Peter Beinart: Why Israel Has to Do Better





[Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.]

It has been a week since my essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” was published in the New York Review of Books, and the responses have largely congealed into a single critique. From Leon Wieseltier to Jonathan Chait to Jeffrey Goldberg to Jamie Kirchick to David Frum, the main complaint is that I didn’t spend enough time discussing the nastiness of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and extremist Muslims in general.

It’s a little odd when you think about it, because my piece never claimed to offer an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Iranian conflict. Rather, it was a plea for American Jewish organizations to take sides in Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians, and thus help save liberal Zionism in the United States. Those American Jewish organizations, of course, don’t need to be encouraged to criticize Iran and the Palestinians. It’s virtually all they do. If I had written an essay directed at the U.N. Human Rights Council, which condemns Israel and often ignores human-rights abuses in the Arab world, rather than the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which does the opposite, would Leon and Jon and Jeff attack me for not spending enough time denouncing Avigdor Lieberman?...

One last point. Leon, Jeff, Jon, Jamie, David and I are all Jews. In some sense, therefore, Israel’s crimes—unlike those of Hamas or Ahmedinejad—are committed in our name. We have a special obligation to expose and confront them. And we have a special obligation not to use the crimes of Israel’s enemies to excuse behavior that dishonors a Jewish state, and the Jewish ethical tradition that we all consider precious. In 1994, after settler fanatic Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron, a man I once looked to for guidance on these matters expressed it better than I ever could. “When the comparative impulse becomes primary, accounting becomes apologetics. The really striking thing about the ethical texts of the Jews in exile is the extent to which they are silent about the adversity that the writers of these texts were regularly experiencing. For most of two millennia, the Jews had the standing alibi of anti-Semitism, if they wanted to take it up; but they did not want to take it up. They held themselves to the highest standards of conduct and then proceeded to the business of safety. One is not better merely because others are bad. And the better is not the same as the good.” The man who wrote those words is Leon Wieseltier. We could sure use him today.

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