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The Israeli Desert

David Remnick: “No matter what arguments I might have with one aspect or another, it’s obvious that he cares immensely about arguing for democratic politics and values in Israel.”  

It was one of the most electric, successful articles Beinart has written. It naturally drew denunciations from the Jewish Establishment, but it clearly resonated with many liberal American Jews, who in the wake of the Iraq War had found their increasing dovishness hard to reconcile with Israel’s hawkishness. Overnight, Beinart became a folk hero to many of them. At the 2011 national meeting of the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street, college students who attended wore Shepard Fairey–style T-shirts featuring Beinart’s face and the words “Beinart’s Army.” J Street’s leader, Jeremy Ben-Ami, hailed Beinart as “the troubadour of our movement.”

The Crisis of Zionism grew out of the NYRB article, though it departs from the original piece in several key respects. The book downplays young American Jews’ alienation from Israel, which, as sociologists have pointed out, is not as pronounced as Beinart had argued. Instead, Beinart focuses more explicitly on Israel’s current politics and in doing so adopts a less elegiac, more strident moral position. In its broad strokes, the book is neither novel nor particularly controversial. Beinart makes the by-now-familiar case that Israel’s democracy is threatened by its continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and that the only way to resolve that threat is by ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with a capital in East Jerusalem. Moreover, he believes that American Jews have both the power and the responsibility to help bring about a two-state solution; the problem is that American Jews aren’t doing enough. “I think that the perspective of the mainstream Jewish organizational world today, which is essentially you support a two-state solution but you’re not willing to do anything to try to respond to settlement growth, is part of what’s leading us toward this sleepwalking toward the end of Israel as a democratic Jewish state,” Beinart tells me.

As an author, Beinart is most interested in prosecuting his case; he’d rather come across as fierce than fair, and his prescriptive solutions often feel less rigorously thought through than his analysis. Some of the criticism of The Crisis of Zionism is along those lines. Its history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, despite Beinart’s care to note particular instances of Palestinian intransigence or aggression, clearly more concerned with Israel’s failings. Its central policy proposal, the call for a boycott of goods and services made by settlers in the occupied territories, is at best an empty gesture (since there are very few export products that are produced exclusively in settlements) and at worst an incitement to economic warfare against Israel.

But the vitriolic tenor of much of the criticism from the center-left has less to do with substance than with Beinart’s tone—a moral self-righteousness and an accompanying self-certainty. There is a belief, shared by Beinart’s admirers and detractors, that he is not content to merely be a liberal Zionist writer but that he wants to be a liberal Zionist leader. “He hasn’t just written a book; he’s trying to start a movement,” says Eric Alterman, a writer for The Nation who is in a ­Torah study group with Beinart and is an ­admirer of the book.

Alana Newhouse is okay with that. “It’s perfectly fine for him to want to be a spokesperson, and it’s perfectly fine for people like me to say, ‘We don’t want you as our spokesman,’ ” she tells me at Tablet’s New York offices, located eight floors above what used to be Tin Pan Alley. In the three years since she founded Tablet, the 36-year-old Newhouse, a former culture editor at the Forward, has turned the website into a must-read for young politically and culturally engaged Jews, much in the way her former publication was a must-read for her parents’ generation. In other words, Tablet’s readers—as well as many of its writers and editors—are The Crisis of Zionism’s target audience. And yet Tablet has become a clearinghouse of sorts for Beinart critiques (Jonathan Rosen, who wrote the Times review, is the editorial director of Tablet’s parent company, Nextbook Inc.). “What I don’t like about the book,” Newhouse says, “is this idea that if I don’t vote for Peter, then I’m not a liberal, I’m not a supporter of Israel, I’m not a good Jew.”

More than anything, it’s the spirit of ­Beinart’s criticism that many of his critics find off-putting. The American-Israeli rabbi David Hartman is fond of telling American Jews that when they criticize Israel, they should do so like a mother rather than a mother-in-law. In other words, they should do so out of love, not to belittle. To many of Beinart’s detractors, he sounds like a ­mother-in-law. “I came to the book as a friend of Peter’s and as someone wanting to see it succeed and see it have a major impact on people’s thinking,” says Peter Joseph, a prominent liberal Jewish philanthropist who gave Beinart money to help launch the Open Zion blog, “but unfortunately what I’ve seen is the book has led to greater polarization, and that doesn’t serve Israel’s best interests.” Beinart’s critics on the ­center-left don’t actually seem to disagree with him much; his biggest sin has been in not choosing to talk about Israel the way they expect Israel to be talked about.