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Zionism and Its Discontents

By Susie Linfield
Fall 2012

Books Discussed in this Essay:

The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart Times Books,
2012, 289 pp.

The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg
HarperCollins, 2011, 325 pp.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar
and JT Waldman Hill and Wang, 2012, 172 pp.

Underground to Palestine and Reflections Thirty Years
Later by I.F. Stone Hutchinson & Co., 1979, 260 pp.
(first publication, 1946)

At a downtown Manhattan dinner party several months
ago, the name of a widely respected journalist—author
of an acclaimed book on genocide in Africa—was
mentioned. This is a man whose work, though not immune
to criticism, is generally regarded as brilliant and
humane. “Why, he’s a Zionist!” one guest hissed, with
the contempt that in previous eras would have been
reserved for fascists or members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Everyone at the table seemed to nod with
satisfaction—we’re done with him!—until I said,
somewhat stumblingly, “Well, I am too. I mean, I
believe in a state for the Jewish people.” The other
guests—left-wing academics, accomplished people, smart
people, good people, some of whom I not only like but
love—looked dumbfounded. An embarrassed silence ensued.

I thought about that evening as I read Peter Beinart’s
The Crisis of Zionism, which insists that an end to the
Israeli Occupation and a rejuvenation of that country’s
democratic institutions are equally exigent and utterly
interdependent tasks. The book’s main argument is
simple, yet essentially right: “Our tradition insists
that physical collapse was preceded by ethical
collapse….Israel’s physical survival is bound up with
its ethical survival.” Beinart, former editor of the
New Republic, pleads for liberal American Jews (those
who, unlike my dinner-party friends, still believe in
both the possibility and necessity of a democratic
Jewish state) to re-engage, urgently, with the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict rather than leave it to rich
reactionaries such as Sheldon Adelson and Ronald Lauder
and, increasingly, the Orthodox. (Of the typical donor
to mainstream American Zionist organizations such as
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Beinart
writes, “What he is buying for Israel, with his check,
is American indifference—indifference to Palestinian
suffering and indifference to the principles in
Israel’s declaration of independence.”) In Beinart’s
view, Jews need to undergo a kind of shift in
consciousness from victim to actor (thus mirroring the
shift in consciousness demanded by the original
Zionists): a shift, that is, “from Jewish powerlessness
to Jewish power.” How to govern an independent state
and live in the world as modern citizens—not (just) how
to survive—is the Jewish people’s contemporary

“We are not history’s permanent victims,” Beinart, who
attends an Orthodox synagogue, insists. “Many of our
greatest challenges today stem not from weakness but
from power….Accepting that the Jewish condition has
fundamentally changed requires looking to our tradition
for guidance about how Jews should treat the people we
rule, not just how we should endure treatment from the
people who rule us.” Only the establishment of real
borders—only the establishment of a Palestinian
state—can prevent Israel from becoming a permanent
ethnocracy in which Jews rule over millions of
stateless, vote-less, rights-less people, and in which
its own democratic institutions, such as the Supreme
Court, are routinely flouted: “The struggle for a
liberal democratic Zionism, therefore, . . . must also
be a struggle to satisfy the Palestinians’ national
yearning for a state of their own.”

I am grateful that Beinart wrote this book; I hope that
it reaches those outside of the “shtetlsphere,” and
even that it changes a few minds. But there is not much
in it that is either deep or new. The Crisis of Zionism
is a good book—and what’s rarer, a necessary one—but it
is also unremarkable. One can find all of Beinart’s
ideas—not to mention ones that are considerably more
radical—in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz any
day of the week. (See, for instance, Bradley Burston’s
July 3 column, written in response to the Netanyahu
government’s proposal to establish an Israeli
university in the West Bank settlement of Ariel—a clear
statement by the government that it considers the Green
Line meaningless. Burston, who lives in Israel and
describes himself as “a person who has long embraced
the label of Zionist,” argues that, with such
proposals, “the [Zionist] revolution’s over…[It is]
time to think seriously about what democracy really
means. Time to think seriously, for example, about what
it would mean to give the Palestinians in the West Bank
and East Jerusalem the vote….We should call our own

