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The Anatomy of Life and Death

In 2010 the New York Review of Books published a now-famous essay by former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, who argued that liberal Zionism was on the decline in Israel and that the "American Jewish establishment," led by tribalist organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, was partly to blame.  Since then, his thesis—that Israel is caught in a self-destructive spiral, and only American diplomatic pressure and enlightened American Jewish activism can break it—has hardened into conventional wisdom.

Relevant Links
Hear, O Friends of Israel  Daniel Johnson, Jewish Ideas Daily. A British intellectual explains why the anatomy of Israel’s survival is of concern to more than Jews alone.
Teach Your Tongue to Say “I Don't Know”  David Wolpe, Jewish Journal. When a nation struggles with the threat of being vaporized in a nuclear conflict, to call its policies on the West Bank and Gaza “the great question of the age,” as Peter Beinart has, is myopic at best.
J Street's Last Hurrah?  Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily. No amount of wordplay may suffice any longer to make the case that pushing the Jewish state back to indefensible borders is the “pro-Israel” thing to do.

The "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization J Street, acting on this wisdom, has raised funds for Israel's critics in the U.S. Congress and set up meetings on Capitol Hill for Richard Goldstone, author of a controversial UN report that accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza.  J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami chastises the Jewish state and mainstream Jewish leadership for being insufficiently concerned about Israel's moral and political corruption.  "The level of thuggish violence originating on the West Bank continues to grow," he wrote in a typical statement last year, "in an atmosphere in which parliamentary actions and rabbinic statements are clouding the country's and our people's commitment to Jewish and democratic values.  Where," he wondered, "is the voice of our communal leadership here in the United States to set this right?"

But J Street is not alone.  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman opined that the applause for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress last year was "bought and paid for by the Israel lobby."  Adam Kirsch recently wrote for Tablet that John J. Mearshimer and Steven M. Walt's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, though it was widely denounced at the time of its publication, has scored a victory by making the phrase "Israel lobby" part of our language.  Public discourse has undergone a poisonous shift that belittles Israeli democracy and mischaracterizes the work of pro-Israel groups in the United States.

It is a relief, therefore, to read veteran Israeli journalist Hirsh Goodman's new book, The Anatomy of Israel's Survival.  Goodman is no apologist for Israel, but his book makes what has become a novel argument: Why not recognize that Israel is a complex, dynamic, and democratic country and, well, sort of leave it alone?

Goodman leans left in his diagnosis of Israel's problems.  He thinks Israel bears responsibility for perpetuating a century-old conflict with the Arab world.  Large, influential Israeli political constituencies tend toward illiberalism and support policies that threaten to undermine the country's international standing and leave it "living in a self-imposed ghetto of security fences, watchtowers, and armed patrols."  He says West Bank settlements "waste resources, they complicate any prospect of peace, they compromise Israel as a democracy, and they give ammunition to Israel's enemies." 

Even more urgently, he sees Israel buckling under the weight of "morally debilitating and destructive" internal contradictions.  "If I were to draw a gun and shoot a Palestinian throwing a stone on my street in Jerusalem," Goodman explains, "I would be locked up for a long time.  If I did so in Kiryat Arba or Jewish Hebron, I would be a hero."

Yet Goodman believes Israel's talented citizenry and nearly-unbreakable sense of national purpose are capable of facing down these challenges.  Its military is strong enough to meet threats from Hamas, Hezbollah, and even Iran; its scientists have built things like "a nano-drone the size of a butterfly powered by solar energy" and pioneered technology that provides "a young major in an intelligence base near Tel Aviv with more information about what is going on in [Iran] at any given time than is known to the Iranian president himself."  Those in the next generation of Israeli leadership "have fought their wars, and they know what the country needs for its future."

Moreover, Goodman says, Israel's civic spirit is inclusive and pervasive enough to incorporate both Haredim and the country's Arab citizens.  "No one is asking Haredim to stop being Haredi, Israeli Arabs from being Arabs, or the Bedouin from being Bedouin," he writes.  "The goal," instead, is a society "that is proud to be heterogeneous and tolerant, Jewish and universal."

