Peter Beinart and David Suissa debate Zionism’s ‘Crisis’

When Peter Beinart’s new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” was published earlier this year, it was met with a tsunami of responses — from reviews, to op-ed pieces and a fury of blogging.

The dissemination and dissection of Beinart’s argument — that the future of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state is in serious danger because of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip — has now moved into a second phase. In addition to the usual stops on a book tour, Beinart has participated in public debates staged in Boston, New York and, on May 16, in Los Angeles, at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

In L.A., Beinart faced off against David Suissa, president of The Jewish Journal and a weekly columnist for this newspaper and its Web site, The Journal co-sponsored the event, which was moderated by Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel’s senior rabbi. Beinart began the debate with an opening statement, followed by Suissa’s, and then Rosove addressed questions to the two without taking any audience questions.

Beinart, editor-in-chief of Open Zion, a blog about Israel, Palestine and the Jewish future at The Daily Beast, used his opening statement to outline his book’s basic argument: that Israel, by continuing its policy of settling Jewish citizens in areas beyond the country’s pre-1967 borders, is approaching a point when more Arabs than Jews will be living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, potentially putting Israel in the undesirable position of having to choose whether it will continue as a Jewish state or as a democratic one.

Beinart argued that unless Israel acts decisively soon to end its occupation of the West Bank, the majority of Palestinians who currently support a two-state solution will instead embrace a vision of a single bi-national state.

Calling that a “terrifying outcome,” Beinart described the Palestinian argument as: “The birth rate is on our side, the world is increasingly on our side, let’s just have the 100-year struggle for the character of that one state,” adding, “and, ultimately, we will divest it of its Jewish character.”

While acknowledging that the Palestinian leadership deserves “significant blame” for the current impasse in peace negotiations between the two sides, Beinart claimed the Israeli government deserves the lion’s share of responsibility.

“It is not the Palestinians who are essentially paying Israelis to move into the West Bank,” he said.

For his part, Suissa disputed Beinart’s basic assertion, arguing that Israel’s current situation is not a crisis at all, and, if a crisis did exist, it is incumbent upon the Palestinians, not the Israelis, to change their ways in order to resolve it.

While Beinart says a settlement like Ariel, a city of about 18,000 that sits 13 miles east of the Green Line, represents a dangerous encroachment by Israel on land that would likely make up any future Palestinian state, Suissa countered that Israeli settlers only occupy about 1 percent of the West Bank. No new settlements have been built in the past 14 years, Suissa said, arguing that successive Israeli governments — including the current government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have shown a willingness to make territorial concessions in pursuit of peace. Suissa pointed to the Palestinian leadership as the recalcitrant party, unwilling to prepare its people for what a peace settlement might require.


Suissa also argued that Beinart is hoping for a peace settlement that is unlikely to materialize, and, with that in mind, Suissa criticized Beinart for taking Israel to task as publicly and fiercely as he has.

“It’s criminal that this miracle country has become the world’s most favorite and most popular punching bag,” Suissa said. “So what do you want me to do? Do you want me to join in?”

As the evening went on, Beinart, who had started off speaking slowly and methodically, increased his pace, marshaling facts to respond to Suissa’s questions. Yet he also peppered his presentation with emotional notes, paying particular attention to the intergenerational nature of this discussion.

“The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart said, was inspired by his very personal worries that the future State of Israel that will exist for his own children and grandchildren might not be the same Jewish and democratic state for which he repeatedly expressed his love.

Beinart also acknowledged that many Jews, even within his own family, disagree with his perspective, often vehemently.

“My mother said it’s a good thing my grandmother doesn’t know how to blog,” Beinart joked.

The audience of about 400 included people from across the ideological spectrum on Israel. After the two-hour debated concluded, many people lingered in the temple’s auditorium to discuss what had occurred.

“I thought he was rather anti-Semitic,” Frieda Beer, 85, said, referring to Beinart. “If the Arabs were in power, how would they treat the Jews? And I don’t think that the Jews treat the Arabs that badly.”

Alan Breslauer, meanwhile, said he felt Suissa failed to mount a convincing counter-argument to Beinart’s.