Given the level of alarmed debate and self-criticism in
at least some major sectors of the Israeli press, the
tsunami of vitriol that has descended on Beinart and
his book is fascinating, puzzling, and profoundly
depressing. Negative—sometimes savage—reviews have
appeared not only in the usual suspects such as
Commentary and the Wall Street Journal but also in the
New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post,
Tablet, and the Jewish Review of Books, among others.
(J.J. Goldberg of the Forward accurately observed that
the book has caused “normally high-minded publications
to come unhinged.”) A startling cognitive dissonance
prevails between the essential moderateness of
Beinart’s book and the sarcastic fury it has inspired
in mainstream publications. Alana Newhouse, writing in
the Washington Post, described Crisis as “a political
stump speech” and a “fantasy” that erects a “self-
satisfied and delusional monolith, calculated to appeal
to”—the cruelest cut—“beautiful souls”; Jordan Chandler
Hirsch in the Jewish Review of Books called it
“shallow,” “false,” and “simplistic”; Jonathan Rosen in
the New York Times Book Review derided it as “an
antiquated act” of “Manichean simplicities” that
“liberates” itself from “the practicalities of
politics”; Bret Stephens, in Tablet, found the book to
be “emotionally contrived” and “an act of moral
solipsism” that is simultaneously “oleaginous” and
dripping with “icy contempt.” Beinart himself has been
attacked for using too many researchers and too many
secondary sources, for abstraction, for nostalgia, for
pathologizing Jewish politics, for his “safe and
comfortable lifestyle,” and even for not discussing
“the state of Palestinian agriculture…before 1967.” It
all seems a bit meshugana. Writing about the Beinart
debate in Haaretz, Mira Sucharov mocked the absurd
competition in which (guilty) American Jews vie with
each other: “Who loves Israel? Who likes Israel? Who is
ambivalent, who feels smitten, and who feels lust? Who
wants to get married to Israel? Who wants to keep
things platonic? Who prefers to be ‘frenemies’?”
Reading the American reviews en masse, one gets the
distinct impression that the writers doth protest too

Beinart’s book is, of course, hardly flawless.
Profound, it is not. More specifically, he underplays
the long and continuing history of Palestinian
terror—not to mention the ayatollah in Iran and the
eager martyrs of Hezbollah—and, therefore, the fears of
Israelis. (That Israel is strong and, simultaneously,
faces real dangers is no oxymoron; those who ridicule
Benjamin Netanyahu’s frequent evocation of 1938
shouldn’t deny that 2012 holds quite enough perils of
its own.) As Hebrew University professor David Shulman
explained, in his review of Crisis in the New York
Review of Books, “We’re afraid. We’ve been so
traumatized, first by our whole history and then by the
history of this conflict, that we want at least an
illusion of security, like the kind that comes from
holding on to a few more rocky hills.” But fear and
strategy are two different things: too often, an
unexamined, almost Pavlovian, response links
acknowledgment of Israel’s fierce enemies with
continuance of the Occupation, as if the former
necessarily justifies the latter—or, even more, as if
the latter protects against the former. Au contraire:
Shulman describes the Occupation as “irrational, indeed
suicidal”—a policy that endangers both the Israeli
state as a whole and individual Israelis—and comes to
the same conclusion as Beinart: “The likelihood must be
faced that unless the Occupation ends, there will also,
in the not so distant future, be no Jewish state.”
(Shulman’s main quibble with Beinart’s book is that its
description of the Occupation is “far too mild.”) And,
it should be remembered, there are many—many!—books
that discuss the irredentism and political pathologies
of the Palestinian movement, such as Benny Morris’s
2009 One State, Two State.

