Woefully Ignorant or Willfully Misleading?
Peter Beinart's warped understanding of Israel.
In a polemic published last month in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” the left-wing journalist Peter Beinart argued that American Jews, especially the younger generation, are turning their backs on Israel. In Beinart’s estimation, this is a most understandable and inevitable development. Beinart expounded on the points of his original essay during a recent lecture at Los Angeles’s Temple Beth. Just as in the original article, Beinart’s argument was profoundly flawed.
For anyone with a modicum of knowledge of Israeli society and the larger picture of the Middle East, the lecture was an astonishing display of ignorance and arrogance. The following analysis of the lowlights of his talk shows how Beinart, like other Israel-bashers, rides roughshod over the truth in an effort to portray Israel as violent and inhumane and deserving of the increasing suspicion in which it is held by American Jews.
The “Radical Settlers”
Beinart stated as a matter of fact: “The same radical settlers who used violence against Palestinians used violence against an Israeli prime minister [Rabin].”
Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin was not assassinated by a “radical settler,” but by a law student from Herzilya, a coastal town adjacent to Tel Aviv.
Beinart gave no evidence in this part of his talk that he knew what percentage of the settlers were involved in violence against Palestinians. Or who has been subject to greater and more lethal violence. Is it Palestinians by settlers? Or settlers by Palestinians?
Nor did he mention that Palestinian movements have proven all too ready to use violence. Not only is this violence directed toward “radical settlers” and innocent Israeli citizens, but Palestinians have also embarked on a frenzy of fratricidal fury against themselves.
The Eviction of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah Quarter in East Jerusalem
On this matter, Beinart posed this rhetorical question:
Is what is happening in Sheik Jarrah, where Palestinians who were living in their homes for 50 years were forcibly evicted and are now living in the street, “kosher”?
This mirrors his claim in his New York Review of Books article that:
[In] the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, … a Palestinian family named the Ghawis lives on the street outside their home of fifty-three years, from which they were evicted to make room for Jewish settlers.
In fact, the Palestinians’ eviction was not a politically motivated initiative to dispossess hapless, helpless Palestinians as Beinart implies, but the result of a court ruling.
The courts (including the Israeli Supreme Court, which often – indeed more often than not – rules against the “radical settlers”) determined that the property in which the Palestinians were living in fact belonged to Jewish owners. In 1967, the court awarded the Palestinian families “protected tenant” status, whose right to reside in the homes was guaranteed as long as they paid rent to the legal owners.
In 1982, the legal owners sued 23 families for nonpayment of rent. According to an agreement reached between the lawyer representing the Palestinian families and the authorized representatives of the owners, the Palestinian families were indeed recognized as “protected tenants” whose occupancy in the buildings was ensured as long as they paid rent. However, most of the families refused to do so.
Does Beinart believe that Israel would be looked on more favorably if the rule of law was flouted, and legal property rights violated because of the ethnic identity of those ruled against?
Pikuch Nefesh and Reverence for Life Over Land
One of the things that bothers me is [the undermining of] the great reverence for Pikuach Nefesh [preserving lives] and the recognition that it is acceptable to withdraw from land if it meant saving lives.
This is a statement that can only be explained by either total ignorance or total insincerity. For as anyone who follows the news or reads the papers must know, a dramatic inverse relationship exists between Pikuach Nefesh (preserving lives) and withdrawal from land.
Indeed, since the doctrine of “land-for-peace” was introduced into Israeli policy, fatalities have soared to unprecedented levels on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides. To suggest otherwise reflects a massive deficit of either information or integrity.
Regarding the conduct of his like-minded Israel-basher peers, Beinart pontificated: “There is something frankly silly to me about a Jewish community that feels so self-confident in how our values apply in Bosnia, the former Soviet Union, and Darfur, but is so timid in talking about how our values apply in the place we care about most [presumably Israel].”
So Israel’s attempts to defend its people are morally comparable to the wholesale slaughter in Darfur, the widespread massacres in Bosnia, and the oppressive brutality of the Soviet regime?
