Israel, American Jews and the Crisis of Zionism: A Conversation with Peter Beinart

Article excerpt

Robert Boyers: Peter Beinart's recent book, The Crisis of Zionism, has provoked a great deal of debate, and it seemed to us a good idea to ask some questions and perhaps get at aspects of the relevant issues that are often ignored by readers who are primed to see in the book only what they want to see. Peter will lead us off with extensive opening remarks.

Peter Beinart: I know this is a controversial subject: the relationship between American Jews and Israel. After my book came out, a friend asked me, have there been any angry words, ad hominem attacks, personal denunciations? And I said, 'you mean outside of my own family? [Laughter] Yeah, there've been a few.'

My wife sent out an email of the kind that spouses sometimes do. She said, 'You can agree or disagree with Peter's argument but we're very proud that he wrote a book.' So she got an email back the next day, and the person said ? would never buy that book. I think it is a threat to the Jewish people. I wouldn't give him a dime.' So my wife forwarded me the email and said, 'Who was that person, who was so angry?' And I said, 'Don't you remember? That's my cousin, David. I haven't heard from him in years.'

My mother said that it's a good thing that my grandmother doesn 't know how to blog.

Let me start by explaining why I believe that Israel's creation has been such a blessing for the Jewish people.

First, it's been a blessing because we now have what we did not have in the 1940s when our people were being led to the slaughter: A country whose mission statement is the protection of Jewish life. Some younger American Jews may take that for granted; I don't. I still remember watching a Jewish state send airplanes to pick up the Jews of Ethiopia, one of the poorest and most reviled communities on earth, and return them to be with the people from whom they had been estranged since the days when the temple stood.

Second, Israel has been a blessing because, thanks to the Zionist movement, we have a Jewish state as a cultural center for Jews around the world based upon the revival of Hebrew as a living language. With all the problems that we have maintaining Diaspora Jewish life today, one can only imagine how much harder things would be if we did not have Israel and Hebrew to anchor us. But these inspiring accomplishments, I believe, are being put at risk by Israeli settlement of the West Bank and the resulting threat to Israel's character as a democratic Jewish state.

Democracy is not the whole of the Zionist dream. Israel is not, in my opinion should not be a secular democracy like the United States. It should have, as I argue in my book, a special obligation to the Jewish people. But if democracy is not the entirety of the Zionist dream, it is necessary to the Zionist dream. Theodor Herzl understood this. His novel, Altneuland, is largely about an election in an imagined Jewish state between one candidate whose party includes Arabs and supports the right of Arabs to vote and another party that wants to restrict the right to vote to Jews alone; and in his novel, Herzl has one of the candidates who believes in democracy tell the people of this imagined Jewish state, "You must hold fast to liberality, tolerance, and love of mankind; only then is Zion truly Zion."

Israel's founders understood this. In 1948, three years after the Holocaust, with the stench of Jewish death still hanging over Europe and Israel in a war for its very survival against its Arab neighbors, fielding a rag-tag army composed in significant measure of people with numbers tattooed on their arms, Israel's founders wrote a declaration of indepen- dence that promised "Complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of race, religion, and sex."

For me, that democratic vision is crucial to the miracle that is the Jewish return to sovereignty in the land of Israel, and it's a large part of the reason that an Israeli flag hangs in my six year old son's room. …