that exists within the 1948 boundaries of the State of Israel and an “undemocratic Israel”, the West Bank, where Israel controls Palestinians without giving them citizenship and deprives them of basic rights. Not only does this absolve Israelis living in Tel Aviv of responsibility for the entrenchment of the occupation, his separation of the West Bank from Israel safeguards the liberal foundations of Zionism.

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