In a much-discussed essay in the New York Review of Books this month, journalist Peter Beinart argues that groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League squelch criticism on these shores by regarding critics of Israel as enemies of Israel. Beinart and Steven Rosen, formerly of AIPAC, debate the issue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Much of the criticism of the IDF's handling of the flotilla was voiced within Israel itself, where debate over Israeli policies is often more robust than it is here. In a much-discussed essay in The New York Review of Books this month, called "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," author and journalist Peter Beinart argues that groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, or the Conference of Presidents of major American Jewish organizations, or the Anti-Defense League squelch criticism on these shores by regarding critics of Israel as enemies of Israel.
We asked Beinart and Steven Rosen, the former director of foreign policy issues at AIPAC, to debate the issue. The focus is intentionally narrow. This is not a discussion of Israel's right to exist. Both Beinart and Rosen are Zionists. This is a debate about whether criticism endangers Israel's security. More fundamental for this program, it's an argument over whether honest debate ever poses a danger to a democracy.
Both Beinart and Rosen do agree on two points, first, that criticism of Israel in American media is far more abundant than it used to be and, second, that criticism of Israel in the U.S. Congress is very rarely heard. Mostly, I stayed out of it. Peter Beinart begins:
PETER BEINART: Not to single out AIPAC, but all of the major pro-Israel organizations say very explicitly that their support for Israel, their love of Israel is not only because they are Jews and Israel is a Jewish state, but because Jews have created in Israel a liberal democratic Jewish state. But if you say that's why you admire Israel, then it seems to me you have a responsibility to fight for those values, for Israel as a liberal democracy. And I think there are forces in Israel today, in the settlement movement, in Shas, the ultra Orthodox Mizrahi Party, that are hostile to liberal democratic values. And I think we who love Israel as a liberal democracy have to defend them.
STEVEN ROSEN: But the problem here is there's only one actual Israel. When a person says, I'm pro-Israel but I don't like the Israel that exists, there's this Israel in my mind that if only they would do all of the things that I say they should do, and then I will love them, they're talking about an imaginary world. There's an actual Israel, the only Israel, and that Israel is surrounded by enemies. And you're either going to try to help protect it or you're going to jump on the bandwagon of those who are trying to harm it. There's only two camps here.
And it's true that you could go to Israel and try to meet with the members of the Israeli government and persuade them to pursue the course of action that you think is appropriate, but you're arguing that that debate should be held in the United States Congress.
The United States is Israel's only reliable ally. When you drive a wedge between the United States and Israel, you're weakening Israel; you're causing Israel profound harm.
PETER BEINART: I think it's mistaken to draw a bright line between Israelis who criticize their government and people outside the United States, particularly Jews, because, in fact, I think the fate of those Israelis who want to create an open space for criticism is very dependent on our willingness outside of Israel to amplify their voices and be in solidarity with them.
In fact, one of the things that worries me most about what this Israeli government has done is their campaign against human rights organizations and others that support criticism and an unvarnished look at Israelis' policies. We have a vice prime minister who called Peace Now, the anti-occupation group, a virus. We've had members of the Knesset, of the ruling parties, that have virtually called the New Israel Fund, that funds a lot of Israeli human rights organizations, treasonous.
Those people need our aid. They need our defense. If I don't have the right as an American Jew to amplify the voices of those Israeli Jews who share my values, then I think the fate of those Israeli Jews who want to create space in their society for criticism will be more imperiled. And I believe that I have that right, just as American Jews had the right to be critical of the Soviet Union when it was not allowing Jews to emigrate, just as American Jews had the right to protest about the genocide in Bosnia and as they do in Darfur. I see us, to some degree, all as part of a moral community in which we can have public concerns outside of our borders.
STEVEN ROSEN: Well, I don't think this is a debate I can win to the NPR audience - but I never said, Peter, that you don't have the right to support the New Israel Fund, for example. If you want to send a contribution to the New Israel Fund, by all means do so. And if you want to join an Israeli political party or write in an Israeli newspaper or even an American newspaper, go ahead. But if your point is that AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League should join the crusade against Israel, which is the central point of your article, then I think you're on the wrong track, because they are part of the effort to strengthen Israel and to help Israel in a dangerous world. This is not about debates on university campuses. This is about the survival of Israel against an enormous coalition.
You know, American evenhandedness is not evenhanded in its effects. The whole world is an automatic ally of the other side. Israel has one reliable ally. It's the United States. And when you erode the alliance between the United States and Israel, you're undermining Israel's security. It's not just about the policy you don't like. It's about the whole country, the stuff you do like and don't like, equally. So it's the wrong approach. It's like sacrificing your child because they're drinking too much.
PETER BEINART: I see in what Steven is saying a reflection partly of the generational divide that I was talking about in my piece. And I say this with great respect, but I just do not identify with this vision that he seems to have in which the entire world is destined to hate Israel and Jews, regardless of what Israel does, that it's basically somehow just in the soil, that we should assume that everybody who criticizes Israel, particularly every non-Jew, is doing so from a position of ill will.
