Peter Beinart ’93 visited campus Wednesday as a guest of the Joseph Slifka Center and J Street U, the campus outreach arm of J Street, a Washington lobby group that describes itself as an advocate for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. J Street has been especially critical of the current Israeli administration. Beinart argues that tensions between Zionism and liberalism are driving a wedge between the Jewish state and American Jews.
Beinart is wrong about the relationship between American liberals and Israel, though he is correct that there is a force trying to drive a wedge between them — J Street and Peter Beinart.
J Street has been duplicitous about its initial funding from George Soros, a man who takes the ridiculous position of blaming anti-Semitism on the state of Israel and the American government, and it is equally manipulative about its agenda. While its co-founder, Daniel Levy, was caught on tape calling the establishment of Israel a “mistake,” the group publicly represents its anti-Israel sentiment as pro-Israel activism. J Street proponents’ consistent attempts to weaken the U.S.-Israeli relationship and to embolden anti-Israel forces in the Middle East, who believe the Jewish state is a settlement to be dismantled, reveal their true intentions.
Meanwhile, Beinart’s writing has focused exclusively on the downside of the power that protects the Middle East’s only secular, liberal democracy. Both his first and most recent books — “The Good Fight” and “The Icarus Complex” — are meditations on the misuse of American might. They warn that dire consequences will befall America and her allies should that power assert its will on the rest of the world, even to foster our democratic allies. While the idea might be philosophically interesting and help assuage liberal guilt, Beinart ignores a brutal reality: Israel has no choice but to remain powerful. In a region in which many dangerous forces, within and without, would seek to destroy the Jewish state, Israel must be equipped to defend itself. Whatever Beinart’s dreams and ideals may tell him, international law and the good will of American Jews will not sufficiently protect Israel or the Jewish people from existential danger.
Israel’s government sees daily criticism, which the Beinarts of the world feel it deserves. That criticism is levied within its own Knesset, which includes Arab members, in its free press, much of which caters to writers of the J Street sentiment, as well as in its universities.
Naturally, some Jewish-American students will be turned off by Israel. Jewish-American leaders and writers like Beinart convince these young minds that their first mission is to serve as perpetual critics of a beleaguered country for which criticism of its politics is often a synonym for completely rejecting its basic right to exist.
If Jewish-American students need to reassess Israel, it is, in my opinion, important to ask why they are made to feel guilty for admiring a Jewish democracy, one of the first countries in the Middle East to give Muslim women the right to vote. Perhaps it is time for Peter Beinart to pursue a career that actually defends liberal values, for both Jews and Muslims, and doesn’t attack them.
Shmully Hecht is the co-founder and rabbinical advisor of Eliezer, the Jewish society at Yale.
Correction: October 29, 2010
An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Israel as “the first country in the Middle East to give Muslim women to the right to vote.” The first country to do so was Turkey, in 1930.