Beinart is not our wicked son

You're probably exhausted. Attending, let alone hosting, two Seders will do that to a person. You've packed away the Haggadot by now and won't be in the mood for a reminder. But forgive one more mention of the Four Sons (or Four Children, for those whose Seder is a tad more right-on).

The lead characters are the Wise and Wicked Sons, separated by a simple point of grammar. The Wise Son asks his question in the first person plural. To paraphrase, "Why do we do this?" The Wicked Son, meanwhile, uses the second person: "Why are you doing this?" That's the difference: we versus you. One asks his question as an outsider, the other from the inside. The question itself barely changes, but on that simple distinction - outside or inside - rests the difference between wisdom and wickedness.

I've been thinking about the Four Sons as I've followed the controversy stirred by Peter Beinart, whose new book, The Crisis of Zionism, argues that the leadership of American Jewry is making a fateful mistake in its indulgence of Israel's near 45-year long occupation, a situation that makes impossible Israel's status as both a Jewish and democratic state.

Beinart has been on the receiving end of a predictable mudslide of abuse. One piece in the Algemeiner compared him to a black member of the Ku Klux Klan, declaring him to be "a shame to the Jewish community - a self-hating Jew." A wicked son.

His book is written from within the Jewish family

Beinart tells me he has received dozens of emails making the same charge of self-hatred. Bizarre, but no less hurtful, was the attack on him from Marty Peretz, his onetime patron at the New Republic, where he served as editor. Peretz suggested that Beinart's mother was to blame for raising such a pampered, vain child.

And yet, everything about both Beinart and his book should put him on the right side of the Haggadah's line distinguishing wise from wicked.

He is a committed Zionist, whose effectiveness as an advocate for Israel earned him a regular place on the Aipac lecture circuit. He sends his children to Jewish schools; he goes to synagogue every week, to an Orthodox shul no less. His son calls him Abba, the Hebrew word for father, and has an Israeli flag up in his room. To call a man who lives this way a self-hating Jew is to empty language of all meaning.

Moreover, his book is written entirely from within, not without, the Jewish family, couched in the first person plural: it springs from deep concern for us, the Jewish people.

Of course, there is much to criticise. I'm not sure I can endorse Beinart's slogan of "Zionist BDS", suggesting Jews apply a policy of boycott, divestment and sanctions to the Jewish settlements of the West Bank. Not because I fault either his logic distinguishing democratic, pre-1967 Israel from the post-1967 territories or his goal of simultaneously "delegitimising the occupation and legitimising Israel" - all for the sake of securing Israel's own future. I just worry that boycott is too problematic a tactic, given the wider campaign to boycott Israel itself.

But this is a small disagreement next to Beinart's larger thesis, which I believe is right. Others will disagree with every word. But they should be able to do so without casting Beinart out, without branding him an apostate, a self-hater, an enemy.

He is a concerned Jew raising a truly profound question: can Jews, powerless for so long, now exercise power and stay true to their highest ethical ideals? Pesach is all about questions and Beinart has asked the most important one of our age. In my book, that makes him one of our people's wise sons.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

    Last updated: 12:10pm, April 20 2012