“Obviously, I do tend to side with the Beinart position,” Breslauer said. “But let’s have a debate about it, let’s talk about the truth, what’s on the table and what’s not.”

Breslauer was referring to disagreements that emerged during the debate over some seemingly straightforward facts. At one point, for instance, Beinart said the Palestinians have continued to negotiate with Israelis, mostly in secret, even as recently as the beginning of this year. He cited reports of these negotiations. Suissa repeatedly dismissed Beinart’s assertion, arguing that the next step on the road to peace must involve Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returning to the negotiating table, without preconditions.

Other disagreements stemmed from the two men’s different ideas about what Israel should do now about the settlements.

Admitting that a final peace deal may be years, or even decades, off, Beinart nevertheless believes Israel should eliminate the government’s current economic incentives that often make it cheaper for Jewish Israelis to move to settlements in the West Bank than to live within the borders of pre-1967 Israel, in the hopes of preserving the possibility that a Palestinian state could be created there.

In stark contrast, Suissa believes Israel should tighten its hold on the territory in the hope of strengthening its negotiating position.

“If Peter Beinart really wanted to help the peace process, he would help Israel make a legitimate claim for its rights in Judea and Samaria,” Suissa said, using the biblical Hebrew names for areas that would, under the Oslo Accords, become part of a new Palestinian state. 

Even as the differences between the two speakers became ever clearer, audience members expressed positions both further to the left of Beinart and to the right of Suissa.

Among Beinart’s most-discussed arguments is his proposal for a boycott of products made by Jews living outside the 1967 borders. This proposal didn’t seem achievable to Estee Chandler, the leader of the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. Chandler, who said she has read all three of Beinart’s books, believes a boycott exclusively targeting products from the settlements cannot happen because items produced within the settlements are labeled “Made in Israel” and are, therefore, indistinguishable from other Israeli goods.

“It makes it difficult to boycott settlement products,” she said.

And while Suissa — after repeated questioning from Rosove as to what he would choose if Israel had to become either a Jewish state or a democratic one — appeared to conclude that Israel could not just choose one, his supporters disagreed.

“There are rabbinical talmudic imperatives for Jews to live in Israel as a Jewish nation,” said Scott Jacobs, a video journalist who runs the Web site

“[Beinart] may call himself a Zionist, but he’s not a learned enough Jew to recognize the halachic need to keep Israel Jewish, not democratic.”

Judaism in two minutes

Can you “sell” Judaism in a few minutes? This question came up in a piece in The Forward by Leonard Fein, who was commenting on a recent debate in New York City between Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart. In the debate, as Fein quotes, they were asked this question: “Both of you have written about the tragedy of young American Jews who have no connection to Judaism and the fate of the Jewish state. So let’s say you were stuck in an elevator with one of the people from that demographic, and you had two minutes to sell them about why they should re-engage with Jewishness and Zionism and the Jewish people. What would you say?”

Gordis responded: “I wouldn’t engage in that conversation. When in the Gemarrah, the ger [stranger, heathen] comes to Hillel and Shamai and asks them to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Shamai throws him out; the question itself is an outrageously obnoxious question. It’s dismissive. I wouldn’t take two minutes while standing in an elevator to try to explain everything that makes my world meaningful or to try to convince somebody to be a moral human being, and I wouldn’t take two minutes in an elevator to try to convince another person why a life spent loving another person is a life that, although more complicated, is infinitely worthwhile. And I wouldn’t try to convince a person why a life spent being a patriot is a noble thing. There are certain conversations that don’t deserve two minutes; they deserve years of upbringing. I think we’ve gotten too used to the idea that important things can be summarized on the screen of an iPhone or a BlackBerry…”

Beinart then said: “On questions of Israeli policy and how we should respond to them, Daniel and I have very substantial disagreements. But when he gives answers like that, though I could not have stated it so eloquently, I could not more profoundly agree with what he said. I think he’s entirely right: It’s too late at that point, and the kids who ask that question have in fact been failed by our community, which says today to most American Jewish parents, ‘The most important thing you can do is to raise children with knowledge of, joy in and fascination with Judaism — but, by the way, if you’re interested in the possibility of a full-time Jewish school, you’re going to have to take a second mortgage on your house and the school’s not likely to have a gym and we don’t even know whether it’s going to be around in three years. Go for it!’ That’s precisely why we end up with kids who would ask such an insulting question in the elevator.”

