- - Friday, April 27, 2012

By Peter Beinart
Times Books, $26, 289 pages

Jews often joke that you can summarize almost any holiday as “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” The notion of victimhood and how events such as the Holocaust have shaped Jewish history have been central to much of the debate over Israel and the crisis in the Middle East.

An increasingly vocal group of Jews has tried to frame the argument differently. They contend that the focus should be on the morality of Israel’s current policies and support for Israel shouldn’t just be based largely on the fact that Jews suffered terrible atrocities, such as the Holocaust.

Peter Beinart, an associate professor at the City University of New York, eloquently makes that argument in his provocative book “The Crisis of Zionism.”

“We are not history’s permanent victims. In a dizzying shift of fortune, many of our greatest challenges today stem not from weakness but from power,” he writes. “The fact that Israel wields power does not mean it faces no external threats. But it does mean that Israel plays a larger role in shaping those threats than American Jewish leaders generally admit.”

Mr. Beinart seemingly has read almost every scholarly and general-interest book and article written on the subject. And although he has strong views, his argument is based on an extensive analysis of the subject, and the narrative doesn’t descend into an emotionally laden diatribe.

Nevertheless, when he summarizes the views of those who take a more hawkish view on Israel and are more reluctant to make concessions to the Palestinians, he overemphasizes the occasionally racist comments made by extremists.

In addition, he is especially critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and accuses him of not being sincere about wanting peace. He contends that the Israeli leader has a practice of “using (and sometimes even inventing) Palestinian transgressions as a rationale for shirking Israel’s own obligations.”

Mr. Beinart also dismisses the concessions made to the Palestinians by other Israeli leaders, such as former Prime Minster Ehud Barak, as insufficient and disingenuous. He notes that many of the proposed maps would have divided up Palestinian territories in such a way that they would consist of noncontiguous areas. In addition, Mr. Beinart is alarmed by those Israelis who want to design a policy that would keep Israel a majority Jewish state even if it means ignoring demographic trends.

While Mr. Beinart makes good points, his unwillingness to acknowledge any merit in the views of his opponents weakens his argument at times. The ultimate resolution to the crisis probably will involve pieces of the arguments offered by those on both sides of the ideological divide.

The author also notes that attitudes toward Israel are shaped by demographic trends in the United States. He argues, correctly in my opinion, that as younger, less religious Jews assume more influential positions in American advocacy groups, those organizations are likely to push the American government to exert more pressure on Israel to improve its treatment of Palestinians and make major concessions.

Mr. Beinart notes that when President Obama came into office, he pressured Israel to change its Palestinian policy but has backtracked a bit because of concerns about the support of Jews in the upcoming election.

Among the best parts of this book is the discussion of the liberal rabbis and lay leaders who have influenced Mr. Obama’s thinking on the Middle East:

“Woven into the life stories of many of the Jews who most influenced the young Barack Obama was a bitter estrangement from the see-no-evil Zionism of the American Jewish establishment. In Chicago, those Jews constituted a geographical and moral community, a community [that] bred in Obama a specific, and subversive, vision of American Jewish identity.”

Some conservatives have tried to minimize the arguments made by these liberals by branding them with the unfortunate moniker of “self-hating Jews.” That clearly is not the case, and their arguments are worthy of consideration and respect, even if one disagrees with them.

Mr. Beinart expresses his views in an engaging manner, and his historical analysis will help those on both sides of the issue better understand this complex subject. Many people will disagree with his position, but after reading “The Crisis of Zionism,” they will have a better understanding of why he believes what he does.

• Claude R. Marx regularly reviews books for the Boston Globe and the Weekly Standard.

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