For this reason, Goodman inveighs against the obsession of Israeli government and pro-Israel groups with the country's so-called "de-legitimization."  Israelis know that their country's existence is real, legal and permanent, and the fact that Israel's legitimacy is even an acceptable topic of discussion is deeply insulting to Goodman.  To join in the de-legitimization debate is to lower Israel to the level of its most racist critics while distracting from its more urgent public diplomacy imperatives. "Instead of apologizing for the past," he says, those who speak for Israel "should be conditioning the world for the future"; they should be "making sure the world understands now that if there is another war in Gaza or Lebanon, or both, the consequences will be ugly."

Goodman trusts that the nationalism of problem-solving, civic obligation, and national self-confidence will defeat the nationalism of settlement, occupation, and endless public relations trench warfare. But can it?  His solution to the problem of integrating Israel's Arab citizens is required national service; given the deep social and historical rifts between Israel's Arab and Jewish communities, this idea is wishful thinking.  Concerning peace, Goodman detects a "consensus towards conciliation" on both sides of the Green Line; but even if this is true, it is difficult to see how such a consensus can become policy while Hamas rules Gaza, the Palestinian Authority pushes for unilateral statehood, and the Israeli government takes no meaningful steps towards curtailing settlement activity.

Still, given the alternatives, Goodman doesn't need to be entirely convincing.  After all, if Israel can't solve its problems, who else is going to solve them?  The United States?  An often-hostile international community? Jeremy Ben-Ami?  Even if Goodman's "anatomy" sometimes seems delusional in its optimism, it is convincing in its argument that there is no alternative to an Israel capable of growing and progressing, of setting itself right.  Despite his country's numerous missteps, flaws, and contradictions, Goodman is fully convinced that an Israel capable of such self-correction is the Israel he lives in.  Given the nature of the country's would-be American saviors, he had better be right.

Armin Rosen is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared on the Atlantic and the New Republic's websites, and in Tablet magazine. 

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Allen Z. Hertz on February 16, 2012 at 7:44 am (Reply)
The left-liberal assault on Israel has driven me to a few years of study and reflection. In this sometimes painful process, I have drawn on what I have learned in a lifetime studying history and law. I have come to two central conclusions that answer much of what Beinart and his ilk have to say about Israel. First, from the perspective of human rights methodologies, Jews, Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel are "owed" both fairness and sound social science. This means, inter alia, that Israel "must" be judged by the same standards regularly applied to other countries in the same or similar circumstances. And the modern meaning of anti-Semitism includes persistently targeting Israel and persistently applying to Israel a more exigent standard than is regularly applied to other countries in the same or similar circumstances. Second, the Jewish people has long-affirmed and internationally recognized aboriginal rights to its homeland in the same way that the Greek people has rights to Greece and the Native American Indian tribes have rights to their tribal lands. See, "When does criticizing Israel become antisemitic?" (also in Hebrew and Chinese) and "Jewish aboriginal rights to Israel." In these troubled times there is a real need for dialogue. In this context, it would be a great pity if it is imagined that there is not a lot to say in defense of Israel.
Cynic on February 16, 2012 at 7:53 am (Reply)
The idea that "Israel bears responsibility for perpetuating a century-old conflict with the Arab world" is at odds with the political facts and and blames Israel's pig-headed refusal to disappear and accept once more for its people the dismal status of second-rate citizens of the world. The guy wants a multicultural world but finds it offensive to accept the fact that some cultures are the polar opposite of one's way of thinking and acting. In projecting his own thinking--cognitive egocentrism--he accomplishes nothing, as he ends up talking at cross-purposes and has learned nothing from the experience of the past 19 years: Some cultures have a history of more than a thousand years of violence against others, and only in the last century did one make an effort to come to terms with another; but from the current scene, that effort seems short lived.
Steve - Tel Aviv on February 16, 2012 at 8:54 am (Reply)
I agree that Israel is a " complex, dynamic, and democratic country" and we should "well, sort of leave it alone." Yes, we screw up and make poor decisions. Yes, we have a tension between world views that sometimes creates the false impression of one view dominating all others. But in the end this robust democracy allows for a boisterous public examination of itself, the true sign of a healthy society.