Are Gordis and Beinart being too dismissive? Fein thinks so, and I very much agree with him. The sad state of Jewish education today is even more reason why Judaism can’t afford to be too dismissive or pessimistic. As Fein says, our approach should be that it’s never too late to try to light a Jewish spark.

I have a little story that connects with this idea.

A few years ago, I was confronted by a young Jewish copywriter in an ad agency who knew about my Jewish activities but who himself was totally disconnected from Judaism. He challenged me to explain why he should bother with a tradition that held little interest for him.

Instead of a sales pitch, I started with a few questions:

“Do you love your grandparents?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” he replied.

“If you could meet your great-great-great grandparents, would you love them as much?”

“Yes, absolutely,” he said.

“Now, let’s go further back. If you could meet your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, would you still love them as much?

“Yes, I still would. Why?”

“Well, close your eyes and imagine if all these grandparents whom you love were standing in a long line holding hands. Imagine that this line would stretch all the way back to the destruction of the Second Temple. Consider that for almost 2,000 years, this great line of grandparents, no matter where they lived or how much they suffered, held on tightly to their Jewish tradition. And every time they opened a prayer book or celebrated a bris, wedding or Passover seder, they expressed their deep yearning to return home to Zion and Jerusalem.

“Now open your eyes. You, my friend, are privileged to live in the generation that can get what your ancestors prayed and died for; you can see and touch the miracle of Zion they yearned for during all those centuries; you can be free to be Jewish without any fear or embarrassment.

“Imagine that this long chain of grandparents are all looking at you, hoping and praying that you will take your place in the chain. What will you do? Will you stay in the chain, or will you be the one to break it off after 2,000 years?”

I could see from his face that my words lit a spark. I don’t know if he ended up connecting to his Jewish tradition, but I do know this: It took me less than two minutes to connect him to 2,000 years — and it was worth every second.

LIVE BROADCAST: Suissa vs. Beinart – “Is Zionism in Crisis?”

Moderated by Rabbi John Rosove

This is a recording of a live broadcast from Wed. May, 15, 2012.

Beinart’s Crisis

Peter Beinart’s new book showcases its deepest flaw on the very first page, courtesy of his grandmother. From her home in South Africa, she says to her American grandson who is boasting about his country, “Don’t get too attached. The Jews are like rats. We leave the sinking ship.”

This is a curious and perhaps unwitting inversion of Jewish history. Jews have left many countries, but rarely to abandon a sinking ship. Rather, they have repeatedly been thrown overboard. There are instances when Jews left of their own accord, but those are dispiritingly few. Wandering in Jewish history was an affliction, not a choice.

Despite the many cogent and important observations strewn throughout Beinart’s just released “The Crisis of Zionism” (Times Books), his grandmother’s voice unfortunately predominates.  Are there things for which to reproach the Jewish state in the historic conflict? Of course.  But it is both unfair and unhelpful to blame Jews for a predicament largely created and perpetuated by others.

Beinart’s fluent, readable narrative goes as follows: Despite the undoubted hostility of the Arab world and the historic powerlessness of Jews, today’s Judaism has been captured by an old paradigm.  The now powerful Jewish state and its supporters feel themselves free to oppress Palestinians as they nevertheless continue to feed a victimization story to an increasingly uninterested young American Jewish community. Geriatric, shortsighted Jewish organizations such as AIPAC wield such outsized power that they force otherwise devoted liberal Zionists, like President Barack Obama, to retreat and betray their ideals.

There are important arguments in the book, if not new ones. It is hard to make a case that many of Israel’s settlements are anything but an impediment to a final resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. Granted, there are settlements and there are settlements, a distinction to which Beinart gives little attention. Ma’ale Adumim, for example, is a town of 40,000.  But 50 people planted between Palestinian cities needing to be guarded by Israeli soldiers, bent on proving that Jews can live anywhere on God-given land, are a foolish and shameful drain on the resources of the state, a calculated humiliation of the surrounding population and a deliberate sabotaging of those who would have negotiations succeed. Advocates always say that settlements are not the crucial obstacle to peace, acceptance is. That is true, but they sure don’t help.

