Peter Beinart Stops Making Sense

I hope it’s clear that I’m a fan of Peter Beinart, particularly the writing he did for The Daily Beast. I admire his rhetorical scruples, his strict adherence to the necessary sequence of the argument at hand, and, generally speaking, I agree with the conclusions he reaches (for example, the conclusions of the piece on the emergence of a new American Left). Beinart is a Zionist, but he’s also a realist-—he understands that AIPAC is an impediment to peace, and that the recent damage done to Israel’s standing as a sovereign state is a self-inflicted wound.

So I’m surprised by his response to the American Studies Association’s resolution in favor of boycotting Israeli academic institutions. It makes no sense. I mean that as emphatically as I can: Beinart’s response amounts to non-sense. But for that reason—-precisely because the response is both ignorant of and out of proportion to the provocation—-it is instructive. The hysterical form tells us that by now, rational grounds are unavailable to even the most realistic Zionists.

To demonstrate this unfortunate proposition, I will quote Beinart at length. I begin where he dismisses the charge of anti-semitism, but begins to sound like William Bennett or Lynne Cheney rising to the defense of Western Civilization.

“But as far as I’m aware, the ASA has no record of hostility to Jews. . . . What it does have, like many other left-wing academic groups, is a record of hostility to the West. In 1998, the ASA announced that it would boycott California and Washington State for their anti-affirmative action laws (it later rescinded the boycotts).”

Well, OK, I admit these are western states. Still, how does a defense of affirmative action entail hostility to western civilization? As if it’s self-evident, Beinart moves on:

“In 2003, [the ASA] condemned the Patriot Act.” Yes, along with the ACLU and the larger Left, which were insisting on the rights inscribed in that monument to Enlightenment-—western civilization-—we call the U.S. Constitution.

“In 2005, it condemned America’s embargo of Cuba. In 2006, it condemned the war in Iraq.”

All true, and uniformly inconsequential. Where is he going with this chronology? How does Beinart interpret these innocuous acts as instances of hostility to the West as such?

“Because for the global left, imperialism is the great sin of the modern world. And only Western governments and institutions—the U.S., South Africa, the World Bank, IMF and now, Israel, can commit it” (my italics). The ASA has no double standard that allows it to conduct business as usual with, say, China, while condemning Israel for its human rights violations. No, the unitary standard that determines the recent resolution is an anti-imperialism that is always already animated by the detection of Euro-American racism:

“For institutions like the ASA, Israel’s real crime is not being a country where Jews rule non-Jews. It’s being a country where, in their view at least, whites rule non-whites.”

Hello? It is true that the vernacular rhetoric of occupation in Israel often echoes the sounds of segregation in the American South and of apartheid in South Africa. But since when did imperialism require racism as its essential ingredient? Whether it does or not, is Beinart claiming that race is the central category in deciphering the ASA resolution? Is the ASA resolution itself framed in these terms?

It goes without saying that a state that rules in the name of one race at the expense of another cannot be legitimate. In Beinart’s view, the ASA’s resolution assumes that Israel is such a racist state. Otherwise he couldn’t reach the following conclusion: “This is the fundamental problem: not that the ASA is practicing a double standard and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.”

But the ASA resolution denies no such thing. It doesn’t mention imperialism, or race, or Jews, or even a two-state solution. It emphasizes violations of academic freedom and human rights.

So, I repeat: Peter Beinart’s response to the ASA resolution is ignorant of and out of proportion to the actual provocation. It is hysterical in the clinical sense—-it treats its own inventions as a threat that comes from elsewhere, from outside. But if he’s the best Zionism can offer, the debate is already over.


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