Power and Weakness in Zion

By Daniel Greenfield

The liberal deconstruction of Zionism begins with the Jews as the victims and ends with the Jews as oppressors. To understand their mindset it is enough to see a protest banner of the Star of David transformed into a Swastika paralleling the journey from concentration camp victim to concentration camp guard.

There is a certain amount of historical revisionism in play here, and not just the obvious kind.  The left had been calling Zionists, Fascists and later Nazis, before there was a modern State of Israel and before the left was hard at work pretending that it cared about Muslim militias and clans who would later be rebranded as the Palestinian people. A meaningless name up there with the South American people.

The reason why the left damned the Zionists as fascists had nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with the left’s rejection of a unique national identity for the Jewish people. Even the left leaning Zionist movements still linked nationalism and ethnic identity in a way that the left found reactionary, at least as applied to the Jews. Had there been no Arabs in Israel, the left would still have denounced Zionism for daring to assert a national right for the Jewish people.

Peter Beinart’s splashy new book, The Crisis of Zionism, follows this same tired old path, attacking Jews for acting like concentration camp victims when they really ought to own up to being concentration camp guards. Beinart and his defenders pretend that they are cutting edge provocateurs, when they are really advancing tiresome arguments that depend entirely on the postmodern left’s construct of victims and oppressors.

If the world could indeed be divided into the oppressors and oppressed, a tidy line in which countries can be assigned to one category or another based on their GDP and firepower, then the worldview of the left might make sense. But oppressor is not the opposite of oppressed and power is not the opposite of weakness. And even if they were, power relationships are not so simplistic that they can reduced to an on and off switch.

In the leftsphere, the powerful have to contemplate the ethical uses of power and the powerless have to uplift themselves through resistance to the status quo. According to Beinart, Israel having become powerful can no longer act as if its concern should be the safety of its people, but must now focus on resolving the plight of the Muslim armed militias and their fictitious claims to nationhood, which they have not been able to resolve despite billions in aid and control of their own towns and cities.

This polarity of power creates a safe space for self-righteousness, but is detached from the complexity of real power relationships. Israel’s strength is often a weakness, as attacks like Beinart’s demonstrate while the Palestinian Arab weakness is actually a strength because it allows them freedom from responsibility and consequences. This paradox of power is one that the left’s polar view of power makes possible.

A rational view of power measures it against responsibility and obstacles to upholding that responsibility. Israel’s power does not exist in a vacuum of privilege, it is measured in proportion to the responsibility that it has and the threats that it faces. As the custodians of the rights and lives of a people that has repeatedly faced genocide, its power must be proportional to the ability to resist another genocide.

These concerns are not victimhood, they are the proper sphere of its responsibility to the power granted to it by its own citizens. The majority of Jews did not move to Israel out of some idealistic model of liberal Zionism. Most came as refugees.

What Beinart does not seem to grasp is that Israel is not a nation of socialist experimenters. Had Communism, Nazism and Islam never existed, maybe that would have been the case. Instead the bulk of its population fled Europe, Russia or the rest of the Middle East. It is a nation of refugees. Beinart and Roger Cohen may sneer at them for exploiting their victimization, but the bottom line is that they moved from nations where they had no rights, not to their property, their persons or their lives, to a nation where they did.

This is not ancient history, even by the standards of those who view the Holocaust as ancient history. Syrian and Iranian Jews continue to flee. The last Yemeni Jews have just now left Yemen. And a new wave of migration is taking place in Europe under the pressure of the Islamic colonization of countries like Sweden and France.

Israel isn’t just a nation of refugees from two generations ago. It is a nation of refugees right now. The failure to understand this simple fact reduces all the sanctimonious rhetoric of the left to hot air. Listing the number of hypothetical missiles that Israel might have, its industries, its cities and its army does not change that simple fact.

This is not a statement of victimhood, but of responsibility. A nation’s responsibilities derive from its citizenry. While there is a small percentage of the descendants of a comfortably ensconced socialist elite that would like Israel to focus on treating the Muslim militias like an oppressed minority, the majority of the country wants safety and security. That is why the Israeli left has imploded and the center-right has been in power for quite a while now.

