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The Israeli Desert

Philip Weiss: “There’s a kind of nobility, or a romance, anyway, in what he’s doing. The interesting question to me is, What is the crisis of Peter Beinart?”  

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.