Beinart was aiming to do something different: his book
is not a history of the conflict (much less a report on
Palestinian olive groves). He was trying to address
American Jews as American Jews, to impress upon us the
catastrophe of the Occupation for Israelis as well as
Palestinians, to make clear that a two-state solution
is on the verge of becoming impossible, and to argue
why we should care. The aim of Zionism, after all, was
never (just) to secure a parcel of land, or to provide
self-defense, or even to offer refuge, though it
encompassed all three. From the beginning, the movement
also embodied the stirring vision of a Hebrew
revival—cultural, political, ethical—to be based, as
the Israeli Declaration of Independence put it so well,
“on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught
by the Hebrew Prophets” and on “the full social and
political equality of all its citizens.” Israel was
always—like the United States—both a country and a set
of ideals. Thus, Beinart writes, “If Egypt fails to
become a democracy, I will consider it unfortunate. If
Israel ceases to be a democracy, I will consider it one
of the greatest tragedies of my life.” His book is,
essentially, addressed to those like Paul Krugman, who
recently admitted on his New York Times blog, “Like
many liberal American Jews…I basically avoid thinking
about where Israel is going.” Beinart wants Krugman to
understand that the tragedy will be his, too, even if
Krugman has the luxury—for now—of believing otherwise.

The other major shortfall of Beinart’s book is its
proposals. He advocates, first, a boycott of
“nondemocratic” Israel, that is, of exports from, and
investments in, the Occupied Territories. Although some
Israelis have embarked, whether officially or not, on
such a boycott, it seems to be a practical
impossibility for Americans to figure out what comes
from where, and to buy or invest in only supposedly
clean products. (In any case, as Noam Sheizaf wrote in
the Israeli webzine +972mag, “The occupation is…an
Israeli project. It is not the work of the racist
settlers…but the decision of the entire society.”)
Aside from practical problems, there are political
ones, too. Though Beinart opposes a general boycott of
Israel and Israeli institutions, his proposal can only
be confused with the broader Boycott, Divestment and
Sanctions movement—whose aim, contra Beinart, is to
ostracize and weaken Israel.

Beinart’s second proposal is even worse—and, not
incidentally, unconstitutional: a call for the U.S.
government to fund Jewish schools. He believes this
would strengthen Jewish life in this country; I believe
it would ghettoize it. (If you want to send your kid to
Hebrew school or Jewish day school, pay for it or find
someone—maybe Sheldon Adelson?—who will.) In any case,
with this demand Beinart clasps hands, somewhat
inexplicably, with right-wing evangelicals who would
erode the separation of church and state—and whose
increasing influence among American Zionists is
terrifying to anyone who wants to see an end to the
Occupation rather than the second coming of Christ.
That church-state separation is, of course, one of the
glories of American democracy, and one that is now
under assault. “American Jewish liberals need to
recalibrate their fears” about government funding,
Beinart argues. I don’t think so.

There is a repetitive quality to the debates over
Israel; this consistency is one of the most frustrating
and bleakest things about it. When it comes to Israelis
and Palestinians, history has repeated itself far more
than once: though never, I would argue, as anything
approaching farce. It is therefore not surprising to
find that almost everything that’s worthwhile in
Beinart’s book—and more—can be found in Gershom
Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel, which was published
last year. Gorenberg, a historian and journalist, lives
in Jerusalem and describes himself on his website as “a
left-wing, skeptical Orthodox Zionist Jew.” His book is
solidly researched and elegantly argued. It combines
history and analysis, love and anger. Somehow, it
avoids moralism. If you read one book on Israel, this
should be it.

