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House Jew, Field Jew

The Daily Beast's new group blog, "Zion Square," and the sad saga of Peter Beinart.

by
Benjamin Kerstein

Bio

March 23, 2012 - 12:00 am

“I find very little interesting conversation about what Zionism is,” announced Peter Beinart to Tablet on Saturday. “The term has become so politicized and associated with the right that this is a moment where the question of what Zionism is and the variety of different Zionisms that can exist really needs to be discussed.”

One can’t help but agree with him. I for one long for an active discussion of the theories of Herzl, Nordau, Weizmann, Ehad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, Syrkin, Katznelson, Berdichevsky, Gordon, etc., etc.; and the myriad permutations of Zionism enacted by their various followers.

That is not, however, what Beinart has in mind; which is not surprising, since one doubts he has ever heard of any of the men mentioned above; with the exception of Herzl and, perhaps, Jabotinsky, with the recognition, no doubt, that he must despise the latter and regard the former with tentative and reserved respect, if only to note how lamentable is the failure of his followers to live up to his glorious dream.

What Beinart does have in mind has, in fact, almost nothing to do with Zionism: A group blog called “Zion Square” at the Daily Beast, in which various figures associated with the left in Israel and abroad will opine on Israel and the Middle East. “Through the blog,” says his director of editorial operations, described by Tablet as “excited,” “Peter will bring a lot of different viewpoints.”

Indeed he will, as is borne out to a point well beyond irony by the news that one of the participants, Yousef Munayyer, upon whom Beinart was particularly keen, had specially written to Tablet in order to emphasize that “he does not support a Jewish democratic state,” and is a “firm supporter of the Palestinian right to return, an end to the Israeli occupation and equal rights for all people living throughout the land regardless to religion, nationality or ethnic background.”

Given certain realities that hardly need mentioning, Munayyar supports an Arab supremacist state in place of Israel. Whatever this may be, it is most decidedly un-Zionist, leaving one to wonder why, exactly, Mr. Beinart was interested in, let alone keen on, including Mr. Munayyar among his contributors.

There is, of course, the possibility that Mr. Beinart is simply living in his own world, comfortably insulated from reality. He claims for example, that “one of the defining characteristics of the organized Jewish community’s discussion is the Palestinian voices rarely have a chance to be heard by a Jewish audience.” This may well be one of the most ludicrous statements ever uttered by a man with a pedigreed education. As anyone who has so much as glanced at a newspaper, the internet, or a TV news report in the last decade can tell you, Palestinian voices are ubiquitous. They are inescapably everywhere, blared from television and computer screens the world over on a daily basis, and are impossible for Jews to ignore even if we wanted to, and often violently imposed upon us by Palestinian supporters and apologists, especially on college campuses. I doubt there is an actively Zionist Jew at any of America’s major universities who has not been, at one point or another, physically threatened by a Palestinian voice.

What is also ubiquitous, inescapable, and everywhere, however, is Jews like Beinart, who have salvaged otherwise drifting careers and explained away otherwise troubling facts by adopting a stance toward Israel and Zionism — about which, in fact, they know very little — that is characterized by a studied ambivalence, a critical stance, ethical qualms, perhaps even a troubled relationship. For non-Jews who regard Israel and its supporters with little more than unabashedly racist contempt, this is all terribly gratifying, of course (it is, after all, the price of club membership), but it is neither — as its practitioners imagine it to be — particularly new or original. It amounts to little more, in the end, than your average public auto-da-fe, the ancient reality that Jews must always apologize for standing up for themselves; gentiles never do.

It is not particularly new in historical terms either. There have always been Jews willing to leap to the defense — or at least to listen to the voices — of those who would, if given half a chance, slit their and their children’s throats. The Russian pogroms, the 1929 Arab riots, the 1939 Arab riots, the terrorism and war of the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, 80s, ‘ 90s, the Crown Heights pogrom, the second intifada, suicide bombing, mass murder: all have had their Jewish defenders. Some so passionate that the Zionist Berl Katznelson, of whom Beinart has likely never heard, felt the need to rise and accuse and ask:

Is there another whose sons have become so intellectually and spiritually corrupted that everything their people does, all its creations and sufferings, are degraded and hated, and everything their people’s enemy does, every robbery and every murder and every rape fills their hearts with admiration and infatuation?

Of course, there may be, but I doubt they will be given a group blog on one of America’s premier web sites, or a book deal, or a lecture tour, or in fact anything. Indeed, one need only look at how pro-Israel Muslims are treated by the media. For all intents and purposes, they do not exist. Pro-Palestinian Jews, on the other hand, are a fetish so adored that they have become in the eyes of gentiles that worst of all possible totems: a credit to their race.

But as odd as Beinart’s obsessions may appear — he claims, for example, to be critiquing Zionism, but never discusses it, preferring to lament the lack of a discussion — it becomes fairly clear fairly quickly what really troubles Beinart and, one imagines, those like him.

“One of the things we want to really have a conversation about,” Tablet quotes him as saying:

Is Jewish identity and Jewish culture more generally, and especially the question of what it means to live an ethical Jewish life in an age of Jewish power. For me, one of the important questions in American Jewish life is the question of whether the Jews are willing to admit that we wield power in a way that we didn’t 50 or 75 years ago, and to acknowledge that with power has to come responsibility.

Katznelson was an articulate man, but when it comes to this particular pathology, another revolutionary may have said it better. “There was the house Negro and the field Negro,” Malcolm X once said,

The house Negroes – they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good ’cause they ate his food — what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved their master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master’s house quicker than the master would. The house Negro, if the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we,” he said “we.” That’s how you can tell a house Negro.

The field Negro was beaten from morning to night. He lived in a shack, in a hut; He wore old, castoff clothes. He hated his master. I say he hated his master. He was intelligent. If someone came to the field Negro and said, “Let’s separate, let’s run,” he didn’t say “Where we going?” He’d say, “Any place is better than here.” You’ve got field Negroes in America today. I’m a field Negro.

Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. … Because someone has taught you to suffer — peacefully.

Mr. Beinart will forgive us, I hope, for choosing not to suffer peacefully. Most of us, however ethically problematic he may find it, believe that the answer to his question is fairly simple: It is good for the Jews to have power; we are glad we have it; and our primary responsibility is to maintain it and, if necessary, expand it.

And there is a good reason many of us feel that way. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, many of us didn’t go to Ivy League schools; we didn’t have family connections to the worlds of academia or the arts; we didn’t have the money or time to enjoy unpaid internships at the New Republic; we must have been absent the day the Rhodes scholarships were given out. Some of us had to make our way on our own merits, and the support and strength given us by other Jews along the way was and is more important to us than belonging to a club that wouldn’t have us as a member without foregoing such support and strength. We have little trust in the kindness of gentiles because we have rarely enjoyed it. We are the field Jews whose ancestors decided, at long last, that a piece of the field was going to be theirs: a testimony to their labors and their sufferings.

It is possible, of course, that Mr. Beinart will choose to leave the house and come out into the fields, where life is less comfortable but also warmer and vastly superior in its fecundity. But if not, I feel the sorriest for him. Because sooner or later, the Arabs will commit yet another in their long line of heinous atrocities, too heinous to be either ignored or explained away, and Beinart and others like him will be given a choice: Are you a Jew, or are you one of us? In other words, collaborate or be purged. However that little scenario plays itself out, it won’t be pretty.

The rest of us, however, may not even notice. We will be too busy, I imagine, tilling the fields.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor who lives in Tel Aviv.
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