Freedom of Speech Except When It Comes to Israel

It would be funny if it wasn't so creepy. An author or journalist can write anything he wants about the United States -- or, in fact, about any foreign country -- without causing legions of critics to question the propriety of his doing so. That is, unless the subject of the author's work is Israel.

Think about it. Books have accused FDR of having advance knowledge of Pearl Harbor while others argue that the U.S. government -- in the form of the FBI, CIA or even Vice President Lyndon Johnson -- had President Kennedy killed. In other words, books that accuse U.S. presidents and U.S. government agencies of high treason are okay. This is America, and authors, journalists and bloggers can write what they like. (So long as it isn't libelous.)

But Israel is in a class of its own. This is not to say that it is impossible to get a book critical of Israel's policies published without setting off a firestorm among virtually the entire "pro-Israel" establishment. That isn't quite true.

It is only when the author has considerable prestige, is backed by a major publisher and is thus likely to get his message across to large numbers of readers, listeners and, most important, opinion leaders, that the "we'll crush him like a bug" dynamic sets in.

That is what is happening to Peter Beinart right now. Largely because he is highly credentialed (he was editor of the New Republic in his 20's), and because his pro-Israel bona fides are unassailable, he has aroused the fury of the pro-Netanyahu, pro-occupation crowd as few of those who went before him have.

Take a look at what the New Republic's former owner and Beinart's old boss and mentor, Martin Peretz, had to say about Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism (or more precisely, about Beinart himself) in comments to Tablet:

It's a narcissistic book, and the narcissism of privileged and haughty people is never particularly attractive... I always knew he [Beinart] was a very vain man, but a lot of us are vain, and if you had his mother, or if I had his mother, I'd be even more vain than I am." Peretz put on a mocking falsetto -- "this is the most brilliant boy, he's so smart, he's so touching" -- before going on: "It's a Jewish mother situation. You can use that -- even if it makes me sound a little bitchy."

Imagine, Peretz, a major figure in the "pro-Israel" camp and in U.S. politics from 1968 to 2010 when he self-destructed, actually attacks Beinart's mother for producing a son who has written a book criticizing Israel.

Suffice it to say that Peretz's "review" is typical of what we'll be seeing from the "pro-Israel" establishment. It is Beinart's temerity in writing such a book that drives them crazy, much more than the book itself -- so much so that the Israel-can-do-no-wrong types like Peretz, would rather impugn Beinart personally than actually review the substance of the book.

Peretz's hysteria is unique, but his allusion to Beinart's "narcissism" is not. The essence of that charge also appears in Sunday's Washington Post review of the book.

Alana Newhouse accuses Beinart of trying to "elevate himself as the standard-bearer" for liberal critics of Israel and that his "obvious politicking" to be leader of the Jews is one of the book's major flaws. Brett Stephens, a Wall Street Journal columnist (and a former editor of the Jerusalem Post) begins his truly vicious review in the Tablet by mocking Beinart for writing that one of the things that motivated him to write the book was watching the abuse of a 10-year old Israeli boy by the IDF and thinking that the boy "Khaled Jaber could have been my son."

Stephens finds that hilarious: "The real question is: Someone named Khaled Jaber could have been Beinart's son?"

In other words, to Stephens, Beinart is just a self-involved fool for seeing his son in a child who is "named Khaled Jaber" (i.e, an Arab not a Jew). True, that says something ugly about Stephens, rather than Beinart, but the point remains. In Stephens's view, Beinart is naïve for being empathetic to the suffering of non-Jews and for, in part, viewing the Palestinian experience through the prism of his own life and experiences.

Andrew Sullivan, the author and blogger, says that he was taken aback by the attacks on Beinart from the same people who once were his friends, allies and colleagues in the "pro-Israel" establishment. But now he understands that the normal rules of criticism do not apply when the subject is Israel.

I've been through my share of personal vilification over the years... But this level of vicious personal obloquy from people who once advanced and supported him? It beggars belief.

There is something rotten here. And something utterly bankrupt. You want to know why these people have become so unhinged? Read the book. They're terrified of its truth.

