Paul Krugman Enters the [Israel] Fray
Originally published at Tikkun magazine
Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, a regular Op-Ed columnist and blogger for The New York Times, is one of America’s leading progressive voices on a host of political and fiscal issues. However, as a liberal American Jew, one subject Krugman intentionally refrains from treating is that of Israel, and not because he isn’t invested in the country’s success or highly critical of its current political directions.
No, Krugman typically refrains from critiquing Israel because – as he wrote yesterday in a rare moment on the subject – to do so “is to bring yourself under intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.”
And yet, Krugman was moved to do just that for a brief moment recently – offer up a few brutally honest words on Israel.
What was his motivation for doing so? Krugman felt compelled to come to the defense of Peter Beinart, whose book – The Crisis of Zionism – has elicited unhinged personal attacks masquerading as critical reviews from all quarters, including those published in the pages of the Times and The Washington Post.
Beinart’s book proposes (quite reasonably) that Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian Territories and its eroding democratic principles are pushing it into a moral abyss, and that the reactionary defense of Israeli policies by American Jewish communal leaders and lobbyists, many of whom in other realms claim adherence to liberal values, is contributing to Israel’s reduced standing in the eyes of young, American Jews.
Predictably, Beinart’s book has elicited exactly what he critiques in its pages: reactionary apologetics and pure venom. And this is where Krugman stepped in yesterday for a rare, brief moment:
Something I’ve been meaning to do – and still don’t have the time to do properly – is say something about Peter Beinart’s brave book The Crisis of Zionism.
The truth is that like many liberal American Jews – and most American Jews are still liberal – I basically avoid thinking about where Israel is going. It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide – and that’s bad for Jews everywhere, not to mention the world. But I have other battles to fight, and to say anything to that effect is to bring yourself under intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.
But it’s only right to say something on behalf of Beinart, who has predictably run into that buzzsaw. As I said, a brave man, and he deserves better.
Krugman’s words, that “the narrow-minded policies of the current [Israeli] government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide,” are as direct and pointed as Krugman has ever been on the subject in recent memory. And, predictably, he has run into the “buzzsaw” of being lambasted for daring to critique Israel (as the comments to his blog post attest).
Of course, he knew this would happen. But he opened himself to attack precisely because of the distressing beating Beinart has been taking by American Jewish “reviewers” who have become unglued by Beinart’s unapologetic liberal stances on Israel – stances that an overwhelming majority of young American Jews share.
J.J. Goldberg, writing in the Forward, gave himself the unenviable task of chronicling some of the “unhinged” responses to Beinart’s book, and writes:
The reviews, meanwhile, consist largely of, well, knee-jerk apologetics. They all seem to intone the shopworn catechism that absolves Israel of any responsibility for its own difficulties: that Israelis want to end the occupation, but it’s too risky; that criticizing settlements is a red herring, because they aren’t the real nub of the conflict; that the Palestinians’ misfortunes are due to their own behavior, not Israel’s; that it’s dangerously naive to believe that Israel got through six decades of war without ever dirtying its hands. (Funny: That’s what most of us were taught to believe.)
The litany is remarkably unremarkable. It offers little more than fatuities trotted out as though they were settled facts rather than what they are: points of argument in a fierce trans-Atlantic debate. Nor do the reviewers bother to acknowledge that Beinart’s book actually considers most of their objections and answers them, agree or not. No, their goal is to show that they know what’s going on and Beinart doesn’t because he’s – well, that’s where the reviewers get creative. How many ways can they insult him?
Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens, writing in Tablet magazine (reprinted on the WSJ website) says Beinart is “singularly intent on scolding Israel, like an angry ex who has lost all grip on the proportions of the original dispute,” a lazy reporter whose work is “hysteria-fueled,” “an act of moral solipsism,” “another squeaky note in the blasting chorus that is modern-day Israel bashing.” Tablet’s own editor, Alana Newhouse, claims in The Washington Post, that Beinart is actually running for “the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews” while leading his putative flock in “erecting their own self-satisfied and delusional monolith, calculated to appeal to disillusioned Jewish summer camp alumni, NPR listeners and other beautiful souls who want the Holy Land to be a better place but do not have the time or ability to study the issues, learn the languages or talk to the people on both sides…”
Such “reviews” are precisely what compelled Krugman to enter the fray, for he intended to counter, in a small way, the rampant tribalism that often infects discussions on Israel within the American Jewish community – discussions which find themselves on the pages of our country’s largest newspapers and into the general public discourse.
Krugman’s move was a brave one, and should serve as a call to other liberal, American Jewish writers (who are afraid to offer progressive critiques of Israel for fear of being branded as anti-Semitic). It should serve as a call for them to stand up and do as he did recently: refuse to be silent.
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