Last week, just before Rosh Hashanah, I ran across Peter Beinart’s “The American Jewish Cocoon” online. Uh-oh, I thought, when I first saw the article’s title. Happy New Year to us.
But, as I’ve tried to do for some time (see the mention in “Among the Literati” from January 2012), I wanted to at least attempt to absorb what Beinart had to say. Because back when my primary acquaintance with his overall critique was “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” I sensed in his writing an authentic concern for Israel’s long-term health and viability–and I believed that I might be able to learn from his work.
Alas, I’ve since realized that I’m not Beinart’s therapist, and I can’t presume to know what motivates him. All I can say with any surety is that my faith in learning from his work had begun to erode even before this new opus appeared.
Some of the uneasiness came with the launch of his book, The Crisis of Zionism (I found Rabbi David Wolpe’s take on that situation at the time quite persuasive). Some of it had to do with Beinart’s March 2012 New York Times op-ed advocating a “settlement boycott,” a commentary rendered even more troubling by the fact that its publication coincided with a deadly attack on a Jewish day school in France, prompting Jeffrey Goldberg to comment: “You know what? I find it unpleasant to talk about boycotting Jews on a day when Jewish children have been murdered for being Jewish.” And some of it had to do with some of the writings I noticed over time on Beinart’s “Open Zion” blog.
Then came this new piece.
The gist of “The American Jewish Cocoon” is that insofar as Palestinians and their experiences may be concerned, many, if not most American Jews inhabit a “cocoon” of ignorance (at best) and ill will, predicated on their adherence to a perception of the world in bifurcated us/them terms. I was frankly relieved that others–like “Elder of Ziyon” and Yair Rosenberg and Gil Troy (whose rejoinder Beinart has, to his credit, published on Open Zion)–rapidly provided detailed and comprehensive responses that covered many of my own concerns and disagreements and ably revealed the blind spots and narrowness–dare I say, the “cocoon”–of Beinart’s own vision.
Yes, one can find a few lines buried in Beinart’s latest text to suggest that circumstances might actually be a little more complicated than his commentary otherwise indicates. More than halfway through the piece, for instance, Beinart admits that the American Jewish community “does not bear all the blame for its lack of interaction with Palestinians.” But, as the others I’ve already cited make clear, such acknowledgments don’t go far enough.
Beyond all of that, what I still can’t help thinking is that if Beinart really wished to address the inhabitants of the alleged “cocoon” of his article’s title, he might have attempted to reach them elsewhere. In my experience, The New York Review of Books is already required reading for a cohort that, far from burying its collective head in pro-Israel sand, is pretty well-read in Palestinian narratives and in criticisms of Israel. The academics and writers I know who subscribe to The New York Review of Books (I was once one of them) tend also to read The New York Times and The Nation and an array of venues and voices that spend a great deal of time, ink, and bandwidth criticizing Israel and describing the experiences–particularly painful experiences–of Palestinian individuals and communities (with the exception of painful Palestinian experiences that can’t by any stretch of the imagination be blamed on Jews or the Jewish State).
In other words, if Beinart really wanted to preach to an audience beyond those–Jews and others–who are already inclined to indict Israel whenever they’re given the chance, he might have taken his message elsewhere. Perhaps, in attempting to engage a different slice of American Jewry, he might have sought out one of the many American Jewish publications known for publishing diverse viewpoints. (I would count Tablet, Moment magazine, and The Forward, all of which I read routinely and all of which publish material that, from time to time, unsettles me, as examples.) Then again, perhaps only an echo chamber—or a certain type of cocoon—would agree to publish this particular piece.
All of this was on my mind when Beinart baited me on Twitter yesterday afternoon. I’m not going to repost those tweets, but you can certainly go search for the various posts and responses if you’re so inclined; all you need to know is that I most likely wouldn’t have written this blog post at all if not for Beinart’s egging me on.
So, to an extent, Beinart “won” this round. He provoked me to write this post (when I could have been finishing one of three books due back at the library this week, or going for a run, or reading all of the fall arts preview sections I haven’t touched yet, or taking care of any of the other things that I need to do when I’m not at my day job). And he cost me a few followers.
Maybe he’ll realize that this “victory” has cost him the last shred of respect that I may have had for his work and any remaining interest I may have had in understanding his views. Maybe he’ll care that he has only exacerbated my own dismay concerning a different “us/them” divide, one that I increasingly sense within the American Jewish community itself, a separation between those American Jews who habitually render smug judgments on Israel from afar and those who anguish over the complexities that face the Jewish State and people.
But somehow, I suspect that none of it will matter.