Interivew: Peter Beinart

The influential commentator and author warns diaspora Jews that the Orthodox must be curbed if Israel is to have a future as a democracy.

By Oliver Kamm, November 22, 2010
Peter Beinart says that Israel’s friends should guard against the country

Peter Beinart says that Israel’s friends should guard against the country

Peter Beinart is an articulate and important liberal voice on American foreign policy. Now a professor of journalism at the City University of New York, he became editor of The New Republic in 1999, at the age of 28, and held the post for seven years. A few months ago he published in the New York Review of Books an essay arguing that Israel needs to be saved from itself and from the American Jewish establishment, whom he charged with promoting "an uncritical brand of Zionism".

That essay caused ructions. Commentary magazine complained that Beinart had "joined a legion of others in the burgeoning profession of being an Israel scold". James Kirchick of The New Republic accused him of "a grievous misunderstanding of why the Arab-Israeli conflict persists to this day: Arab intransigence".

Beinart travelled to the UK last week to argue that Jewish leaders and the community should re-evaluate their relationship with Israel. I met him to talk about liberalism, the West and Israel.

I have a particular interest in Beinart's approach to foreign policy, as a few years ago we were independently arguing an uncannily similar case. In his book, The Good Fight (2006), Beinart advocated the pro-defence traditions of the American Left. He identified in the Truman Administration a fighting liberalism that modern Democrats needed to recall. Liberals would not win the support of voters unless they are trusted with national security and he urged Democrats to commit themselves fully to the war on Islamist terrorism rather than retreat from the world.

In a slighter and less influential volume, I made the same argument about the interventionist policies of Tony Blair and historical debates on the British Left. The difference between us was that Beinart had recanted his earlier support for the Iraq War, whereas I remained (and still am) a supporter of the forcible overthrow of Saddam

"American foreign policy has intellectual cycles," he says. "The Bush Administration drew on the idealistic, Wilsonian tradition of liberal-democratic internationalism, but overlooked its limitations."

By limitations, Beinart means the impulse of humanity to sin. The theological phrase in no accident, given his intellectual inspiration. He cites with particular respect Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant social thinker, who turned from an early pacifism to a theologically-grounded defence of the US role in the struggle against Nazism.


Born: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971
Early life: Beinart is the son of South African immigrants. Father Julian is an academic, mother Doreen works at the John F Kennedy School of Government. Studied history and politics at Yale before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford
Career: Worked at the political journal, The New Republic, becoming editor in 1999. His book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, was published in 2006.
Family: Lives in Washington DC with his wife and two children. He is a member of the Kesher Israel Synagogue

"The liberalism of the 1940s stressed reason and law," says Beinart. It is that element that he believes is lost in recent US foreign policy. "Niebuhr warned against the hubris that arises from success. He knew that idealism could be infected by self-interest."

It is this sense of the moral ambiguities of foreign policy that has shifted Beinart's views since publishing his appeal to a renewed liberal anti-totalitarianism. He now distinguishes more sharply within that tradition.

"I'm more sympathetic to the liberalism of the Truman Administration before 1950 than after it," he tells me. "The earlier Truman set out the need for reconstruction in Europe. After 1950 the US got embroiled in the Korean War and NSC-68." (He is referring to the expansive commitments, in the national security document of that name, to countering communism.)

When the Cold War ended, the temptation was there to conclude that liberalism had triumphed amid the end of history. "It was like investors who believe they've cracked the code to the stock market just by being lucky," says Beinart. And triumph caused misplaced triumphalism, with the Bush Administration's impeachably inadequate efforts to plan for Iraq's

In his writings on Israel, Beinart is concerned about another kind of triumphalism. "There is a dichotomy in Israel," he says. "There is a shift in Israeli society away from the communal solidarity of the 1960s to an emerging distrust of authority."

This is exemplified, in Beinart's view, in the writings of the New Historians, who have detailed the original sin of the nascent Jewish State in the supplanting of the Palestinians, and in the stand taken by Israel's judiciary against abuses of power by officialdom. "These are stands that need to be made," Beinart argues, "because the dominant culture in Israeli society has little connection with the Enlightenment elements of Zionism."

Beinart is especially concerned with the theocratic elements in Israeli society and with the worldview brought with Israelis of recent Russian origin, who see a model in co-existence in Russia's dealings with Chechnya rather than a pacific two-state compromise.

"The founders of Israel believed that the ultra-Orthodox sects, which were themselves suspicious of the notion of a Jewish State, were a relic of history that would die out as Jews lived free of persecution," he says. The problem for modern Israel is that this stubbornly religious element has not only survived but thrived - and, says Beinart "has not made peace with Israel's democratic character. Israel cannot retain that Enlightenment spirit while providing subsidies to religious millenarians to move to West Bank settlements."

This is a trend, Beinart maintains, that needs to be confronted by Israel's friends. I put it to him that there is, in fact, no shortage of Jewish and pro-Zionist criticism of Israel. But Beinart insists that liberal Zionists need "to draw some line under what we stand for". He is incredulous at the idea that Jews are threatened by trends in Western societies. "Every post-war US President till, and including, Richard Nixon was antisemitic," he says. No such politician could be elected now. Philosemitism is widespread in American politics.

As a sometime ideological fellow traveller of Beinart's, I find his warnings cogent. They should be heeded. Beinart has nothing in common with the crude conspiracy theories of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer - co-authors of the 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy - who purport to expose the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Western foreign policy. He believes that "darker forces may emerge in Israeli society", especially if a third intifada breaks out, unless the friends of the Jewish State make plain that there are compromises they will not make.

But perhaps we interpret liberal traditions differently. Niebuhr believed it was a dangerous temptation to distinguish between the children of light and the children of darkness. There is a morally ambiguous element in every political cause, including Western foreign policy and Israeli national security. Yet politically modest ambitions are not necessarily the right response. There are few global problems that would not be eased by more rather than less American intervention. This was true of the resurgence in the 1990s of the aggressive and xenophobic nationalism represented by Slobodan Milosevic. It is true now of the axis of Islamist terrorism that encompasses Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel has many flaws and illiberal tendencies, but at root it represents the advance of democratic and secular ideals in a region that is short of them. That is the reason that Israel remains an essential liberal cause.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer and columnist for 'The Times'

Last updated: 11:07am, November 22 2010