DEAR PETER BEINART: I QUIT! YOEL FINKELMAN
In a 2010 article in the New York Review of Books, pundit and writer Peter Beinart accused the U.S. Jewish establishment of alienating young American Jews by refusing to criticize Israeli government policies. He has now published a book, The Crisis of Zionism, which expands on his argument and proposes that Zionists support “democratic Israel” but boycott goods produced in the settlements. In advance of the book’s publication, Beinart launched a blog on the Daily Beast titled Open Zion (formerly Zion Square)—dedicated, he said, to an “open and unafraid conversation about Israel, Palestine, and the Jewish future.” The blog engaged Dr. Yoel Finkelman to report regularly on the ultra-Orthodox community. Finkelman was enthusiastic about participating in the project. But after several weeks of Open Zion, he has concluded that its conversation is not, in fact, open—and is not one in which he can continue to take part. In the letter below, he resigns his position. —The Editors
Unfortunately, I must resign from my role as regular columnist for Zion Square, now Open Zion.
When you contacted me several months ago about writing a weekly post for the Daily Beast summarizing developments in ultra-Orthodox media, I was enthusiastic. You offered me a high-profile venue for publishing on a topic close to my heart, plus a little something to supplement my salary as a Torah teacher and lowly adjunct. More important, you asked me to provide an important service for the community: namely, serving as a tour guide into the complex and increasingly influential Haredi community.
Yet, as Open Zion has taken shape, my conscience as a Zionist and writer has made me uncomfortable associating with the blog.
Politically, you and I have much in common, as we both lie firmly on Israel’s left. (In the religious-Zionist circles in which I run, that makes me a bit of an oddball.) I, like you, have significant moral and political misgivings about the occupation, which we both understand to be an existential threat to Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state. I agree that American and Israeli Zionism require some important new conversations that will expand the range of what is currently being said. More, I thought it important for Zionists to hear directly from Palestinians in more robust ways than television sound bites allow.
But Open Zion quickly staked out its territory in the troubling location where left-wing Zionism drifts into post-Zionism which drifts into anti-Zionism. Perhaps that is the wave of the future—the result, as you suggest, of young American Jews’ discovering real or imagined contradictions between liberalism and Zionism. You offered that generation an opportunity to debate the questions concerning them: Must we leave Zionism completely, or can we remain ambivalent Zionists even today? Should we boycott some, all, or none of Israel?
But if those are the questions of central concern to tomorrow’s leadership, the Jewish people is in significant self-induced trouble. If those are the questions of great concern to today’s young Jews, I can only stake my own territory elsewhere.
Open Zion has emerged as a site with a few rich discussions of complex issues, but also as a venue for unbalanced accusations against Israel, Zionism, and settlers. I found a few thoughtful and thought-provoking articles, but they were interspersed among simplistic arguments, one-sided claims, Twitter-feed journalism, snarky prose, and an unexamined assumption of Zionist guilt.
I wanted serious discussion of how, without sacrificing its vital security interests, Israel can help empower moderate Palestinian leadership, foster the creation of a stable and trustworthy Palestinian state—and, crucially, diminish Palestinian suffering until such time. Instead, I got morally confused debates over whether Israel is or is not an apartheid state. I wanted insight into the complexities of how and under what circumstances Israel might relinquish more territory to Palestinian control now that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza has brought on a Hamas takeover. Instead, I hear far too much self-righteous moralizing about Zionism’s culpability for the evil of the occupation. I wanted serious consideration of how Zionist proponents of territorial compromise can minimize conflict and violence between the State and the settler population that stands to lose so much. Instead, I hear cavalier posturing about Jews boycotting other Jews.
What am I to make of the frankly silly article suggesting a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and Hamas, without even a nod to Israeli doubts about Hamas’s reliability in honoring whatever agreement might be reached? Another article described the 1948 Nakba [tragedy] as involving “the depopulation of Palestine of the majority of its native inhabitants,” which it certainly did—at least if Jews born in the Land of Israel do not qualify as native inhabitants, and if one uses the terms “depopulation” and “majority” loosely. But one would expect a discussion of the Palestinian tragedy of 1948 to mention an Arab world that rejected the UN Partition Plan, then lost an aggressive war designed to eliminate the State of Israel and “depopulate” (read: kill) its Jewish population. And what about this howler of a journalistic sentence: “As it always does, the IDF blamed the civilian deaths on the Palestinians, whose fighters often shoot from populated areas”?
You see, in a few short weeks, Open Zion has become very much like the Haredi press that I survey as an academic. In both, a small but increasingly influential group, enormously self-confident about the righteousness of its own path and dismissive of others, reports on matters as it wishes they were and not as they actually are. In both, there is an obsession with a narrow set of topics written about constantly in a limiting and limited language. In both, there is room for some debate and disagreement; but the boundaries of dispute are set by a priori dogmas, stated and unstated. And, in both, the conversation pads the egos and supports the self-confidence of the participants but often provides little depth or understanding.
In my academic life, I am fascinated by the study of that kind of journalism. But I do not want to be involved in producing it.
With wishes that Passover will bring genuine and honest peace between Israel and its neighbors.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy..
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