In a State Over Israel
In "The Crisis of Zionism," a former editor of the staunchly pro-Israel New Republic now urges sanctions to force the country to change its West Bank policy.
Bookstore shoppers who spy "The Crisis of Zionism" on a shelf could be excused for assuming that the book is an up-to-the-minute work about Zionism's biggest crisis: the one brewing in Iranian uranium-enrichment facilities. But Peter Beinart is more interested in threats to Israel, or to the idea of Israel, supposedly coming from the Jewish state itself.
Mr. Beinart is not one of those Jews who flee their heritage and then seem to spend the rest of their lives harping at those who stayed behind. He attends synagogue and sends his children to Jewish schools—these are his "credentials," he says. He doesn't want to sever ties with the Jewish community; he simply wants the community to embrace his way of thinking.
Here is what he thinks: Israel is an oppressive, apartheid-type state. Its failure to attain peace with the Palestinians can be blamed on the actions of—in no particular order—Israel's leaders, American-Jewish organizations and Orthodox Jews (bigots to a man, in his telling). Because of these bad actors, Mr. Beinart warns, the "liberal Zionist dream"—a Jewish state built on liberal ideals—risks demise. He focuses in particular on the West Bank, the area captured in 1967 by Israel from Jordan in the Six-Day War. "If Israel ceases being a democratic Jewish state," he writes, "it is less likely to be because Arab armies invade the West Bank than because Israel permanently occupies it."
The book's theme is a rehash not only of shopworn complaints about Israel but also of Mr. Beinart's own complaints about Israel—"The Crisis of Zionism" grew out of an essay that he wrote in 2010 for the New York Review of Books. That piece drew attention mostly for its novelty: A Jewish former editor of the staunchly pro-Israel New Republic magazine was attacking the Jewish state. Two years later, the novelty is gone.
The challenge for Israel's critics is to reconcile the evil state they describe with the reality of a country that treats its Arab citizens well—far better, in fact, than most Arab countries treat their own. Israeli-Arabs, for example, enjoy the right to vote, sit in parliament, and have state-funded schools and religious courts.
Mr. Beinart attempts to resolve this contradiction by claiming that there are two Israels: one within the country's original 1948 borders and one outside, where "occupation . . . desecrates Israel's founding ideals." But in truth there is only one Israel. Mr. Beinart fails to appreciate that Israel is in a state of war and that Hamas—which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2006—is a terrorist organization (recognized as such by the U.S.) that seeks to destroy what it calls the "Zionist entity."
But while Hamas's charter openly declares this destructive goal—and Hamas fosters attacks on Israel with rockets and suicide bombers—Mr. Beinart blames Israel for not doing everything to "find a diplomatic solution." He also attacks Jewish leaders for focusing on the wording of the Hamas charter and ignoring the group's other, less extreme documents. If only Hamas listened to Mr. Beinart.
Israel isn't the brute occupier of the land beyond the 1948 borders that critics make out either. For an example of brutality in the raw, you need only look to next-door Syria. While Israel is a Goliath in strength, it has David's conscience. Its military code stresses maintaining "humanity even during combat." At the root of this conscience lies the Jewish faith.
Prayers and festivals are a continuous reinforcement of Jewish law's strong code of ethics. On Passover, for instance, Jews think back in history and ponder what it's like to be held in slavery. In daily prayers, Jews praise God (Psalm 146) as the one who "brings justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry." As noted by Britain's Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a leading Orthodox Jewish thinker, Jews are commanded to emulate God, and Psalms is one of their guides.
But in Mr. Beinart's attempt to portray Orthodox Judaism as the problem, he takes extreme examples and portrays them as the norm. He quotes Hershel Schachter, a rabbi from Yeshiva University, saying in 2008 that if Jerusalem were ever surrendered to the Palestinians, Israeli soldiers should "resign" and "shoot the rosh hamemshala," or prime minister. Rabbi Schachter later apologized and said that his comments weren't serious (which Mr. Beinart doesn't tell readers). Regardless, they're certainly not representative.
Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the most influential rabbis of the 20th century, who as Mr. Beinart notes taught Rabbi Schachter, declared in 1967 that settling the "land for peace" question—in which Israel would give land to the Palestinians in exchange for a guaranteed end to hostilities—was one best left to national-security experts, not rabbis. If those experts deemed it necessary, he said, Israel should even give up the Western Wall, one of the most sacred Jewish sites in Jerusalem. Rabbi Soloveitchik died in 1993, but the rabbi's legacy is still very much alive. Eminent scholars such as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein—Rabbi Solovetchik's son-in-law and top disciple—have signaled assent to similarly painful concessions.
Mr. Beinart is likely to test the resolve of even his most sympathetic readers with the marching orders he issues in "The Crisis of Zionism." These include boycotting, protesting and sanctioning anything that originates in Israel's West Bank "settlements." He urges readers to lobby the U.S. government to "exempt settler goods from its free trade deal with Israel" and to demand that Israel mark their point of origin—"then we should stop buying those products and stop investing in the companies that produce them." Mr. Beinart targets even those Jews who live in West Bank areas likely to remain part of Israel in any land-for-peace agreement. Tough luck, Mr. Beinart says, they should either renounce their "tribal privilege," whatever that means, or "move."
In many ways, critics compliment Israel by holding the country to higher standards. Israel isn't just an ordinary state; it's the continuation of a story beginning in history's most famous book, the Bible. And one of Judaism's greatest legacies is the belief that tomorrow can be better—even as existential threats and true crises loom.
Mr. Freedman, the director of strategy and policy analysis at The Soufan Group, a strategic-intelligence consultancy, is the co-author of "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al Qaeda."