“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.”
All of this has left Beinart angry, defensive, and confused—surprisingly so, given that he has long relished launching arguments. “I just don’t accept the basic assertion that this book is one-sided,” he says in his office. When I ask him whether, in writing about such an obviously emotional topic, he wasn’t sufficiently attuned to certain sensitivities—that perhaps there are signifiers of good intentions he failed to send—he seethes. “What are the signifiers?” he asks, his voice rising and taking on its customary sense of urgency. “That I say very explicitly I’m a Zionist? That I say that I have harsh words to say about Hamas and Arafat and the second intifada? That I have very, very admiring words to say about Israel’s existence? That I think I tangibly show my commitment to the Jewish community and Jewish continuity through the way I live my own life?” Beinart regains his composure. “So I don’t know,” he says softly, his voice now betraying less exasperation than bewilderment. “I don’t even know what the signifiers are.”
Up until now, Beinart’s career has seemed, at least to the casual observer, uniquely charmed. Yale, a Rhodes Scholarship, and then, in 1999, when he was just 28 years old, the editorship of The New Republic (where I worked with him for seven years). Since stepping down as TNR editor in 2006, he’s held prestigious fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations and the New America Foundation. Today, in addition to his CUNY professorship, he’s a senior political writer for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, where he also edits a recently launched blog devoted to Israel called Open Zion. A gifted writer with a fierce intellect, Beinart is capable of untangling the most nettlesome political issues in his columns and essays. At his best, he is the rare political writer whose prose is so powerful that it can actually change minds.
And yet Beinart’s rise has been far from graceful. Even in a profession populated by striving careerists whose every relationship is transactional, he’s drawn unwanted notice for his ambition. Fellow journalists still remember the self-written biographical sketch he circulated early in his career that listed his various achievements, including this entry: “Beinart won a Marshall Scholarship (declined).” In a 2010 essay for Commentary, Andrew Ferguson recalled a voice mail Beinart once left him when Beinart was editing TNR and Ferguson was writing for Bloomberg News, which then hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner’s most exclusive after-party. “The message commenced with 90 seconds of flattery, densely packed, followed by an insistence that I had to write for his magazine, simply had to,” Ferguson wrote. “My faithful fan made noises as if to ring off. And then came the sudden turn, in a voice that had the texture of Vaseline: ‘Oh, one other thing. You know it’s so odd, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to the Bloomberg party! You don’t suppose …’ ”
In talking to various Jewish journalists about Beinart over the past few months, I heard the words shmegegge and “Sammy Glick,” as well as this joke: “A yeshiva student goes to his rabbi and says, ‘Rabbi, I had a dream last night that I was the leader of a Hasidic court and I had 300 followers.’ The rabbi says, ‘When 300 Hasidim have a dream that you’re their leader, come back and we’ll talk.’ ” More than one called attention to the large picture of Beinart that greets viewers when they visit Open Zion.
Indeed, even to many who have been impressed by Beinart’s writing, his career has been something of an enigma: For a public intellectual who so clearly wishes to meet the moment, he’s had an oddly difficult time reading it. In the run-up to and the early days of the Iraq War, Beinart was an avowed proponent of liberal interventionism. He wasn’t alone in this, but he was unusually strident. In 2004, he wrote “A Fighting Faith”—an attention-grabbing TNR essay that later grew into his first book, The Good Fight—which assailed his fellow liberals, whom he branded “softs,” for being insufficiently hawkish. It wasn’t long, though, until Iraq—and his liberal-interventionist worldview—lay in ruins. Beinart spent the next several years penning a series of apologias for his Iraq bellicosity and finally a second book, The Icarus Syndrome, which was a critique of hubristic American foreign policy. It was a useful, even noble, attempt to examine and understand his own mistakes. But by the time the book came out, in 2010, Beinart’s fulminations against the dangerous belief in “American omnipotence” had only a minor impact on the public debate.