Yet along the way to making his point, Beinart offers up some spotty history, and an inaccurate picture of both American Jewry and some of its central organizations.

Recounting the history of the conflict, Beinart repeatedly blames Israel.  The collapse of the summit at Camp David in 2000 was seen by almost everyone as a failure of the Palestinian side to respond to very generous concessions.  Despite a later campaign headed by Robert Malley, an American negotiator, to blame Israel for the failure, the overwhelming consensus endured. Not to Beinart. Outlining Israel’s presumed shortcomings, Beinart quotes the Israeli historian and former diplomat Shlomo Ben-Ami as saying: “If I were a Palestinian I would have rejected the Camp David accords.” Perhaps so. Rare is the negotiator who simply accepts the other side’s proposals. 

Ben-Ami is a noted dove, yet the quotation is a complete misrepresentation of his views. As Beinart surely knows, in a widely circulated interview in Haaretz (available online) Ben Ami said: “Never, in the negotiations between us and the Palestinians, was there a Palestinian counterproposal.  There never was and there never will be. So the Israeli negotiator always finds himself in a dilemma: Either I get up and walk out because these guys aren’t ready to put forward proposals of their own, or I make another concession.  In the end, even the most moderate negotiator reaches a point where he understands there is no end to it.”

Moreover, in trying to equally apportion blame for Camp David, Beinart neglects to mention President Bill Clinton’s widely reported recounting of his exchange with Yasser Arafat:  Clinton told guests at a party at the Manhattan apartment of former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his wife, writer Kati Marton, that Arafat called to bid him farewell three days before Clinton left office. “You are a great man,” Arafat said. “The hell I am,” Clinton said he responded. “I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”

Palestinian responsibility for the conflict seems to elude Beinart in these pages.  Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza did not occasion a flourishing of the economy and self-government, but a continuing fusillade of rockets. The fractured political culture of the Arab nations does not stop at the borders of the presumptive Palestinian state.  A thought experiment: If tomorrow the Gaza Strip, under the same conditions, with the same international concern, was filled with the population of Israel, how long do you think it would be before there were seaside resorts and software start-ups? 

Contempt for AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is a constant theme, perhaps unsurprising for a book whose launch is to be at the J Street conference. In Beinart’s pages, AIPAC is led by old men, mostly the children of survivors, whose deep intent is to sabotage moves toward peace and push the American government to the right with the help of its Evangelical allies.

In a book capable of balance and nuance, repeatedly fairness falls victim to polemics. To take one example, Sheldon Adelson (the recent benefactor of Newt Gingrich) is described as “the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, one of the largest donors to AIPAC and the more right-leaning Zionist Organization of America.”

Actually, Adelson backed away from funding AIPAC, and two different reasons have been reported. One was AIPAC’s support of the 2007 Annapolis process, which promoted the two-state solution. The other was AIPAC’s support of more aid to the Palestinian Authority. Neither sounds like the sort of policy that would be adopted by the book’s caricature of AIPAC.

Having just returned from the AIPAC Washington conference of 13,000 people, the largest ever, I can tell you that the conference was filled with young people, high school age and up, in the thousands.  Our own Sinai Temple delegation of 285 people included young and old and everyone in between.  Anything but enfeebled, the conference, which was covered on the front page of major newspapers around the country, was vibrant and exciting.

It may be true, as Beinart writes, that “listening to American Jewish organizations, one would never know that Hamas has in recent years issued several new documents, which are more compatible with a two-state solution.” Perhaps AIPAC does not push Hamas’ change of heart with quite the brio Beinart would wish, but then, mild adjustments in the language of genocide are hard to celebrate.

AIPAC’s tradition is to strengthen Israel-American ties. So it pushed — against the wishes of the Zionist Organization of America and many congress people — for withdrawal from Gaza when that was the Israel government’s policy. Unsurprisingly but also unfortunately, this stand against the right-wing agenda is unmentioned in the book. 

