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Peter Beinart’s rock star

Imagine that you’re an author, academic, journalist, commentator or blogger. You’ve been writing and opining on Israel, America and the Jews for most of your adult life. You may even have achieved a certain elevated status: you get paid to give speeches, you are quoted by your peers, you are a welcome guest at symposiums and workshops and every once in a while even the television networks are interested in what you might have to say.
Then one day, everything changes. Suddenly, the only thing that people want to hear about is Peter Beinart. The only thing they ask you is whether you’ve read his book “The Crisis of Zionism”, and what you thought of it. You may want to change the subject and write about something else, but your editor suggests you take another swipe at Beinart. It doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against, he tells you, as long as it’s for or against Beinart. “It’s the only game in town,” he says.

If one needed any further proof of the rock star status of the Jewish world’s enfant terrible, it was on full display at Columbia University on Wednesday night, as throngs of frustrated fans and foes were turned away from the hall in which Beinart was to square off against the Shalem Center’s Daniel Gordis, in a debate billed as “a heavyweight fight on Zionism” sponsored by Columbia’s undergraduate journal The Current and by Tablet magazine. The authorities simply refused to allow any more people into the already jam-packed hall, which might have been twice or thrice bigger and would still be filled to capacity.

Most of the people in the audience weren’t necessarily fans of Beinart or of his controversial book or of his leftist, liberal anti-establishment message. Most, in fact, appeared to be right of center, at the very least, and very much in agreement with Gordis’ assertion that Beinart’s unequivocal condemnation of the Israeli government and its settlement policy was somehow disloyal to the Zionist cause because “it encourages the world to turn the screws on Israel. “

But even though Gordis is an accomplished author of no less than eight books about Israel, Judaism and American Jews, there was only one book that the audience was interested in, and it wasn’t his. Gordis was there on behalf of the prosecution, Beinart was acting in self-defense, but there was only one book on trial, and it was “Crisis of Zionism."

The debate itself was polite and civilized, excruciatingly sterile by Israeli standards – except for the guy who waited for an hour and a half before shouting “Beinart you’re an idiot” – and the two protagonists were patently proud of the civilized manner in which they agreed to disagree. Gordis, who wrote a scathing review of Beinart’s book, took some sting out of the debate by declaring his own support for a Palestinian state and the removal of some settlements, but he placed the onus for the lack of peace squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians and said that Beinart was a “clear eyed realist about Israel - but a romantic about the Palestinians”. Tellingly, in what may have been a Freudian slip, he promoted the 41 year old author and journalist to the status of “one of the leaders of American Judaism” and a worthy adversary for any debate on the future of Zionism.

Indeed, even though they have launched what seems at times to be a concerted campaign to discredit him and his book, Beinart’s detractors are having a hard time putting him down. Some have been rightfully criticizing his apparent inability to fully appreciate the traumas of terror-stricken Israelis, others have been legitimately knocking his misguided and tactically ill-advised call for a boycott on settlements, but most have been authoring article after outraged article in which they nitpick Beinart’s book to death, raising hell about an errant verb here or an unfortunate adjective there, maliciously cutting down trees in order to obscure the forest, reviving the canard of the “liberal media” – which have generously hosted their diatribes - in order to explain the enduring resonance of his message. One thing they have failed to do is come to grips with Beinart’s stipulation: that Israel’s settlement drive in the West Bank and its 40 year rule over stateless Palestinians are eroding Israeli democracy and hijacking the Zionist enterprise, that the American Jewish establishment has been mindlessly aiding and abetting this process and that young, liberal Jews – even if they are only a minority - are finding it increasingly difficult to identify with either.

One can well understand why Beinart’s popularity, or notoriety if you will, is viewed as a threat by people who hold contrary views; much of the vicious tone directed at him is par for the right wing course when it comes to eradicating the last remnants of leftist dissent. But one suspects that there is another powerful emotional element at play here - jealousy – that is the source for the copious amounts of venom that have been hurled at Beinart.

Think about it: even though he is a self-declared Zionist who attends an Orthodox synagogue and sends his children to a Jewish school, Beinart is a relative newcomer to the Israel-America-Jews nexus. He wrote two books about American foreign policy and rose through the ranks of the New Republic without devoting any special attention to the future of Zionism or its adherents. Then he suddenly comes out of nowhere and bursts on the scene with his explosive May 2010 article in the New York Review of Books on “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” and now compounds his impact with his equally hell-raising book “The Crisis of Zionism.” For people who have been doing this all their lives, Beinart’s meteoric blast-off to the center of the Jewniverse must be infuriating, to say the least.

He looks like a good Jewish boy from the Upper West Side, his academic credentials are almost boringly top notch and his speaking style is detached and calculated, but somehow Beinart has been cast as the Mick Jagger of the organized Jewish world, the bad boy your parents don’t want you to listen to, the rebel who unflinchingly looks the establishment in the eye. He brings a buzz when he arrives and spreads stardust when he leaves, causing the two young women who were swooning near me throughout the Columbia debate to ferociously claw their way to the podium the minute it was over “just to shake his hand, oh my God, oh my God.” And they, I suspect, were from the Gordis side of the argument.

Besides the cogent and compelling presentation of the main thrust of his case, which makes “The Crisis of Zionism” into such a powerful book despite its deficiencies, Beinart has the consummate actor’s knack for impeccable timing and that divine and indefinable gift called charisma. It may be a New York-intellectual-Jewishy kind of charisma that wouldn’t play all that well in Zion itself, but among young American liberal Zionists – pro, post and anti – it sparks the kind of electricity that money can’t buy. And there is room to suspect that it’s driving some of Beinart’s peers, both those on the left who are upholding their right to stay silent, and those on the right who are blasting Beinart with everything they’ve got, right up the wall.

P.S. And by the way, even though I’ve been doing this for close to thirty years, when you search for my name in Google you come up with only a tenth of the results that you get when you look for the name of that upstart Peter Beinart. I just checked.

By Chemi Shalev