Even for a polemicist, Beinart infuses his writing with an unusually apocalyptic sense of crisis. In his rendering, politics is an epic clash between good and evil, the world is constantly perched on a precipice, and, with one wrong choice, those on the side of the good will tumble into the abyss. And in Israel, it seemed that Beinart might have found the right subject—and the right moment—for his talents. Although he’d edited the avowedly pro-Israel New Republic, he had never written very much about the country or its politics. “I think it was an issue I was grappling with privately for a while,” he tells me. “I think I was torn about it.” Then, in May 2010, Beinart came to grips with his views and confidently strode into the Israel debate with a New York Review of Books article titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” The piece took dead aim at American Jewish leaders, castigating them for abetting Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and, in turn, alienating a younger generation of American Jews from Israel. “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” Beinart wrote, “and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
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.
In late April, Beinart takes an Amtrak train out of Penn Station and heads two hours north, up the Hudson Valley. Like any author flogging a book, Beinart has become a familiar presence on the speaking circuit—although, given his book’s subject, his particular circuit largely consists of synagogues, Jewish community centers, and Hillel houses. Oftentimes, he faces a hostile audience. At the Columbia Hillel, he debated Daniel Gordis—the event was promoted as a “Heavyweight Fight on Zionism”—and was heckled. “I feel like from the clapping I have about a quarter of the room,” Beinart said during a rare moment of applause, “which is better than I expected.”
On this April evening, Beinart’s schedule calls for him to be at Bard College. It is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, and he has been invited by the school’s J Street student chapter. The mood, however, is anything but festive—although this time he is facing anger from his left. As he walks into the lecture hall, he is handed a flyer by a student protester that reads celebrate israeli ethnic cleansing “independence.” He then spends most of his 90 minutes insisting to those in attendance that Zionism is not racism and that Tel Aviv is not the center of all the evil on Earth. When it is over, Beinart looks whipped. “I wish Jeff could have seen that,” he says.
Beinart is referring to Jeffrey Goldberg, his most problematic critic. In Washington, where Goldberg resides and Beinart lived until 2010, the two were friendly, traveling in the same social and intellectual circles; they were sometimes guests at each other’s homes for religious celebrations. But being on the wrong side of Goldberg now is less a personal than a professional problem for Beinart.
When it comes to the topic of Israel, Goldberg is currently the most important Jewish journalist in the United States. He is the favored interlocutor for both Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu; the leaders, as well as their advisers, seem to do much of their talking to one another through interviews with him. One White House aide likes to describe Goldberg as the “official therapist” of the U.S.-Israel relationship. And among Jewish journalists who write and think about Israel, he’s become something of a referee. “He’s a marker in the debate as well as an enforcer of its boundaries,” Alterman says. “So when he moves, the 50-yard line moves.”
Both Goldberg and Beinart describe themselves as liberal Zionists—in 2006, Goldberg wrote his own book that was highly critical of the occupation—but Goldberg is in many ways Beinart’s opposite. Six years his senior, Goldberg has the round face and stout frame of a neighborhood tough; he strenuously denies any interest in being the troubadour of anything. “I’m just writing stuff down that I think and report” is how he describes himself to me when we meet one recent afternoon at an outdoor plaza near the Watergate, where The Atlantic has its offices. Goldberg is, in fact, as much of an operator as Beinart may hope to be (Goldberg’s Torah study group in Washington includes David Brooks, David Gregory, and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk). He’s just better at it—smoother and more comfortable in his skin. His sense of humor, a sort of Borscht Belt shtick updated for today’s nation’s capital, is a frequently employed asset. When our conversation is interrupted by a fleet of Marine helicopters flying over the Potomac River, Goldberg deadpans, “AIPAC, by the way, owns those helicopters. They have their own fleet of Cobras and Blackhawks now.”
