The Crisis of Peter Beinart

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On March 19, the New York Times published an excerpt — covering almost half the op-ed page — from Peter Beinart’s new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” in which Mr. Beinart proposed boycotting Jewish communities in the disputed territories of the West Bank. By day’s end, an extraordinary array of more than 20 prominent bloggers — left, right, and center — had dismantled Mr. Beinart’s op-ed.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg not only rejected the boycott, but wrote “I am not that interested in debating Peter’s new book, which I’ve just finished reading, because I find his recounting of recent Middle East history one-sided and filled with errors and omissions.” Having just finished it myself, I can confirm the errors and omissions in Beinart’s 196-page text could fill a book.

One of the most stunning error/omissions — it falls in both categories — is Mr. Beinart’s mistaken reliance on a 1910 essay by Vladimir Jabotinsky, which Mr. Beinart used to support his theory that “the reason is simple” why Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t trust Barack Obama (whom Mr. Beinart calls “the Jewish President”): “Obama reminds Netanyahu what Netanyahu doesn’t like about Jews”:

Understanding what Netanyahu doesn’t like about Jews requires understanding what Vladimir Jabotinsky didn’t like about Jews. … What Jabotinsky didn’t like about Jews was their belief that they carried a moral message to the world. … “The Bible says ‘thou shalt not oppress a stranger; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt,’” wrote Jabotinsky in 1910. “Contemporary morality has no place for such childish humanism.

Mr. Beinart found the above quotation in a secondary source. It is unlikely he read Jabotinsky’s 12-page essay before using it as the crux of his analysis, because Mr. Beinart not only egregiously misstated the theme of the essay; he even misinterpreted the two-sentence quote.

Mr. Beinart might have liked the essay if he had read it. Understanding it requires understanding the aftermath of the July 4, 1910 heavyweight championship fight between Jack Johnson, the son of emancipated slaves who was defending his title, and Jim Jeffries, the former champion who had retired undefeated after refusing to fight black men, and who returned from retirement to, as he told the Los Angeles Times, “reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.”

The nation was transfixed by the fight. The betting heavily favored Jeffries, who had trained for nine months. A magazine article declared it “is no exaggeration to say that the entire world will await [the movie] of the fight.” Jack London covered the fight for the Philadelphia Inquirer and wrote the next day: “Once again … Johnson sent down to defeat the chosen representative of the white race, and this time the greatest of them.” The immediate result was race riots across the nation, with dozens killed, almost all black. By July 7, more than 40 cities had banned the film, a censorship supported by some religious authorities, the New York Times, and former President Theodore Roosevelt.

Two weeks after the fight, Jabotinsky – a 30-year old journalist in Russia – published his essay. It began as follows:

The reporter of the Russkiye Vedomosti has informed us from America regarding the latest acts of violence against the blacks. … When it became clear that Johnson won, a black man victorious over a white man, it was as if with an agreed-upon signal, crowds rose across the country and perpetrated violence upon the blacks.

Blacks have become accustomed to these unpleasantries. But this incident was out of the ordinary for whereas these things happen regularly in the South, this time violence against blacks was committed in the northern cities as well. The usual excuse is a rumor that one of the local colored persons attempted “again” to rape a white woman which leads to a crowd of thousands gathering, searching for a black man to lynch … This time, though, there was no such excuse. … [White citizens] sought to quash black pride and fell upon blacks in a proportion of fifty-to-one, smashed heads, trampled people and even acted cruelly to women and children.

Jabotinsky then asked what made such outrages possible:

The United States, the most free republic on earth, the land whose political existence is the result of an uprising, is where 10 million citizens reside with a shocking lack of rights just because of the color of their skin. Previously, they were slaves. Later, the Northern states demanded an end to slavery and declared war on the Southern states … The blacks were recognized as free citizens, with full and equal rights of the great republic.

Since then, almost fifty years have passed but if we were to relate seriously to this “equality of rights”, not only would a black but also a white person would laugh in our faces. The inequality of this kind is incomparable to anywhere else in the cultured world even if also we included in this flexible definition Russia and Romania.

Mr. Beinart would have been impressed with the moral outrage in Jabotinsky’s description of the situation facing blacks:

Theaters are closed to him, hotels, railway cars and schools. He is assigned special railway cars and narrow separate compartments on trams. The schools for the black children are built separate from those for the white children. They are cheaply constructed, inadequate and dirty. The political rights of the black citizen, “free and equal”, come to naught. …

Almost every summer the same event will be repeated: a young black man will make a gesture in a light-headed fashion, his hand outstretched towards a white woman … the lady’s escort will cry out that this was an attempt at rape and within five minutes, a large crowd will gather and the hunt for the black men will commence. … [C]itizens of the Republic, who are not intoxicated, who know how to read and write and who finished, in most cases, high school, who are dressed in proper clothes and starched shirts, push their way through, using their elbows, towards the black man to strike him with canes and clubs. … [W]hen some come to the police chief and request assistance, he shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I am unable to help. I’m too short-handed’, a response we Jews know well …

In a country such as this, and in such an environment [with widespread literacy and manners], racial hatred appears, not by happenstance, but year in and year out, in various forms that are worse than the Kishinev pogrom

The conflict between peoples, Jabotinsky wrote, seemed a sickness even the “popular vote and schools cannot heal,” since democracy and mass education had not cured it in the United States, half a century after the Civil War. Then he noted — in the paragraph Mr. Beinart partially quoted — that even oppressed people oppressed other peoples (Jabotinsky cited Germans who re-united themselves and then divided the Poles; and the Poles themselves, who after being oppressed by Germans, oppressed the Ruthenians):

Only in the Bible is it written: “You should not wrong a stranger nor should you oppress him; for strangers you were in the land of Egypt”. In our contemporary code of morality there is no room for this type of slobbering love and childish humanism of fellow man it would seem.

Looking only at the paragraph in isolation, in a secondary source, Mr. Beinart mistakenly assumed Jabotinsky was endorsing an amoral “contemporary code of morality.” Had he read the entire essay, he would have realized Jabotinsky was observing that even in the best countries, even in the most civilized circumstances, contemporary morality disregarded Biblical injunctions and was not sufficient to protect an oppressed people.

Jabotinsky’s conclusion was that power was necessary for Jews to survive, and that assimilation in Europe would not ultimately protect them. Three decades later, he was proven tragically correct, in the most cultured and sophisticated countries in Europe.

Contrary to Mr. Beinart’s caricature, Jabotinsky “towered high above all the other Zionist leaders between both world wars in his culture, sensibilities, and intellectual horizons,” wrote Shlomo Avineri in “The Making of Modern Zionism” (1981), the secondary source where Mr. Beinart found his quote. Jabotinsky rejected the elevation of class over Jewish identity in Labor Zionism, which saw Jews as “workers” establishing a socialist heaven and denigrated Jews in other classes. For Mr. Beinart, liberalism likewise ultimately trumps Zionism, which has created a crisis for him.

Which is why, in this poorly researched, poorly written book, Mr. Beinart ends up proposing a boycott of other Jews, and deems Mr. Obama more Jewish than Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Richman is editor of Jewish Current Issues.


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