There's a bleakness, a pessimism to that, that I think is not in what I think of as the best Jewish traditions that animate me in my life. Many people who criticize Israel, they believe, understandably, in a post-colonial world, that it is not just to keep control of large numbers of people who you don't give the right to vote. Rather than seeing those people as eternally hostile to Jews and Israel, we should be willing to listen to their criticisms. But the blanket assertion that everybody hates Israel and everybody always will, I think, is part of a bunker mentality that is making it harder for Israel to live out its best traditions.
STEVEN ROSEN: Perhaps you haven't paid attention that in the last 25 years, since this older generation has faded, you've seen the growth of Islamic extremism on a global scale, much of it aimed at Israel. And they are not so much interested in the territories, as such. They are interested in the very existence of Israel, as they openly state. So I don't see how you can dismiss the sea of hostility. It's in front of your face every day. It's not the professors at the Sorbonne and it's not The New York Review of Books that we're talking about. It's Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran and Syria and Islamic extremists from one end of the globe to the other.
So you're talking about a very deeply threatened country. It's not threatened because of one policy or another or the personality of Bibi Netanyahu or any other single thing. The pro-Israel organizations – I worked for one, AIPAC, for 23 years, I ought to know – see themselves as part of an activist effort to fight against that tidal wave.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If criticism lends support and comfort to Hezbollah and Hamas, does that mean that criticism itself becomes an existential issue?
STEVEN ROSEN: I didn't argue once, Brooke, in this discussion against criticism. What I argued against repeatedly -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Policies in the U.S. government, I understand that.
STEVEN ROSEN: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you also did say that there are really only two sides. You're either supporting Israel or you've joined the caravan of people who are against them.
STEVEN ROSEN: Well, it is true that when you write an article like Peter's, which just piles on criticism and barely mentions the threats to Israel – it hardly mentions Hamas, Iran. The world consists, as he tells it, of Israeli sins, which he recites very passionately – he's extremely eloquent. May there be intellectual merit in point number 7 or point number 11? Probably, here and there, yeah. But you're not building Zionism, as he says in his article. You're eroding it.
Does it mean that you don't have the right in a democracy to say these things? No. But you don't have the right to call it pro-Israel activity. That, it is not.
The last two weeks, Peter, Israel's been under assault, and you've been on the radio reciting what's wrong with Israel. The last two weeks were the acid test, the rainy day, a day in which, yes, there are questions about whether Israel handled the boarding of this ship properly. And people who say they're friends have to be there on a rainy day, not just on a sunny day, not just if Israel does everything perfectly and lives up to your golden, shining Israel on the hill, in your imagination. But on days when Israel's imperfect, you have to be there. And if you're not going to be there when the going gets rough, then don't call yourself a friend.
PETER BEINART: I can be there, if I believe that Israel is badly hurting itself, just like I had the right to be there when I thought the United States was badly hurting itself during much of the Bush/Cheney period. You can say that I'm a utopian to believe that Israel should not be in the business of creating a situation in which 80 percent of the people in Gaza are in food aid, that it's utopian to believe that Israel can be secure. I don't believe that's utopian. If that's utopian, then the people who created the State of Israel were utopian because that was not the vision that they had of what the Jewish state would be, and I don't believe that it's the vision that that we have to settle for today.
STEVEN ROSEN: I don't hear you talking about Israel facing a security dilemma, the dilemma of 3,000 rockets and the danger that far more potent and more accurate and larger warheads will get there that will threaten Israel's major cities. I don't think just filling the airwaves with more criticism of Israel contributes one thing.
By the way, a point that I didn't make earlier, you talk about people whose voices are silenced. At the typical American university a friend of Israel will find it very difficult to get tenure in the political science department. A friend of Israel is looked at as someone suspect, outside the community of values. And in anyplace where the intellectual elites congregate, friendship toward Israel is not well regarded. I doubt that there are very many staff members at National Public Radio who are standup friends of Israel, because it's not popular in these environments.
The real imbalance is an unwillingness to hear the pro-Israel voice. That's the real problem.
PETER BEINART: But, Steve, the problem is you're defining pro-Israel as only people who won't be publicly critical. And when you define it that way, yes, you are going to find that pro-Israel voices, as you define them, are very rare on university campuses and other places. But if you define pro-Israel in a more generous way, just as I would define pro-American as people who are very, very upset about certain policies of American governments, then the balance of forces looks very, very different.
I think you are self perpetuating this cycle of victimology/everybody is against us, by not being generous in your interpretation of those people who genuinely do want Israel to exist, indeed, even thrive and prosper as a Jewish state but believe its own policies are harmful in that effort.
By your definition, I also am part of this sea of people who are anti-Israel. That just has no meaning for me, given the, the values with which I was raised, given the connection to Israel that I feel and that I inst- will plan to instill in my children. It – it's, it's kind of insulting.
STEVEN ROSEN: Well, we're going around in circles. I, I don't see how you, you devote 90 percent of your time to what's wrong with Israel, you minimize the threat to Israel, you describe Israel's leaders as, as nearly demonic people, and then at the end of it, you say, I'm a great friend of Israel.
I, I just don't get it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven, thank you very much.
STEVEN ROSEN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Rosen is director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum, a think tank in Washington, D.C. And, Peter Beinart, thank you, too.
PETER BEINART: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Beinart is an author, most recently of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. His essay, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" is in the June 10th issue of The New York Review of Books.