“I am concerned that the state of Israel is steadily
dismantling itself,” Gorenberg begins. He describes the
Occupation as a weird mutant: a rogue operation that
undermines the authority of the state and yet is
supported by it. And he argues that the three main
threats facing Israel are internal, and inextricably
entwined: “the ongoing occupation, the fostering of
religious extremism, the undercutting of the law by the
government itself.” In answer to those on the left who
insist that a so-called one-state solution is
inevitable, and to those on the right who argue that a
besieged Israel has no alternatives to the path it has
chosen, Gorenberg insists that change is possible and
that choices exist. This calm, sane voice—this belief
in reason and freedom, in power and responsibility, in
possibility—are among Gorenberg’s greatest gifts to the
reader. “History is not an inevitable process, of
redemption or of decay,” he avers. “It is not written
in advance….The changes I’ve described—ending the
occupation, guaranteeing full equality, separating
state and synagogue—require a much smaller revolution
than did the establishment of the country.” But there
is nothing dewy-eyed about Gorenberg’s analysis, and he
knows that a huge and possibly unbridgeable chasm
exists between what is possible and what will be.
Israel’s “democratic ideals,” he warns, “are on the
verge of being remembered among the false political
promises of twentieth-century ideologies.”

Slowly, carefully, devastatingly, Gorenberg shows how
the settlements and the more recent “outposts” have
made a mockery of Israel’s rule of law—of how, that is,
they contravene not only international laws but
Israel’s own. Take, for instance, Ofrah, which was
built, according to an Israeli government report, “with
no legal basis” on land owned by Palestinians. In fact,
Ofrah was constructed “without government permission,
with the express goal of undermining the foreign policy
of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin,” Gorenberg writes.
“Ofrah epitomizes casual disregard for property rights
and for the land-use laws of Israel’s military
government in occupied territory. Yet…it has benefited
from…a legal system that mocks equality before the law,
applying entirely separate rules to Israeli settlers
and Palestinians in the same territory. Ofrah …is where
the state of Israel unthinkingly attacks its own
foundations.” As for the Israeli Supreme Court—often
proudly cited as a bedrock of Israeli democracy—its
rulings against settlements and outposts have been
routinely flouted. “The Supreme Court justices…are
painfully aware that the proceedings in settlement
cases have become a mockery,” Gorenberg writes. “The
government…would not end its collusion with the
settlers. So Supreme Court hearings became theater,
disconnected from the real world.” Some of Beinart’s
critics have accused him of trying to impose an inapt
American-style democracy on Israel; but what kind of
democracy, under any definition, is this?

I don’t think that Gorenberg is a Marxist, but he is
certainly a dialectician, and it is in contradictions
that he finds the meaning of Israel’s history, the
source of its present dilemmas, and the possibility of
its reclamation. (Debating whether Zionism is a
democratic liberation movement or an oppressive
colonial one is, he writes, “like a debate over whether
water is really oxygen or really hydrogen.”) The most
fascinating part of his book is his analysis of how the
settlements, now so associated with the Right, grew out
of Israel’s left-wing, indeed revolutionary, tradition.

For the early Zionists, settlement meant the
ennoblement of physical labor, development of the
economy, military defense, the securing of land and
eventual borders, and the building of socialism. But
with the declaration of independence and the victory in
1948, Zionism was no longer a revolutionary opposition
movement but, rather, had morphed into a nation-state
that “had achieved self-determination.” It was the
subsequent victory of 1967 that, in Gorenberg’s words,
“pulled the settlement ideal from the grave and gave it
an unnatural new life.” The new settlers, like their
forefathers, saw themselves as rebels. But against
what? The state they were defying was not the British
Mandate but, rather, their own, and the strategy that
had been used to establish borders was now used to
annul them. In this analysis, the settlements represent
the true tragedy of Zionism: the failure to make “the
transition from revolution to institution, from
movement to state.”

While those who long for the old Israel—the pre-
Occupation Israel—are often accused of nostalgia, it is
the settlers, Gorenberg implies, who are guilty of the
deadliest nostalgia of all. “From July 1967, all those
involved in settlement saw themselves as serving
Zionism. In fact, they were doing the opposite. They
were living backward, turning a state into a movement.
Stone by stone, they were dismantling the state of