We in Israel have a culture and world view that are often at odds with American Jewry--not better or worse, but nevertheless different. This exercises the so-called left-wing "pro-Israel" camp, the likes of "J Street," which often cloaks itself in caring about Israel's moral and ethical choices. In the end, these organizations always seem to be about the self-righteous, self-important leaders who have created this arena because they are not wanted by or excluded from the more radical left organizations that show their antisemitic fangs at every opportunity. This includes the Michael Lerners of this world, who try to outdo the radicals who have all but iced them from the left-wing arena. In the end, J Street and Tikun are really just left-wing voices that try to out do the anti-Semites in their often bogus criticism of Israel. What we need is for American Jews to spend more time getting to know us more closely, and we need to understand how Jewish independence in the United States manifests itself. Then maybe we can learn to respectfully disagree without bad feelings or animosity. Maybe we can even learn from each other: This is not an either/or situation.
Independent Patriot on February 16, 2012 at 9:37 am (Reply)
Liberals think they can tell Israelis how and when they can defend themselves, while these self-proclaimed leftist saviors of Judaism sit safe and secure in their McMansions in another part of the world.
Herbster on February 16, 2012 at 12:11 pm (Reply)
Beinart, Friedman, and their ilk are not Jewish. Their religion is liberalism. The sooner all recognize that the left has no religion other than the state and, by definition, liberalism, progressivism, or whatever the latest definition is, the better off we will be. Recognise these people for what they are and are not. Obviously, they do not understand the true meaning of the Bible and God's word. If they have, understood it, it clashes with their statist beliefs; so, guess who and what they decide to follow? "I will bless those who bless thee and curse those who curse thee."
Avi on February 16, 2012 at 4:49 pm (Reply)
Jewish liberals in the United States should stop pestering Israel about their point of view--as soon as Jewish conservatives in the United States do the same. When Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moskowitz stop their dramatic financial support for the Israeli political right, I'll stop sending my modest checks to J-Street. Deal?
Larry Snider on February 17, 2012 at 4:58 am (Reply)
It's easy to take a broad brush and define Beinart, Ben-Ami, Friedman, and others by by their most controversial remarks. It's good that Hirsh Goodman believes Israel has the chops to take care of itself. The truth is complicated by history, politics, and the desire to be recognized as an independent state even by those that it will not grant independence to. Peace is obviously very tough slogging. It requires a great deal of public support from both peoples, and that requires a great deal of purposeful dialogue and heavy-duty two-track diplomacy on the ground throughout the breath and width of a land that is shared by two peoples with three religions each and every day.
Raymond in DC on February 19, 2012 at 8:43 am (Reply)
Re non-Israelis telling Israelis what to do: The story is told of a senior Israeli official being hectored by his U.S. counterpart about what Israel "must" do. Finally in exasperation the Israeli told him, "Look. Were we to do everything you're calling for, we are the ones who will live with the consequences, while if you're wrong, you go back to your home in Chevy Chase [a tony suburb of Washington]." What's missing in all the demands put on Israel is humility. Israelis must live with the consequences; so maybe they do know what's best, and people should cut her some slack. Recall that Tom Friedman berated Israel for failing to embrace the "Arab Spring." Well, now Islamists ae taking over in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Israel was right, and Friedman was wrong (not that he'll ever admit it).
vernue on February 19, 2012 at 3:02 pm (Reply)
"If I were to . . . shoot a Palestinian throwing a stone on my street in Jerusalem, I would be locked up for a long time. If I did so in Kiryat Arba or Jewish Hebron, I would be a hero."
Not only is his reasoning obviously false, but he perpetuates stereotypes that are just as false. One of his sophistication certainly knows better. The law is the same in Kiryat Arba as in Jerusalem. If you use deadly force to stop a likely murder, you are a hero. But deadly force is only justified if one has virtual certainty of the deadly intent and sufficient means of the perpetrator. Otherwise, whether you are in Jerusalem or in Kiryat Arba, you will have considerable trouble with the law.
Herbster on February 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm (Reply)
Tom Friedman was wrong about Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. When was Friedman ever right? Reading his questionable writings brings one word to mind: "certifiable."
Robin Benveneste (Esq.) on February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm (Reply)
Peter Beinart's wild claims have already been debunked. He claimed, for example, that young Jews today are not supportive of Israel because the state is not sufficiently "liberal." The evidence shows, to the contrary, that young Jews are as committed to Israel as their parents were, if not more so. (Google discussion on the subject by Stephen Kuperberg, Leanorad Saxe, Stephen Cohen, among many others.) The author of this piece frets too much about the likes of J Street and Peter Beinart. They represent a viewpoint, but it is not the mainstream one.

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