What a windfall for the assorted collection of Jew-baiting anti-Semites, Judeo-phobic Israel-bashers, and other hate-driven villains such thinking is. What greater endorsement could they hope for than Beinart’s exhortation that his fellow Jews relate to the Jewish State as if it were governed by the genocidal Janjaweed militias in Sudan, or by the brutish guards in the Siberian gulags, or the murderous perpetrators of the bloody events in Srebrenica.
Double Standards II
Beinart endorses double standards when they work to Israel’s detriment, and only dismisses them when they do not.
When a challenge was raised regarding the application of these double standards, Beinart’s rather glib and unoriginal response was to claim that while Israel was “far morally superior to North Korea, Syria, Libya and Iran,” these were not relevant criteria he would expect from a Jewish state. According to Beinart, he should not have to “compromise [his expectations from Israel] just because North Korea is worse.”
Such an approach might have some merit if Israel was being censured less severely, or even equally severely, for violations of liberal-democratic values similar to those perpetrated by North Korea, Iran, etc. But what is happening is altogether different. Israel is being censured far more harshly and frequently for infringements much less notable than those glossed over by the international community when committed by other nations.
Moreover, it is not only in comparison to the tyrannies in Tehran and Tripoli and the dictatorships in Damascus and the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) that Israel is being held to a double standard. Indeed, widely divergent criteria are used to judge the actions of Israel and those of the leading democratic countries that comprise NATO. This is true both with respect to military action in the Balkans and the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan.
In the Balkans, high-altitude bombing by NATO, including the use of cluster bombs, inflicted hundreds of civilian Serbian casualties during a military campaign in which not one single civilian in a NATO nation was ever threatened.
In Afghanistan, where military action was undertaken in response to a single terror attack on a single NATO member, estimates of civilian deaths caused directly by NATO military action since 2001 are in the range of 5000-8000, with additional indirect fatalities estimated at up to 20,000.
Why should the victims of Israeli actions taken to defend their citizens elicit a far greater expression of moral outrage on the part of the international community than actions taken to perpetuate regimes in East Asia, Central Africa, or in the Middle East?
Why should several families evicted because of failure to pay rent, after being afforded due process by the Israeli legal system, be more troubling to liberal Jews than the millions of victims of gender apartheid, creed apartheid, and gay apartheid across the Islamic world?
Israel’s Right to Defend Itself
Beinart magnanimously agrees that “to ask Israel to be willing to not defend itself would be wrong,” but predictably goes on to ask – rhetorically – “is every military action…does every Israeli policy contribute to Israeli defense..?”
To be sure, with the benefit of hindsight, some Israeli security measures may be criticized for one reason or another. But in a situation of such uncertainty, what would Beinart recommend as Israel’s working security policy: To err on the side of sober caution? Or on the side of reckless optimism?
Nothing could imperil liberal democratic values more than trying to foist on Israel unattainable standards of liberal democratic ideals that make the defense of these ideals impossible. These standards are not demanded or expected of any other country, much less from one faced with such grave existential threats.
Of course no one is disputing Beinart’s right to criticize Israeli policy. However, as someone who has chosen not to share the burden of living in Israel, he would surely understand that when he states that “as a Jew, I have a certain set of expectations… as to what a Jewish state might be,” some might interpret his approach as being more than a little presumptuous.
Indeed, it would be interesting to know what kind of Israeli military actions Beinart would condone as not offensive to his liberal sensibilities. Would they include the construction of the much maligned separation barrier? Targeted killings (with the lowest level of collateral casualties in military history)? Large scale campaigns (such as “Cast Lead”) to quell rocket and mortar fire on civilian populations?
Blockades and Balance
Beinart asks: “How did the Gaza blockade which banned a vast, vast number of consumer products that had nothing to do with making rockets…help Israeli security?” He added, ”It seems to me that all it did was lead to more and more and more hatred of Israel.”
Can Beinart really be unaware of the fact that the imposition of the blockade was a result of, not a reason for, Palestinian enmity; that it is a consequence, not a cause, of Palestinian hatred for Israel?
Is he really ignorant of the fact that whenever Israel has turned the other cheek, it has been resoundingly slapped by the Palestinians; that whenever Israel extended the hand of friendship, it has been brusquely brushed aside by the Palestinians?
