Stray Thoughts on This Week’s Peter Beinart To-Do
1) I don’t know why I’m writing about this tonight and not Dr. McCoy’s technophobia. Probably because I’m a masochist at heart.
2) I haven’t read The Crisis of Zionism. Neither the university nor the local public library have it, and the League doesn’t yet cover book review expenses. So I’m not pretending to comment on the contents of the book per se. Perhaps, once one of these libraries does acquire a copy, I will read it, if I have the time. It’s practical, not personal. I have, however, read the recent New York Times op-ed. And an ungodly number of missives in response (and in response to response), most of which I don’t care to link to because I don’t want anyone else to suffer.
3) Writing an opinion piece for the Times in which you make a point of including your plan under the category and title of “B.D.S.” is a fantastic way to get attention among internet-dwelling Jews. It is a fantastically horrible way to convince anyone who didn’t already agree with you — this is a matter of style more than substance, lobbing a rhetorical hand-grenade that will immediately alienating those who, maybe, don’t read Commentary but who still are aware that this B.D.S. thing is connected with those perceived to be anti-Zionists, so what on God’s green earth could this Beinart be talking about? Unfortunately, if his settlement-boycott plan is ever to have legs, these are precisely the people he needs to persuade. Persuasion will require getting them to pay attention past the third paragraph — and if this means playing nice, rhetorically, then that’s the price one sometimes has to pay. Cicero always waited until after he felt he’d won the audience over before punningly accusing his opponent (or his sister) of sexual malfeasance.
4) Unfortunately, I have yet to be persuaded that a settlement boycott by American Jews would make a significant difference toward resolving the crisis. (If you have a case that seems genuinely persuasive, give me a try! I’m open to being proven wrong, after all.) A primary reason for this is that I’m effectively already boycotting the settlements. I don’t donate money to groups that support them. I’ve never visited one — tour groups tend to take you places that are “safe”: this means inside the Green Line. (Yes, even the most evangelical of Birthright tour guides, too.) And, so far as I know, I don’t purchase products made in the West Bank. In this, I suspect that I’m not alone — and that “boycotting” settlements would be, for many young Jews, just another way to feel good about a cause without doing anything real.
5) This brings me to my major critique of Beinart’s advocacy. (Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, at a later date, by the books, but…) Even including the publication of his NY Review of Books essay two years ago, very little of his writing has said anything I have found new; it has said very little that my friends and acquaintances, as informed, conflicted, Zionists (and some non-Zionists) who are skeptical (at best) of current settlement policy, have found new or insightful. I, frankly, still can’t figure out why that essay was such a big deal — except for his professional biography. I’d heard it all before, at Shabbos lunch.
6) His campus speaking tour, from personal experience and second-hand reports, was basically a rehash of the essay that was itself something of a rehash. The guy sitting next to me was a rabid Greater Israel guy, who went on a rant during Q&A that should have been easily dissected; instead, it was only barely so. His responses to critics have typically been disappointing, if strident.
7) Beinart also punted on a sincere question about de-legitimizing Israel. In effect, “How do you propose we take the advocacy role you propose and avoid unintentionally aiding efforts to de-legitimize Israel? It seems like it might be a fine line.” This is a question that does concern the conflicted liberal Zionists Beinart’s proposal target; the only answer he could offer was, “It won’t.”
8) In effect — and why I included the above anecdotes — I suspect that if there is a movement to “Ignore. Peter. Beinart.” it comes not from fear of his words than from the perception that he generates loud headlines and loud debates while contributing little of new substance to the discussion of what to do. As perplexed as I was about why his 2010 essay was such a big deal, I was pleased that it seemed to open avenues for discussing the future of Zionism as practiced by American Jews. I still find his passionate insistence that American Jews must do something, that the status quo is not sustainable, relevant and inspiring. Nevertheless, two years later, I can’t help but feel that it has done little more than add to the polarization of the debate — in part because those on the right have grown more defensive. But an equal measure of the blame falls on those who, like Andrew Sullivan, insist that any refusal to unquestioningly accept Beinart’s generally lackluster proposals indicates that one is on Bibi’s payroll.