In his zeal to indict AIPAC with ideological rigidity, Beinart sometimes stoops to an unbecoming level of innuendo: “At a rooftop reception during the Democratic National Convention in August, one party official accused AIPAC staffers of disseminating anti-Obama material.” This unsourced charge is based on a single official accusing unnamed staffers. It is not worthy to appear in a reporter’s book.

Such sporadic carelessness mars an otherwise carefully sourced book. For example, Beinart cites Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman’s praise of American diplomat Dennis Ross as being a result of Ross’ “excessive deference” to the Israeli government. Not only did his source (The Forward) say no such thing, but his choice to belittle Ross, an able man who has managed to serve presidents on both sides of the aisle, suggests that Beinart cannot appreciate even a balanced advocate for Israel’s cause. 

A large part of the book is written to establish President Obama’s bona fides as a man who has always been close to Jews and the Jewish community.  About that there can be little doubt. In Chicago and ever since, Obama has been close to a large number of Jews. After all, his chief of staff, Jacob Lew, is an Orthodox Jew, and probably the only high executive official in American history who cannot regularly eat in the White House mess because it isn’t kosher.  The president’s cause is not helped, however, with sentences like this, Beinart’s only reference to the egregious Rev. Jeremiah Wright:

“Obama gravitated toward Reverend Wright’s Trinity Church, partly because of the church’s deep commitment to social justice, partly because it offered him the authentic African-American experience he craved, and partly because it provided him a potential power base in Chicago.” Even for someone who believes, as I do, that the president cares about Israel, this will not do to clarify his attachment to Wright, a man with a long history of inflammatory statements, who in a speech in June 2011 called the State of Israel “illegal” and “genocidal.”

When dealing with the American Jewish community, Beinart once again makes a powerful case abetted by overlooking certain inconvenient facts. In talking about the disaffection of American Jews, he might at least acknowledge that statistics are tricky.  According to the American Jewish Committee polling that has tracked attitudes for years, there is virtually no change in the numbers of American Jews who express themselves as being “close” or “very close” to Israel — in 2001 it was 72 percent; in 2010, 74 percent. The drop-off maintained in the book may seem anecdotally compelling, but doesn’t fit the facts. Similarly, against Beinart’s contentions, a recent CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America)  poll found that more than 75 percent of American Jews blame the Palestinians for the peace deadlock, and not the Israeli government.

Beinart makes an eloquent argument at the close of his book that attachment to Israel is ultimately a result of serious Jewish education. The book ends with a paean to Jewish education in general and day schools in particular. These words warm any rabbi’s heart. Beinart’s recognition of the increasing radicalism of some Israelis (those, for example, who odiously sanctify Baruch Goldstein), the destructive impact of some of the settlements and the importance of Jewish education — these are important and worthy points.  But they are embedded in a narrative that is unreliably one-sided.  Sometimes the language is inflammatory to the point of offense, as when he speaks of Israel’s alternately procedural and military operations in the West Bank as “for every act of law, a little pogrom.” The use here of “pogrom,” apart from being a-historical and irksome, is sticking his thumb in the establishment’s eye. 

Perhaps no single sentiment better illustrates the perceptual gulf than this: “The main reason Israel generates disproportionate criticism from the leftist academics, artists, and labor unionists, not to mention the General Assembly of the United Nations, is not because it’s a Jewish state, but because it’s perceived as a Western one.”

Were the British not Western when they used brutal methods to undermine the Irish Republican Army? Never mind the Middle East or Africa. And where was the repeated worldwide condemnation for the brutality of Latin American dictatorships, or the Russians when they obliterated Chechnya?  Why did none of these regimes merit the constant, unrelenting, pounding condemnation of the world? If you don’t see the specter of anti-Semitism it is not because of its absence; it is because you are either not looking or you refuse to see.

When people ask what keeps the conflict going, I invite them to imagine that tomorrow the Palestinians had the firepower of the Israelis and the Israelis the firepower of the Palestinians. Do you think the Jews would be subject to occasional harassments, resource depletion and roadblocks? Or do you suspect, do you know somewhere deep down, that the world would witness a terrible massacre? And if you think the second, how gingerly would you conduct negotiations toward statehood? 