Why should Israel be condemned by liberal democrats for imposing a blockade on Gaza, when the international community imposed a UN Security Council-sanctioned blockade against Iraq and its despotic ruler?
Why is the Gaza blockade more reprehensible than the U.S.-led, UN sanctioned Iraqi blockade that caused infant mortality to sky-rocket and banned importation of over 300 items – including painkillers, pencils, hearing aids, musical instruments, and shampoo?
The Ascendancy of Lieberman
Beinart bewailed the strengthening of Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party as evidence of a widening disregard for liberal democratic values in Israel.
However, a far more powerful case can be made to ascribe Lieberman’s electoral success to the dramatic failure of the left-wing’s ”Chamberlainian” program of “land-for- peace” and the consequent disappointment with this disastrous doctrine. It is an approach which, for the past two decades, has wrought nothing but death and destruction on both Jew and Arab alike.
Actually, Beinart’s loathing for Lieberman’s party appears to be based more on hearsay rather than hard facts. After all, Lieberman has not only accepted, at least implicitly, the notion of a two state solution but is in fact offering arguably even more territorial concessions than most left-wing parties.
It is true that this would involve redrawing the 1967 borders in certain places to exclude large population centers of Israeli Arabs. These would then be annexed to the Palestinian Authority. Yet, it is not quite clear why this would be considered odious to anyone who believes that a viable functioning Palestinian state is realistic, as Beinart presumably does.
Indeed, Israeli Arabs continually claim that the dominant Jewish character of Israel is incompatible with their ethno-religious identity and complain that, as a result, they are often subjected to various forms of prejudice and discrimination. So, if one assumes that a viable functioning Palestinian state is indeed feasible, one is compelled to ask, from both a moral and a practical perspective, why would Israeli Arabs not leap at the chance of being extricated from the clutches of the discriminatory Zionist regime and brought under the auspices of an egalitarian non-discriminatory Palestinian one?
As this would not involve the physical displacement of a single Israeli Arab from his/her home, what possible liberal democratic principle would Beinart invoke to object to such a proposal?
The Sentiments of Israeli Arab
Beinart’s contention is that Israel Arabs object to this arrangement of annexation to the Palestinian Authority because “they consider themselves Israeli.” But this has a rather suspicious ring to it. Is Beinart seriously suggesting that that Israeli Arabs “feel Israeli” in the sense they identify with: the words of the national anthem Hatikva - expressing 2000 years of yearning by the Jewish soul to be free in the land of Zion; the Star of David displayed on the flag; the biblical Menorah as the State symbol; Saturday rather than Friday as the official Sabbath; Yom Kippur Passover, Rosh Ha’Shana as national holidays; Hebrew as the predominant language; or Independence Day as a triumph over Arab aggression?
And if not, how is it possible to make them, as he suggests, “feel more comfortable in their Israeliness”? To annul the Jewish character of Israel as expressed by the prevalence of Jewish symbolism in public life and Israel’s social institutions?
Beinart is of course right that Israeli Arabs strongly object to their annexation to the Palestinian Authority, but wrong in ascribing this aversion to a desire to become more fully integrated into the fabric of Israel. A more plausible explanation would be the desire of Israeli Arabs to continue enjoying the best of both worlds: the benefits of greater economic prosperity and personal freedom that life as an Israeli citizen affords them, and also the expression of their ethno-religious identity through an ongoing and intensifying hostility toward the entity that provides them these benefits.
Beinart’s attempt to demonstrate Israeli Arabs’ attachment to Israel seems curiously contradictory. He quotes a poll allegedly conducted in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, and proclaims that “when they polled Israeli Arabs, they found that by a factor of about 3 to 1 they supported Israel [rather than the Hezbollah.]“ Although several hours of Google-searching failed to produce any trace of such a poll, I have no reason to doubt that it may in fact exist.