Beinart and Goldberg’s biggest disagreement on Israel may have to do with how they acquired their understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although Beinart has been to the West Bank on several occasions, he readily concedes that he derives much of his knowledge of the situation there from what he reads. “I look to the journalists and researchers who’ve spent a lot of time in the West Bank,” Beinart says. “The substantive claims in my book are identical to those made by Gershom Gorenberg,” the Israeli journalist whose 2011 book, The Unmaking of Israel, is a deeply reported, on-the-ground look at the deleterious consequences of the occupation. Goldberg, by contrast, has reached most of his conclusions from firsthand observation during his fifteen years reporting from the West Bank and Gaza, and he bridles when, for instance, Beinart argues that Hamas has made certain statements that suggest a greater (albeit insufficient) openness toward accepting a two-state solution. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Hamas over the years, and I feel like I have a better sense of Hamas than Peter does,” he says. “I hereby invite Peter to Gaza with me, and we’ll spend a couple of weeks in the mosques, and then he’ll tell me if he thinks that they’re philo-Semitic or non-anti-Semitic or non-annihilationist in their fundamental outlook.”
Goldberg, who dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-eighties to live on a kibbutz before eventually joining the Israeli Defense Force, believes that Beinart is even more confused about Israelis. “What we need to do is try to understand Israeli psychology and, you should pardon the expression, manipulate it,” Goldberg tells me. “And that means figuring out what buttons you would have to push to get this particular prime minister and this government to do the things you’d want.” He sees Beinart’s proposed settlement boycott and his moralizing about the evils of occupation as almost comically unhelpful. “If you’re an Israeli, you look at the last twelve years”—Lebanon, Gaza, the Arab Spring—“and then you say to Peter Beinart, ‘Oh, and now’s the moment when you want me to pull out of territory on the West Bank, including the mountains that overlook Israel’s central cities and its airport? Right now?’ ”
Another convoy of helicopters flies overhead, but Goldberg doesn’t stop talking. “There’s a reason that this current government in Israel has 94 seats. Some of the parties in that coalition are racist, yeah. Some of the people are racist. Some of them don’t want to give a Palestinian state no matter what. But there are a lot of others who are looking at the landscape and are saying, ‘I don’t know, maybe we should wait.’ ” He adds, “Peter was faced with a couple of choices with this book. He could make himself feel good about his moral superiority or he could devise ways to get Israel to do what he wants, and I think he went more with the former than the latter.”
Goldberg can’t abide the virulent personal attacks on his erstwhile friend, especially those that question his Judaism. “Peter’s not an ‘as a Jew,’ ” he says, referring to the writer Howard Jacobson’s term for people who invoke their Judaism only to criticize Israel (“As a Jew, I am ashamed of the occupation …”). “Peter’s a Jew.” He mentions the religion scholar Elaine Pagels’s book The Origin of Satan. “Satan was a figure devised by Jews to demonize other Jews going back 2,200 years,” Goldberg says. “It’s the intimate-enemy problem. Jews have a unique ability to tear each other apart.” But there is undeniably a deeply personal element to Goldberg’s disagreement with Beinart. “Peter asked me why I dismissed his book but gave a very positive review to Gershom Gorenberg’s book,” Goldberg says. “And I thought to myself, Do you really have to ask? One of you has skin in the game. If Gershom Gorenberg is wrong, then his family might die. If Peter Beinart is wrong, well, Manhattan will survive.”
There are certainly still Peter Beinart fans. At this year’s J Street conference, Beinart’s speech received several standing ovations (despite the fact that, just days before, J Street’s leader Jeremy Ben-Ami had publicly rejected Beinart’s call for the boycott). And he is sometimes treated as a rock star on college campuses. At Bard, I saw two female students literally clutching The Crisis of Zionism to their chests after Beinart had signed their copies. But while Beinart’s Army still exists, its future recruits may be more likely to come from the anti-Zionist wing of the American Jewish intellectual world.