Liberal American Jews map on their own preoccupations with majority power onto Israel, but they fail to realize that their preoccupations are a luxury. They have grown up in a way of life buffered from the realities that Israelis deal with on a day to day basis. They have the privilege of weakness, they can play around with power relationships to see what it feels like. Sometimes they get killed doing it, but in the absence of an organized genocide the threat to them is personal, not collective. When a show weakness doesn’t just get you killed, it gets everyone killed, then suddenly weakness becomes a luxury that no one can afford.

Jewish leftists who mock what they call a preoccupation with the Holocaust are demonstrating their own privilege and their ignorance of that privilege, of the buffers that keep them from living the way that their ancestors did. Or of living the way that Jews in Malmo or other parts of Europe do now.

The Jewish left has misunderstood the Holocaust in the same way that they misunderstood September 11, viewing them as individual events, rather than the unexpected intrusion of an ongoing reality into the lives of ordinary people. That reality is still ongoing. It has not gone away because the court jesters of the left sneer at it. The ridicule only makes its return that much more unexpected for those who accept the sneering into their worldview.

Israel has never embraced power for its own sake, nor has it ever had a great deal of it. Its leaders have hardly been universally wise and good men, they have often been as bad as the leaders of any other country. But on a national level, they did not have enough power to spare except to use it except as an immune system against something much worse.

Israel does not maintain checkpoints because it likes humiliating Beinart’s Muslim friends. It maintains them because the alternative is dead children on burnt out buses and a resumption of the same Israeli raids on terrorists that would make Beinart and his friends even angrier. The separation barrier is there for the same reason. As is virtually every other security measure. These are not abuses of power, they are forms of restraint that prevent the necessity for the use of greater power.

Like so much of the middle class, Israel has achieved enough power to be free of the privileges of weakness, but not enough to achieve meaningful security. Its in between position always leaves it in danger of slipping and that means it does not have the luxury of extensive ethical debates about its use of power though it engages in them anyway, far more so than Beinart’s model of Obama.

Beinart plays the old game of blaming Netanyahu, but if Netanyahu is to blame, then what do we make of a continued failure of the peace process under every single Israeli Prime Minister from the right, the left and the center? Has the situation dramatically changed for the better that Netanyahu is to be berated for it? Beinart’s indictment of Netanyahu is that he does not appear to want peace enough to satisfy the perception of critics like him which is a circular absurdity. The proofs for it could have been leveled at every single prime minister from Rabin on.

Beinart positions Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf of Chicago, who never saw an anti-Israel petition he wouldn’t sign, as Obama’s role model of liberal Zionism. But if Wolf and Obama represent liberal Zionism, then it is a Zionism that is completely indistinguishable from Anti-Zionism.

These absurdities show that there is nothing new about The Crisis of Zionism, it is a restatement of all the old dusted off nonsense with very little thought put into it. Beinart claims that there is a crisis of Zionism, using his selective definitions of what Zionism is. And using those selective definitions, a Zionist Israel is completely unworkable. The only type of Zionist state that Peter Beinart would accept is one that could not exist. To implement Beinart’s version of Zionism, Israel would have to destroy itself. This nicely summarizes everything wrong with the left.

Joining together with J Street, Beinart repeats the usual claim that he is speaking on behalf of a new generation of American Jews that is far more critical of Israel and must be heard. Assuming that this is the case, then why does J Street remain so marginal? Surely an organization that could command the allegiance of a million Jews shouldn’t depend on funding from George Soros and some mysterious lady from Hong Kong?

J Street doesn’t command those numbers. It’s a construct group to allow the left to pass off its hostility to the Jewish State as constructive criticism. Like Beinart’s book, it’s a tedious exercise in the left’s antipathy not to power or even to Jewish power, but to Jewish power used on behalf of Jews. The real crisis is not in Zionism, it is in a Jewish left which has chosen its politics for all the wrong reasons.