Other survey results that are extremely difficult to reconcile with Beinart’s contention regarding the sentiments of Israeli Arabs for their country of residence. A 2007 poll conducted by Haifa University’s Sami Smooha, a well-known sociologist of well-known left-leaning proclivities, found that:
- 48.2% of Arab citizens of Israel said they believed that Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on northern Israel during that war were justified;
- 76% of Arab citizens of Israel described Zionism as racist;
- 40.5% of Arab citizens of Israel deny the Holocaust; among high school and college graduates the figure was 33%.
A later poll by Smooha produced arguably even more disturbing results:
- Only 41 percent of Israel’s Arab minority recognize the country’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state;
- Only 53.7 percent of the Israeli Arab public believe Israel has a right to exist as an independent country – Jewish or otherwise.
So, almost 60% do not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and almost half deny Israel any right of existence at all. Was Beinart, who made no reference at all to these findings, unaware of their existence? If not, then he is surely woefully ignorant. If so, then he is clearly willfully misleading
The Nuclear Threat
While Beinart acknowledges that “an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a disaster,” he goes on to expose a massive misunderstanding of the threat Israel would face if Tehran in fact realized its nuclear ambitions. He merely proclaims that in such a case “Israel would have to deal with some of the things [as India] with Pakistan on its borders, and that has a nuclear weapon.”
This comparison is ludicrous. India has a population five times that of Pakistan spread over an entire subcontinent seven times the size of Pakistan. It is in no danger of annihilation from its impoverished eastern neighbor, even if it were to suffer a surprise first-strike that wiped out several of its population centers. India has – and Pakistan knows it has – absolute first strike survivability and unassailable second strike capability to devastate Pakistan in retaliation.
In stark contrast, Israel has a population less than one tenth and an area one eightieth of Iran’s. Moreover, 80% of Israel’s civilian population live in a narrow coastal strip 8-10 miles wide and 60 miles long, of which much, indeed most, would be wiped out by a single nuclear weapon. This would dramatically undermine the ability of the country to continue to function as a viable national entity. So although Israel allegedly has marine-based second-strike capability and may be able to inflict devastating retaliation, this will not ensure its survival if Iran miscalculates the cost of a first-strike or calculates that it is worth the risk.
It also should be remembered that while Iran has overtly threatened Israel with destruction, this has never been the declared intention of Pakistan regarding India.
Furthermore, with a nuclear Iranian umbrella, terror groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Jihad, could operate with far greater freedom against Israel. The fear that harsh retaliation may precipitate a nuclear confrontation would make ordinary life in the country untenable.
So, while Benart may be right in pointing out that modern day Israel should not be likened to the powerless, helpless Jews in Europe, this does not mean it is not facing existential threats and genocidal dangers that could precipitate tragedy on the scale of the Holocaust. He should remember that if there is a lesson to be learnt from the Holocaust it is this: it is extremely dangerous to dismiss declared intentions of despots, however delusional they may initially appear.
The Real Failure of the American Jewish Establishment
Beinart is right in diagnosing the failure of the American Jewish establishment. But it is a failure quite different than the one he writes about.
Assuming that Beinart is sincere when he implies that Israel “is the place we care about the most,” then all of the following comprise a catastrophic moral lapse on the part of the American Jewish establishment:
- The failure to vigorously assert Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens against attacks perpetrated against them just because they are Jewish;
- The failure to unequivocally repudiate the prevailing custom that portrays every measure Israel undertakes to protect itself as “racist”;
- The failure to reject the egregious standard by which Palestinian inconvenience is considered more heinous than the threat to Jewish lives;
- The failure to unambiguously distinguish between the causes and the consequences of Arab antagonism; and
- The failure to comprehend and support policy imperatives.
Addressing and correcting these failures is a far more urgent, a far more pertinent, and a far more authentic mission than any obsessive tendency to dwell on the imperfections of Israel’s vibrant liberal democracy. Such imperfections are only the product of security driven exigencies and not illiberal, anti-democratic proclivities.
To expect Israel to conduct itself in a manner totally divorced from the exigencies of its environment and totally detached from the nature of its adversaries, is a position that reflects neither moral merit nor political prudence.
It is this that the American Jewish establishment, including its liberal democratic members, needs to understand and to address accordingly – before great tragedy overtakes the Jewish people again.