Thus, Gorenberg’s book can be read as an indictment of
the strategy, much beloved by Trotskyists, Maoists, and
various other ultra-leftists, of “permanent
revolution.” The Unmaking of Israel is a great warning
about the ways in which a liberation strategy can
become a tool of reaction, and of how a kind of
political arrested development can reverse even the
most progressive achievements. American readers may be
reminded, unhappily, of our very own Tea Party, which
insists that its anti-tax revolt—so deeply injurious to
the social safety net and to the very idea of a common
good—is actually the fulfillment of Jefferson’s and
Paine’s revolutionary ideals. Neither Israeli settlers
nor American Tea Partiers seem to have noticed that
their respective countries won their wars of
independence, that the governments they are attacking
are not foreign tyrannies, and that the programs they
espouse represent dysfunction and chaos rather than

Gorenberg’s critique of what we might call Zionism’s
political immaturity is shared (and, in some cases, was
predated) by others—and not only one-staters or anti-
Zionists. A decade ago, the Canadian-born writer
Bernard Avishai, who divides his time between Israel
and the United States, wrote that “Zionism’s central
ideas, while sound in their time, were never meant to
serve as the organizing principles of a democratic
state….Three generations after the Zionist revolution
succeeded, Zionist ideas had become wrong.” Avishai
argued that it is not only the “misguided messianism”
of the settlers that must be fought; basic government
institutions that by definition favor Jews over Arabs,
such as the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Land
Authority, should be disbanded. These institutions made
sense in the context of building—that is, becoming—a
state, but their fundamentally anti-democratic
character is now indefensible.

I wish that the late Harvey Pekar could have read Peter
Beinart’s book; I would love to know what he would have
thought. (Pekar died, age seventy, in 2010.) In the new
graphic novel Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me,
Pekar, longtime writer of the American Splendor comic
strip, and illustrator JT Waldman explore the
conundrums that Israel presents for liberal and left-
wing Jews. “For centuries Jews endured horrible
suffering and like other people deserve the right to
self-determination, but the current trajectory of
Israel frightens me,” Pekar writes. The book’s title is
far more polemical than its content; Pekar poses
wistful, difficult questions rather than launching
complaints or attacks. Not the Israel My Parents
Promised Me is also, as fans of American Splendor would
expect, frequently hilarious, though in a wry and quiet

Pekar tells us that he never went to Israel, “but it’s
been a part of my life since childhood.” His parents
were Polish Jews who were enthusiastic
Zionists—supporters, that is, of a Jewish state—though
his mother was also “an ardent Marxist.” (In one panel,
we see her reading matter: a book or pamphlet whose
cover boasts a Star of David and a hammer and sickle.)
Pekar takes us through his childhood in Cleveland,
including the rather traumatic preparation for his Bar
Mitzvah. “Harvey, there’s a thin line between genius
and crazy and you’ve crossed it,” his Hebrew-school
teacher observes before kicking him out. (Ultimately
Pekar’s dad finds an “old guy,” a private tutor, who
teaches Harvey well.)

Much of Not the Israel documents Pekar and Waldman’s
travels, albeit somewhat idiosyncratic, through Jewish
history. (To understand contemporary Israel, Pekar
says, “You gotta look at the big picture, including the
old stuff.”) Pekar and Waldman start with the really
old stuff—Abraham—and take us up to the present. At one
point, Waldman sums up Jewish history as “hope, fear,
redemption, remembering not to forget…yearning for an
impossible future…All the ingredients for a perfect
Jewish homeland.” This slight book presents, of course,
a vastly truncated history, but that—along with its
tone of almost childlike understatement—is part of its
charm. Of the seventeenth century, Pekar writes,
“Scholars argue about how many thousands of Jews were
murdered by the Cossacks. Suffice it to say it was not
a good time to be Jewish and in Eastern Europe. After
that, things just stayed bad for Jews.” While this
might not say quite everything, who can disagree with
such a reasonable assessment?