February 15, 2012 | 3 Comments »

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  1. Mr. Greenfield,
    I am a single person in the vast ocean of people who should read your article. Enough of the well-fed, ignorant left! Enough of their elitist Yuppyism! Enough of their smug belief that they are part of a select group of comfortable people. They are people who don’t stop criticizing those who struggle, sacrifice their lives and those of their children for a still much needed homeland.
    The very terms “homeland,” “Jewish security,” “holocaust” cause these liberals to blush, shudder and deny their heritage. Why can’t Jews be normal? Why can’t we just blend into the other countries of the world? Not stick out? Not be so provincial? Occupation is such an embarrassment – regardless of how untrue. We would answer these liberals but they’d cringe and turn away at the discomfort our answer would provoke. It is so much cleaner, so much more in vogue to side for the downtrodden – and the Palestinians must be down-trodden because they are living in someone else’s country and none of their Arab relatives will absorb them into their vast territories. Our answer would be that we can’t blend into the norm because other countries won’t let us, they insist on holding us up as the violators of democratic values, as the big bad guys in a sea of innocent Arab countries (none of whom allow citizenship to their Palestinian refugees) – because we don’t want to return to our hunted,homeless state. How many thousands of years will we have to spend again as unwanted guests in other lands, if we lose the tiny state (no larger than New Jersey) again?
    I can just feel the liberals cringe! Enough already with the complaining, with the victim-talk. Just be liberal!
    Batya Casper

  2. These absurdities show that there is nothing new about The Crisis of Zionism, it is a restatement of all the old dusted off nonsense with very little thought put into it. Beinart claims that there is a crisis of Zionism, using his selective definitions of what Zionism is. And using those selective definitions, a Zionist Israel is completely unworkable. The only type of Zionist state that Peter Beinart would accept is one that could not exist. To implement Beinart’s version of Zionism, Israel would have to destroy itself. This nicely summarizes everything wrong with the left.

    Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”

    At its core, Israel’s “being” is really about the incontestable meanings of “aliveness.” We Jews, both in our prayers, and in our sacred rituals, have always understood the difference between life and death, between the “blessing” and the “curse.” Now, in essence, all Jewish survival, individually and collectively, recognizably or obscured, is inextricably bound up with survival of the Jewish state. Reciprocally, the macro concern of Israel’s physical survival is now always a question about the individual Jew writ large.

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  3. Not sure why Beinart and his book deserve any critique. Is he considered important enough to consider his opinions? Till a year or so ago I never heard of him but that said, I gave up on the Jewish left in particular and American Jewry in general. My gut tells me they made their beds, let them perish in them. I see almost no basis for solidarity between we here in Israel and American Jewry.

    Re: Israel’s government obligations and responsibilities for her citizenry, we look to our government as a child looks to it’s parent. We expect that their first obligation is to our security. Everything else takes a back seat in comparison.

    Jewish history and our continuum has always been made by a small minority of Jews, the ones who wouldn’t let go no matter what. The rest? You might find some through DNA testing that’s it. They say over 20% of the Spanish People have Jewish genes. So what! They ain’t Jewish anymore.

    Deuteronomy 7:7 states, “It is not because you are numerous that G-d chose you, indeed you are the smallest of people.” It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews would be exiled and dispersed but they would be returned to the Land from the exile.

    “And you, I will scatter among the nations, at the point of My drawn sword, leaving your country desolate and your cities in ruins” (Leviticus 26:33).

    It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews will be persecuted:

    “Among those nations you shall find no respite, no rest for your foot. There G-d will make you cowardly, destroying your outlook and making life hopeless. You will live in constant suspense. Day and night, you will be terrified, never sure of your existence. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were night,’ and in the evening you will say, ‘If only it were morning!’ Such will be the dread that your heart will feel and the sights that your eyes will see” (Deut. 28:65-67).

    No other people has ever gone into exile and survived for thousands of years to come back to re-establish a national homeland. The return of the Jews from exile to the land of Israel was nothing short of a miracle.

    So our future was foretold before it happened.

    Throughout our history there have been weaker elements who have shirked the sacrifices which Judaism entailed. They have been swallowed, long since, in the great majority; only the more stalwart have carried on the traditions of their ancestors, and can now look back with pride upon their superb heritage. Are we to be numbered with he weak majority, or with the stalwart minority? ”

    – Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews

    “Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed; for the LORD of hosts will reign in mount Zion, and in Jerusalem.” Isaiah 24:23

    For the First time in Jewish history we have the power not only to defend ourselves even from the worlds superpowers or conversely to take them with us if we fail.

    Jews in the diaspora can join us or disappear in time. I see no third option.

    “It is only now that Jews can put the sun to shame. In Mahabharata’s words, we can light thousands of suns. With a push of a red button.”