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The Israeli Desert

Peter Beinart thought his new book on Israel would be a rallying cry for liberal Zionism. Instead, it’s been attacked by many of his peers and embraced by some whose views he finds terrifying.

“I’m really not a radical.”

It is late April, a month after his new book about American Jews, Israel, and their tangled, often tortured relationship has hit the shelves, and Peter Beinart is on the defensive. He’s sitting in his office at the City University of New York. Although he’s now worked at CUNY for two years, the small, windowless cube—more befitting a research assistant than a tenured journalism and political-science professor—is filled with unpacked cardboard boxes and little else. But more square footage, or a view, or some family photographs would do little to lift the sense of siege that pervades the room. “I’m trying to live as a critic of Israel’s policies, from a moral perspective, inside the Jewish community,” Beinart says, “and inside the fairly mainstream Jewish community, which is where I feel most at home.”

Now that home has become something of a war zone. At his shul—“It’s an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side,” he says, “but it’s probably better not to mention its name”—he is ­suddenly a controversial congregant. At the Jewish day school where he sends his young children, other parents now look at him askance. Even members of ­Beinart’s own family are furious at him. And yet it’s the impact his book has had on his professional home—namely the community of center-left American Jewish writer-­intellectuals where Beinart has spent his career—that has been most painful.

From the moment it was published, The Crisis of Zionism has dominated the American Jewish political discourse. The book argues that Israeli policies—chief among them the occupation of Palestinian lands—threaten the democratic character of Israel and the Zionist project in general, and that it’s the responsibility of American Jews to help change those policies. Marc Tracy, who edits the Scroll, the blog of the Jewish online magazine Tablet, says, “There was definitely a period where the Scroll might as well have been renamed ‘the Peter Beinart Blog.’ Everything was about him.” Politically conservative Jews attacked the book—not unpredictably. “Why does [Beinart] hate Israel so?” Daniel Gordis asked in his review for the Jerusalem Post, before answering: “Beinart’s problem isn’t really with Israel. It’s with Judaism.” The Wall Street Journal’s Bret ­Stephens, writing for Tablet, branded The Crisis of Zionism “an act of moral solipsism.” But withering reviews have come from Beinart’s ideological allies on the Jewish center-left as well. Writing in The New York Times Book ­Review, Jonathan Rosen—a mild-mannered Jewish public intellectual whose most recent book was a meditation on bird-­watching—savaged Beinart for his “Manichaean simplicities” and for “employ[ing] several formulations ­favored by anti-­Semites.” Tablet editor ­Alana Newhouse panned the book in the Washington Post for introducing “its own repressive litmus test, this one to determine who can be ­considered both a liberal American and a Zionist.”

Sitting in his office, Beinart tries to be philosophical. At the age of 41, he still has the boyish face and eager demeanor of an honors student, and he normally speaks in an excited, unmodulated tone. (“You do not want to sit next to Peter in shul,” cautions one of his friends.) But now his voice is hushed and subdued. “I think had the New York Times and the Washington Post chosen different reviewers, they might very well have gotten very different reviews,” he says. “I mean, the New York Times book editors called it an editor’s-choice book, so I think that suggests that perhaps they see some value in it.” He points to “significant voices that have spoken up in support of the book,” in particular Nicholas Kristof, Paul ­Krugman, and ­David Remnick .

But those voices have been notably parsimonious. Kristof called the book “thoughtful” on his Google Plus page; Krugman said it was “brave” in a short blog post. Remnick made a brief mention of Beinart’s “passionately argued polemic” in a ­“Comment” in The New Yorker and is only slightly more forthcoming in a subsequent e-mail to me. “There is a big difference between critiquing Peter Beinart’s book on the basis of what you might think of his argument and attacking Peter Beinart personally,” Remnick writes. “I don’t know Peter well, but I know the book well, and, no ­matter what arguments I might have with one aspect or another, it’s obvious that these issues run deep with him, that he cares immensely about arguing for democratic politics and values in Israel.”

Whether Beinart cares immensely about Israel was not the debate he’d hoped to have sparked. But even those who have come to his defense have done so mostly as Remnick has: by denouncing those denouncing the book for having gone too far. “He’s energized the right without having mobilized the left. I don’t see an outpouring of support for him,” says J. J. Goldberg, a former editor of the Forward. The most notable absentee has been the influential writer and liberal Zionist Jeffrey Goldberg. “[T]o be completely blunt,” he wrote on his Atlantic blog when the attacks on Beinart were at their most intense, “I’m not that interested in debating Peter’s new book … because I find his recounting of recent Middle East history one-sided and filled with errors and omissions.”