Zionism, Health Care and the Illiberalism of Progressive Minds

Zionism, Health Care and the Illiberalism of Progressive Minds

By Peter Berkowitz - April 8, 2012

The ability to appreciate the merits of the other side of a question, John Stuart Mill asserted in his 1859 classic, “On Liberty,” is a hallmark of the liberal spirit. By this measure, Peter Beinart’s new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” which has become a cause célèbre among progressives, marks another step in the parting of ways between progressives and that old-fashioned and indispensable liberalism that recognized that multiple perspectives were vital resources to a free society.

Fittingly, the book was released late last month, during oral arguments before the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act of 2010. The progressive defense of the constitutionality of Obamacare embodies the same determination to not merely criticize but to demonize opposing points of view. Taken together, liberals’ critique of Zionism and their defense of the individual mandate provide an instructive window into the growing illiberalism of the progressive mind-set.

The questions at the center of “The Crisis of Zionism” are why does Israel occupy the West Bank -- the territory, now home to approximately 2.25 million Palestinians and 300,000 Israelis, seized by Israel from Jordan 1967’s Six Day War -- and what can be done to bring the occupation to an end. Beinart answers that the occupation is a result of Israel’s ethical failings, and that to compel Israel to behave justly American Jews must renounce their conservative American leadership, epitomized by AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and exert pressure by boycotting goods produced by Israelis living in the West Bank.

Beinart’s book has been subject to severe criticism, nowhere more thoroughly than in an extended review by Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens in the online magazine Tablet. Stephens shows that “The Crisis of Zionism” is rife with factual errors, half-truths, and partisan pronouncements masquerading as disinterested observations.

This is not to say that Beinart’s book is devoid of merit. His anguish over the West Bank seems heartfelt, if promiscuously flaunted. Liberalism and democracy, as he argues, are a part of Zionism. And because they are in tension, balancing them is a vital imperative. He also is right that Israel’s continued occupation of the disputed territories between the Green Line -- the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan -- and the Jordan River represents a grave problem, because ruling over another people conflicts with the principles on which Israel was founded and the liberal and democratic spirit with which the vast majority of Israelis are imbued.

But Beinart’s insistence that occupation can be reduced to moral blindness and racism on Israel’s part (that the West Bank Palestinians “are treated as lesser human beings simply because they are Palestinians”), betrays a bent of mind determined to transform a tragic conflict into a simplistic tale of oppressors and oppressed.

Beinart suggests that the question merely comes down to whether Israel will exercise its overwhelming military power in a moral manner. His readers, however, are given little context of political exigencies and looming dangers in which Israel must operate. He pays scant attention to the strategic and moral calculus faced by Israeli leaders who must balance humanitarian responsibilities against the very survival of their citizens.

Of the long history and resolute persistence of Palestinian intransigence and terrorism, one hears little in Beinart’s book, and when such matters are mentioned, as in the case of Hamas mortar, rocket, and missile attacks from the Gaza Strip on civilian populations in southern Israel, it is typically to discount the significance -- or to implicate Israel.

Of Israel’s bitter experience in withdrawing from southern Lebanon in 2000, which turned it into a launching pad for Hezbollah rockets and missiles targeting Israeli civilian populations, one hears next to nothing.

Of the threat posed by Iran’s funding and equipping of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and of Tehran’s decades-long pursuit of nuclear weapons (feared by almost all Sunni Arabs of the region as well as Israel), one hears next to nothing.

Of the dangers to the east presented by an increasingly unstable Jordanian monarchy, vulnerable to a restive Palestinian population within its own borders as well as a rising Muslim Brotherhood, one hears next to nothing.

Of an increasingly hostile Egypt to the southwest, whose parliament is dominated by Islamists and which is unable or unwilling to prevent the Sinai Peninsula from being used as a terrorist haven and staging ground for attacks on Israel, one hears next to nothing.

Beinart also suppresses good news. Of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s substantial easing of roadblocks and travel restrictions in the West Bank and the contribution Israel has made to a growing Palestinian economy, one also hears next to nothing.

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 Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His writings are posted at and you can follow him on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.

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