The word “Iran” is mentioned just once in this book called “The Crisis of Zionism.” Here is the sentence: “Between them, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have missiles that can hit every inch of Israel.” This demonstrates, writes Beinart, since the threat is rockets, a state on the West Bank is, like these threats, a question of maintaining an adequate deterrent. During the Cold War, when all of America was within range of Russian missiles, I wonder if anyone would have considered it an acceptable additional threat to American security to have Fidel Castro establish a state in Texas.

Beinart’s argument for two states has tremendous support in the United States and in Israel, including among Israel’s military specialists who agree that getting to a two-state solution is essential both demographically and humanely.  But we will not get there by whitewashing the unremitting hostility of Israel’s neighbors, or deriding the American Jewish groups that have succeeded in attaining a position of influence through knowledge, hard work and cogent argumentation. 

So why the self-lacerating blame? Perhaps this is the true legacy of victimization — you think you must be at fault when things don’t go right.  It is not always so, no matter what your grandmother says.

Sunday With Beinart

I went to the pro-Israel rally in front of the Israel Consulate last Sunday for two reasons. First, to support Israel. Second, to see whether Peter Beinart was right.

The first job was easy. Israel may have poorly handled the interception of the Turkish flotilla attempting to cross the blockade into Gaza, but the extent to which Israel’s detractors have used the incident as a way to spread hate and lies is abominable. Not because Israel can’t withstand hard criticism from friends and foes, but because civilized society can’t survive in a world that demonizes Israel and lionizes Hamas.

So I was happy to stand at the rally beside a little girl whose mom had told her to hold a sign that read, “Free the Palestinians from Hamas.”

My second task at the rally was to see whether Peter Beinart was right when he wrote that increasing numbers of American Jews, especially young Jews, are turned off by the way mainstream Jewish organizations approach Israel.

In a much-discussed, 5,000-word essay in The New York Review of Books published last month, Beinart, the former editor of The New Republic, asserted that the uniformity of pro-Israel voices, and the unwillingness of mainstream Jewry to critique Israel when it strays from the liberal democratic values many American Jews share, is the reason polls show so many Jews, especially younger ones, are lukewarm to the Jewish state.

“Fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists,” Beinart wrote. “Fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster — indeed, have actively opposed — a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead. … Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral.”

Beinart blames a kind of knee-jerk defensiveness and chauvinism that is often the most public face of pro-Israel leaders and organizations. “By defending virtually anything any Israeli government does,” he writes, “they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”

The rally turned out to be an interesting testing lab for Beinart’s theory, which has been much debated, and which professor David Myers and Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa debate later in these pages.

A mass rally is, after all, a pretty blunt instrument. At this one, the message was, in reality, more nuanced than its medium. Many of the speakers, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, reminded the crowd of Israel’s longstanding pursuit of peaceful negotiations and compromise with the Palestinians. One speaker, Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, said she looked forward to the day when Israel could live side by side with a Palestinian state. Her words brought the applause to a halt — you could see imaginary tumbleweeds blowing across Wilshire Boulevard — but she was heard respectfully.

The crowd clearly preferred slogans and cheering to heartfelt analysis. It was a gathering, largely, of the hard-core. One stout, determined woman next to me paraded about a placard that read “Erdogan is a Nazi,” referring to the Turkish prime minister. Really, I thought, do we have to go there? A year ago, Israel and Diaspora Jewish leaders couldn’t do enough for the leader of Turkey.
As former Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss blogged last week, Jewish politicians performed moral gymnastics to minimize recognition of the Armenian holocaust in order not to offend Israel’s strategic ally. And now, a year later, they’re Nazis?

But the woman with the kooky sign, unfortunately, didn’t seem that out of place at the rally. The Israel supporters I spoke to who decided not to go said they didn’t quite understand the point. The flotilla incident was a PR disaster for Israel, at least in the short term — it remains to be seen how the inquiry and subsequent press coverage will play out. The question many nonattendees had was:  Do you rally every time Israel is slammed in the press?