At this point, I could write about Beinart's Jewish and pro-Israel credentials. But I won't. Beinart's views would be equally worthy of merit even if he wasn't an observant Jew or a Jew at all. The Crisis of Zionism is not Beinart's autobiography. It is a serious, heavily researched and documented book that makes a powerful case that the post-'67 occupation is destroying Israel as a democracy and ultimately could destroy it as a state. And that it is treating the Palestinians under occupation with cold brutality while simultaneously denying Palestinians with Israeli citizenship (inside the '67 lines) the rights granted their Jewish neighbors.

Beinart also demonstrates that the "pro-Israel" organizational establishment in the U.S. (the people trying to shut Beinart down) are representative of no one except the multi-millionaire and billionaire donors who keep their organizations going.

Beinart exposes AIPAC as utterly uninterested in any value other than power itself, particularly the power to intimidate Congress. He demonstrates how the Holocaust is blatantly exploited to build support for Netanyahu and the occupation even by organizations (like the American Jewish Committee) which were close to indifferent to anti-Semitism in Europe when it was occurring. It is always shocking to read that the now Holocaust-obsessed organizations like the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC rarely brought up the Holocaust in a political context until after the 1967 Six Day War. As Beinart notes:

Before 1967, in keeping with their effort to link the struggle against anti-Semitism to the struggle against bigotry more generally, American Jewish groups had more frequently universalized the lessons of the Holocaust. In 1960 when Israel arrested and tried...Adolph Eichmann, the ADL insisted that the trial was not a case of 'special pleading' for Jews because 'what happened to the Jews of Europe...can very well happen to other peoples.' The American Jewish Committee declared that the trial was aimed at combatting all forms of "hatred and totalitarianism....' But in the 1970's American Jewish organizations began hoarding the Holocaust, retelling it as a story of the world's eternal hatred of Jews and linking it to criticism of Israel...[In 1981], as part of its bid to prevent the Reagan administration from selling AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, AIPAC sent a copy of the novel Holocaust to every member of Congress.

For me, the best part of Beinart's book is the section I refer to as "Myths & Facts." He takes every major propaganda point that is used by the right to support the status quo and demonstrates that it is based on distortions, if not out-and-out lies.

These distortions include the myths:
  • That Israel has "no partner" with whom to negotiate.
  • That Israel has offered the hand of peace to its neighbors since its founding.
  • That Israel needs the West Bank for security purposes.
  • That Israel will not automatically become an apartheid state if its keeps the occupied territories while denying their inhabitants the franchise and equal rights.
  • That Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza as a step toward peace rather than as a device to. permanently prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.
  • That Hamas initiated the 2008-09 Gaza war without extreme provocation from Israel.
  • That the Arab states and the Palestinians do not accept Israel's right to exist when every Arab state and the Palestinians twice agreed to the Arab League Initiative which offers Israel peace, security and the normalization of relations in exchange for ending the occupation of the '67 lands. (Israel and its American cutouts ignored the offer).

Beinart is not arguing that the Palestinians are always right. Instead, he proves that Israel isn't either -- and that almost all the information put out by the lobby and the Israeli government is propaganda.

You doubt that? How many people do you know who believe that Israel offered the Palestinians virtually everything at Camp David in 2000, only to have the Palestinians walk away? As Beinart demonstrates and was proven by Clayton Swisher in The Truth About Camp David, and in a half-dozen other volumes, there was no "generous offer" and the Palestinians didn't walk away either.

None of this makes for much comfort for either side. (If the right is furious at Beinart for exposing the lies of the "pro-Israel" right, the left cannot stand his commitment to the two-state solution which it considers not only naïve but no more just than the right-wing maximalism of Netanyahu and company).

Accordingly, do not be fooled by the reviews from the left, which argue that because Beinart is a self-described "liberal Zionist" he has nothing to say, or those from the right that say that the book is nothing but self-indulgent pieties. It is neither. It is a book that unravels the lies, unspins the spinners, and gets at the truth.

Passover is the holiday that celebrates freedom from bondage. In the case of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it is myths and lies that are among the tightest shackles of that bondage. This is the bondage Beinart goes far toward breaking.