As a boy, Pekar cheers the founding of the Jewish state
and, later, Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. But in
the 1960s he begins “hanging out with Marxists and
leftists,” and doubts about Israel’s political
development, and the Occupation, emerge. (“Did they
just ply you with dope and alcohol and get you to turn
against Israel?” Waldman asks Pekar, referring to
Harvey’s new friends.) The building of the settlements
causes particular angst: “Gevalt! Are these people
serious?” Pekar asks. “These guys think that just
because we Jews have suffered horrible injustices for
centuries that virtually anything they do to advance
the cause of Israel is legal.”

Nonetheless, sometime in the mid-sixties, an aimless,
unemployed Pekar—who has already been sacked by the
U.S. Navy “because I couldn’t wash my clothes
right”—considers emigrating to Israel. The book’s
funniest section ensues as Pekar learns, alas, that the
ingathering of the exiles includes every Jew in the
world except Harvey Pekar. “It would be a big mistake
for you to go to Israel,” warns Mr. Cohen, the Israeli
official with whom Pekar meets. Perhaps, Pekar asks, he
could join a kibbutz? “They wouldn’t take you, and if
they did, they’d throw you out,” Cohen explains. Not
one of Pekar’s admittedly few skills impresses Cohen in
the least. (“Music critic? We don’t need music critics
in Israel!”) Pekar concludes, “What the guy was saying
was that I was a loser, and Israel had no time to
rehabilitate schmucks….Israel probably had enough
trouble with neurotic American Jews.”

Pekar avoids easy, cheap resolutions and comes to no
definitive conclusions about Israel—though he does
reject Waldman’s suggestion to “send the Jews to outer
space. Everyone will be happier if we’re out there.”
Near the end of this tale, we see Pekar sitting in the
library with, quite literally, nothing to say: all the
learned books cannot, apparently, provide a solution to
what often seems like the world’s most intractable
conflict. Yet the book concludes on a lovely, and less
desolate, note. In the Epilogue, written by Pekar’s
widow, Joyce Brabner, we learn that she gave Pekar a
Jewish burial, though one without a rabbi or cantor. “I
was…determined to organize something for him that was,
as he was, proudly Jewish, but not nationalist,”
Brabner writes. “A friend…wrote and guided a gentle
service in which he substituted Cleveland, instead of
Israel, as Harvey’s place of belonging.”

Those who believe that “you gotta look at the big
picture, including the old stuff” to understand
Israel’s contemporary dilemmas have many sources, but
one of the best is I.F. Stone’s Underground to
Palestine, originally published in 1946. This is not
because a revisiting of post-Holocaust emigration to
Israel somehow justifies the Occupation, any more than
Hamas’s crimes do. But Stone’s account of his illegal
boat trip with a group of (mainly young) Holocaust
survivors, from an unnamed port in Europe to Haifa, is
a rich reminder of why the establishment of Israel was
not an imperialist project, why much of the Left at the
time supported it, and why Israel would win its war of
independence two years later. “They have nothing to
lose,” Stone observes of his comrades on this trip.
“Such people, in such a mood, are not easily defeated.
They who knew the SS are not terrified by the British.
They who saw the gas chambers are not frightened by a
naval blockade….I say here what I said in private to
Azzam Bey Pasha, head of the Arab League, over coffee
in Cairo….‘ Nothing will stop the people I traveled
with from rebuilding a great Jewish community in
Palestine.’” Stone’s book—like its successor, This Is
Israel, published in 1948—is also an excellent reminder
of Britain’s unforgivably destructive Mideast policies
as it cynically extricated itself from the Mandate.
Here, truly, was the colonial power, aligned with some
of the most reactionary forces in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq,
and Palestine. “The British government wants the Middle
East to remain an area of backwardness,” Stone charged.
“They offer freedom neither to the Arabs nor to the
Jews….The world will yet see that this is a struggle
from which Britain will emerge with shame, but not with
victory.” Here, I would suggest, is a key to the
obsessive anti-Zionism that pervades the British Left