For the estimated 2,200 people at the rally, the answer was a resounding yes. They streamed across Wilshire and up San Vicente waving blue-and-white flags, blasting air horns, cheering as speaker after speaker (after speaker) attacked Hamas, professed love and support for Israel, and slammed the Turks and the flotilla organizers. It had, to be sure, all the hallmarks of a hastily organized event — far too many speakers, who, in any case, could barely be heard on the inadequate sound system and could hardly be seen from their makeshift stage. (“Haven’t these people heard of a bima?” a rabbi in the crowd asked.) Security was of the pre-suicide-bomber variety — a large police presence but no bag inspection or magnetic resonance screening, as there is at the Israel Festival.

But in spite of that — or maybe because of it — the event had a festive spirit. Young Israelis and American Jewish kids danced and sang Hebrew songs in the rear of the crowd. Hundreds of self-identified Christians for Israel waved Israeli flags and held up placards. People schmoozed with old friends under the bright June sun, wrapped themselves in the Israeli flag — literally — and took one another’s pictures with their iPhones.

What there wasn’t at this event was a large cross section of the enormous Los Angeles Jewish community. Either this rally represented the depth of Jewish support for Israel — in which case we’re in trouble — or it failed, somehow, to galvanize the tens of thousands of Israel supporters in this city. Do the math: If hundreds of the attendees were Christian, and many hundreds more were Israeli-born, that means perhaps 1,000 American Jews were there from a community that numbers 600,000. The result was a good visual, but let’s not fool ourselves.

Looking carefully at the crowd, I noticed that a great many were well past middle age, and there were many who were very young — day-school students — and many who wore kippot. In other words, this was not a cross section of L.A. Jewry: This was a rather specific smattering.

One telltale sign was the crowd’s reaction to the speaker from Americans for Peace Now. When David Pine started speaking, he was roundly booed. Israel Deputy Consul General Gil Artzyeli, Jewish Federation President Jay Sanderson and Federation Chairman Richard Sandler urged the crowd to respect the speaker, but the catcalls continued.

In his New York Review piece, Beinart recalled a 2002 pro-Israel rally on the Washington Mall sponsored by major Jewish organizations. “Up and down the East Coast, yeshivas shut down for the day,” Beinart wrote, “swelling the estimated Orthodox share of the crowd to close to 70 percent. When the then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the rally that ‘innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying as well,’ he was booed.”

To Beinart, the boos — whether against Wolfowitz or, I suppose, Pine — send a clear message to many liberal Zionist Jews: You don’t belong at our rallies. But is it that clear-cut? It was a mainstream Jewish organization that invited Brous and Americans for Peace Now, and a mainstream Jewish leaders who defended Pine’s right to speak. And strolling through the audience, I ran into many people who would describe themselves as liberal Zionists — though yes, they might have felt more comfortable at a rally that same day in Tel Aviv, where 10,000 Israelis gathered to protest their government’s Gaza policies.

Could the particular crowd and catcalls at the Wilshire rally mean that Peter Beinart is right? I’m not certain of that, but I am of this: When it comes to Israel, Jewish leaders must be judged not by the passions they exploit, but by the passion they instill.

Flotillas, a New Center and Other Questions for Peter Beinart

Jewish Journal: In your essay, you wondered “what Israel’s leaders would have to do or say to make the heads of AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference scream ‘no.’ “  Take the Israeli response to the first aid-bearing flotilla in the waters off of Gaza. Should American Jewish leaders have screamed “no” to that?

Peter Beinart: I would distinguish the actions vis-à-vis the flotilla and the actual embargo itself. Israel may have made a tactical screw-up in the way it tried to intercept these ships, but once the Israeli commandos found themselves in these circumstances, I think one has to be sympathetic to their situation. What needs to be discussed and acknowledged is that the embargo is not simply an attempt to prevent Hamas from gaining the materials to build rockets; it is also an attempt to try to use collective punishment to turn the people of Gaza against Hamas.

JJ: Watching protests around the world in the wake of the flotilla incident, can you as easily dismiss the idea that some anti-Israel sentiment is actually anti-Semitic sentiment?

