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Why Are (Mostly Liberal) American Jews Silent as Right-Wing Extremists in Israel Threaten the Country's Democracy?

Political scientist Peter Beinart says that how Jews handle power will be the test of the Jewish tradition.

Peter Beinart, a political science professor at New York University, has long been a decidedly mainstream voice of the American center-left, a member in good standing of the Jewish establishment. Like many American Jews, Beinart has long identified as a “liberal zionist,” and a dedicated supporter of Israel. But now he finds himself at the center of a whirlwind of controversy after his attempt to start a conversation in that community about the course the “Jewish state” has taken over the past decade or so.

In his book, The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart argues that the liberal democratic principles upon which the state of Israel was founded are threatened by the continuing occupation of the Palestinian people. He condemns the largely progressive Jewish establishment for its knee-jerk defense of a Netanyahu government that more often than not walks in lock-step with the country's religious right and the settlers movement (the two groups overlap quite a bit).

Rather than beginning a dialogue, Beinart found himself scorned as an apostate, becoming the subject of "two minutes of hate" on the part of many in the American Jewish establishment. In a semi-coherent screed, Commentary magazine's Ben Cohen accused Beinart of being an anti-Zionist, conflating his work with that of journalists Max Blumenthal and Philip Weiss. “It’s a narcissistic book, and the narcissism of privileged and haughty people is never particularly attractive,” said Marty Peretz (who is well known for his privileged and haughty narcissism).

Beinart appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss his book, the trends in Israeli society that inspired it and the reaction it has received. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation (you can listen to the entire show here, or on iTunes).

Joshua Holland: Peter, I have to say that I find this one of those instances in which somebody says something that is almost self evident -- I mean one can always take issue with the details -- but the basic premise of the book is that Israel’s status as a liberal democracy is somewhat incompatible with the continuation of a 45-year-old occupation. Were you surprised by how the book was received?

Peter Beinart: Not really. I knew this was a very emotional issue. I knew that it would produce a lot of anger. For somebody within the Jewish community to take a view of Israel’s direction that suggests it is deeply in the wrong path – this is an issue close to many people’s hearts. People come at it from their own perspectives. I wrote it knowing that whatever the initial reaction would be that this is going to be a debate that is probably going to continue in some form for the rest of my life. I wanted to try and make some statement about the danger of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank becoming permanent and threatening Israel’s status as a democracy while there was still time to do so.

JH: You take the American Jewish establishment to task for its, what you might call, knee-jerk defense of Israeli government policy. Most American Jews tend to skew left to varying degrees. They tend to be liberal on social issues and economic issues, but then there’s Israel. It has a government that’s taken a very severe rightward turn over the past 10-20 years, and that seems to be inspired by tribalism. I wonder if you agree with that. What hope do you have using reason -- rational arguments -- against tribalism, or extreme nationalism?

PB: The reason for Israel’s turn to the right are party demographic. The influx of Russian immigrants in the 1990s – people who tend to lean pretty far to the right. Also the religious population in Israel is growing. But it’s not only that. To be fair there were a lot of people in the center, maybe even to the left of center, who turned right as a result of the Second Intifada. The collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000-2001 and several years following that of awful war. It was certainly awful war for the Palestinians and there was a randomness to the violence in Israel, directed at civilians, that produced a hardening of attitudes.

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