My edition of Stone’s book contains an addendum
entitled “Confessions of a Jewish Dissident” and “The
Other Zionism,” which consists of pieces published in
the New York Review of Books in 1978. Sadly, much of
what Stone wrote then could be written today, though
the political situation—among both Israelis and
Palestinians—is infinitely worse now than it was
thirty-five years ago; indeed, that time seems almost
innocent in retrospect. Stone does not disown his
former Zionist comrades—nor his medal from the
Haganah!—and he does not rue the founding, and the
existence, of the Jewish state. But he writes that, as
an opponent of the Occupation, he is ostracized by the
mainstream Jewish community (“Commentary has become the
principal pillory for Americans who dissent from the
Israeli hard line”—talk about consistency!), and his
views receive more of an airing in Tel Aviv than in New
York. Of Israeli politics, he observes, “Yet the center
of moral gravity in the Zionist movement has moved
steadily rightward. It is hard to find any trace of
that prophetic ethic…in Prime Minister Begin.” Most
important, he delineates what, in 1978, was the only
solution to the conflict—which, in 2012, is still the
only solution to the conflict: “The two peoples must
live together, either in the same Palestinian state or
side by side…But either solution requires…a recognition
that two peoples—not one—occupy the same land and have
the same rights….Reconciliation alone can guarantee
Israel’s survival.”

Every July 4, starting in the 1960s, my father would
hoist an American flag over our house in Fire Island.
(As it happens, I.F. Stone lived a block away from us,
and he was a figure of much reverence.) This was at the
height of the Vietnam War—which my father had opposed
since the Tonkin Gulf resolution (“It’s a phony!” he
presciently claimed)—when stars and stripes were
associated with the likes of Richard Nixon and Spiro
Agnew and Richard J. Daley. “Why should they own the
flag?” my father, a proud WWII veteran, asked. “The
flag belongs to us too!”

I think the same about the current debates over Israel.
Why should Mortimer Zuckerman—or Mitt Romney or, god
forbid, Christians United for Israel—be described as
“pro-Israel”? Alternately, why should we on the left
disown the founding principles of Zionism, and its
great achievements, because of what post-’67 Israeli
governments have done—any more than we have disowned
socialism because of what the Soviet Union became? The
“actually existing Zionism” of Sharon and Netanyahu is
not the only possible kind, regardless of what Adam
Shatz or Philip Weiss or Jacqueline Rose might say.

If Beinart’s book—and those that preceded it—do any
good, it will be by helping to reframe the discussion
over Israel. And so, to make clear: Ending the
Occupation is pro-Israel. Disbanding the settlements is
pro-Israel. (Indeed, Gorenberg calls this “the
authentic Zionist task of the moment.”) An economically
vibrant Israel is pro-Israel. The restoration of
secular, democratic Israeli institutions is pro-Israel.
Borders are pro-Israel.

Some on the left, including the Israeli Left, have
argued that it is already too late for all this: the
Occupation has lasted too long, the settlements have
spread too far, a two-state solution is no longer
possible. “Israeli settlements are a by-product of
Israeli democracy and not a negation of it,” Joseph
Dana, a Jewish-American journalist based in Tel Aviv
and Ramallah, recently argued in the National. But the
question of two-state viability is no longer being
posed only by anti-Zionists or binationalists. Longtime
Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin recently wrote an
anguished column in the relatively centrist Jerusalem
Post about what, he fears, is the imminent death of the
two-state solution—and, therefore, of his “Zionist
dream.” “I see a great disaster about to unfold,” he
warned. “I simply cannot understand why people are not
shouting ‘don’t let this happen!’…What do we do when
partition is no longer possible?…The two-state
solution…is no more than a speech, empty words on paper
with absolutely no value any more.”

And so the question we need to ask, and answer, is not
whether Peter Beinart loves the Jews but whether
Gershon Baskin’s despair—or, alternately, Gershom
Gorenberg’s belief in political possibility—is right.

Susie Linfield’s book The Cruel Radiance: Photography
and Political Violence has recently been published in
paperback and is being translated into Italian and
Turkish. She directs the Cultural Reporting and
Criticism program at New York University, where she
teaches journalism.


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