The hub of that world is the website Mondoweiss, which is run by Philip Weiss, a veteran journalist (and occasional New York contributor) who has largely put aside his career as a generalist writer to become an intellectual godfather to a coterie of younger anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals, who don’t believe Israel must remain a Jewish state. In some ways, Weiss admires Beinart. “There’s a kind of nobility, or a romance anyway, in what he’s doing,” Weiss says. Though their current projects are of course incompatible—“My belief is we have to save Jews from Zionism,” Weiss says; “he thinks you can save Zionism”—Weiss holds out hope that one day they might not be. “The interesting question to me is, What is the crisis of Peter Beinart? Those of us in the anti-Zionist camp wonder if this rude reception, this bum’s rush he’s getting, is going to send him into our arms.”
Beinart finds this kind of endorsement from the left almost as troubling as the criticism he has endured from the right. In April, he canceled a talk in Berkeley after one of the event’s sponsors, the local JCC, backed out to protest the participation of the group Jewish Voice for Peace, which is perceived as anti-Zionist. “Once you didn’t have any Zionist representation,” Beinart explains, “I thought it was going to kind of send the wrong message about my own perspective.”
Beinart does agree with Weiss on one thing: that the current Zionist project is untenable. He makes no apology for writing a passionate book; as he sees it, bracing moral clarity was his best shot at forcing incrementalists like Goldberg to question their caution. “If you understand me in the larger reality of this debate, which should include Palestinian voices, you see that in that broader perspective I’m hardly radical at all. I’m a liberal Zionist who doesn’t want a Palestinian right of return and wants a Jewish state,” Beinart says. “One of the ironies of this whole discussion is that if you look at the trajectory of younger Jewish intellectuals on this question, there’s a reasonably strong possibility that the next time there is an argument like this, it’s going to be provoked by an American Jewish intellectual who has a much more fundamentally hostile relationship to Zionism than I do and will be arguing from a one-state, anti-Zionist perspective.” In that argument, Beinart and his critics like Goldberg would once again be comrades-in-arms. But by then, Beinart fears, their reunion would have come far too late to do any good.
Last month, the White House invited nine national-security writers to an off-the-record meeting with the president. The guest list featured the usual mandarins of the foreign-policy-journalism Establishment, including the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, the Los Angeles Times’s Doyle McManus, and The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib. It also included Goldberg, Remnick, and Beinart.
The White House insists that Beinart’s invitation to the meeting had nothing to do with Beinart’s—or Obama’s—views on Israel. “We tried to diversify the invite list and bring in some people who hadn’t necessarily been in before,” says National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. But as soon as news of the meeting—and Beinart’s presence at it—leaked to Politico, Israel obsessives began trying to divine a larger meaning. Was it intended to tweak Netanyahu, whose ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, had previously denounced Beinart as belonging to “a marginal and highly radical fringe”? (If so, it may have worked; one source says Tel Aviv “noted with interest” Beinart’s inclusion.) Was it a dog whistle to the liberal American Jews who share Beinart’s disappointment that Obama hasn’t done more to pressure Israel and hope that he might do so in a second term? Or was it an attempt by the White House to build up Beinart so that he might open more space on the Israel issue in which Obama can then operate?
The focus of the meeting was Afghanistan, the NATO summit, and Iran. Still, given the journalists who were present, it was inevitable that Israel would come up. According to sources with knowledge of the meeting’s substance, Beinart took the opportunity to ask the president about what would have to happen for Obama to reinvolve himself in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in a second term. When another journalist asked Obama about what Netanyahu’s new coalition government might mean for the peace process, the president joked, “You should ask Jeff. He knows a lot more about this stuff than I do.” Goldberg won bigger laughs with his reply: “I’m not authorized to talk about that.”
After the meeting, Obama went around the Roosevelt Room shaking hands with his guests. The last person he greeted was Beinart, who had brought gifts: two copies of The Crisis of Zionism, one for the president and one for deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes. Obama, perhaps more than any other president, is said to be unusually attuned to intramural debates among American Jews and the precise language they require of one another when they talk about Israel, so it’s almost certain that he was aware of the firestorm surrounding Beinart and the book he had just handed him. As he talked to Beinart, according to those who were within earshot, the president had a message for the embattled author: “Hang in there.”
This story appeared in the June, 11, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.