PB: I don’t think I’ve ever said that no anti-Israel sentiment is anti-Semitic sentiment. I just think that we should reserve the phrase “anti-Israel” for people who don’t want Israel to exist as a Jewish state, not apply it to people who are just harsh critics. And on “anti-Semitic,” you need to show that there is some genuine animus towards Jews, of Jews-qua-Jews. I’m not suggesting that that doesn’t exist. It certainly does exist, in the rhetoric of Hezbollah and Hamas, for instance, and certainly in the government of Iran.

Did you expect the reaction you got to the essay?

PB: A lot of people told me that I should be worried. Overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I guess there’s been a lot of criticism, but there’s nothing wrong with criticism. 

JJ: Some have taken issue with your choice to publish the essay in The New York Review of Books (NYRB). 

PB: You know, there are actually not that many places out there these days where you can publish a long, somewhat serious essay and have it be widely read. I also think that a lot of the criticism of the NYRB has been unfair. It did publish that Tony Judt piece in 2003 — which I would disagree with — but I don’t think that any publication publishes as many important Israeli intellectual voices, from David Grossman to Avishai Margalit to Bernard Avishai, as does the NYRB. And I don’t think of those people in any way as anti-Zionist.

Are you staking out a new center? Or are you reacting pragmatically to a new demographic and political situation in Israel?

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I am staking out a new center. I mean, I’m not even an Israeli. What has struck me, reading the debate on the blogosphere, is that the binational state position is becoming a less marginal position. I think it is gaining ground in liberal circles, and I could imagine it gaining more ground if you have several more years of no real progress. So, in that sense, I think I do represent a centrist position. I would urge people to my right to acknowledge that if you kick the critical Zionists out of the tent, you may well find yourself confronting increasingly in the future a group of people who are not Zionists at all.

JJ: I’ve read that you were brought up Orthodox. 

PB: I don’t know where that got started. I wasn’t. We grew up in a Conservative synagogue. Gradually, we kind of gravitated toward Kesher [Israel, in Georgetown] for various reasons.

For instance?

PB: Well, as I said in the piece, I have a great admiration for the emphasis on Jewish education —which is the answer for Jewish continuity — that you tend to find at Orthodox synagogues, and certainly at Kesher.

Since we’re on the subject of education. You wrote: “I was raised to love Israel and I will teach my children to love it.” How were you raised to love Israel? And how will the way that you teach your children to love it differ from the way that you developed your Zionist identity?

PB: Hmm. That’s a good question. I was raised to love Israel in a couple of different ways. Partly it was a sense of Israel as refuge. My grandmother, she’s South African, she had a big impact on my life. She was born in Egypt, spent her childhood in Belgian Congo, and she’s really seen the precariousness of Jewish life in the Diaspora. I also had some sense growing up of the richness of Israeli culture, of the quality of Israeli discussion, of the quality of Israeli intellectual life, of the fact that in some ways, Israel has a more robust culture of self-criticism than even the U.S. — even though Israel has been in a more precarious neighborhood than the U.S.

For my kids, I suppose they probably won’t identify as much with the idea of Israel as a refuge growing up in the United States. But I hope to instill in them a sense of the extraordinary drama of Jewish return and Jewish peoplehood playing itself out, and for them to take some of the same delight that I do in watching the unusual mosaic that is Israel. And even as I worry sometimes, I really admire what Israel has been able to accomplish.

Helen Thomas and Peter Beinart


Helen Thomas is American journalism’s crazy old aunt in the attic. Peter Beinart is a starry-eyed nephew. She loathes the state of Israel; he claims to love it—though both sided with the so-called Free Gaza flotilla that tried to break Jerusalem’s naval blockade and allow the arming of the terror group Hamas, which has been firing rockets at Israeli civilians. Both Thomas and Beinart have caused a stir in recent weeks with their comments about Israel—not about the flotilla episode in particular but about the Jewish state more generally.

Thomas, White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, showed up at the White House’s May 27 Jewish Heritage Celebration, where she gave an interview to Rabbi David Nesenoff of Late last week Nesenoff posted a clip from the video on YouTube. Here’s the transcript:

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