Commentary Magazine


Topic: Leon Wieseltier

No Need to Say Kaddish for a Jewish State

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to revive it, the Middle East peace process remains dead in the water with almost no one believing the former presidential candidate has a prayer to succeed where all of his predecessors failed. But whereas such setbacks might have been treated as big news in the past, the secretary’s efforts and the Palestinians’ indifference to his entreaties is being greeted in Israel with more boredom than anguish. And that is something that bothers the American Jewish left.

Sounding a note that has become a familiar refrain among Jewish liberals in recent years, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier became the latest to claim that if the conflict with the Palestinians wasn’t solved pronto, “there will not be a Jewish state for very long.” Speaking to the Associated Press prior to receiving a lucrative award from Tel Aviv University, Wieseltier echoed the title of his 1998 book Kaddish about Jewish mourning rituals by claiming that doom awaits Israel unless it somehow forced the Palestinians to make peace with it. Wieseltier may present a more serious intellectual critique of the Netanyahu government than other liberal American critics like Peter Beinart, yet the disconnect between his attitude and that of most Israelis tells us less about the country’s future than it does about the lack of insight on the part of its critics.

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Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to revive it, the Middle East peace process remains dead in the water with almost no one believing the former presidential candidate has a prayer to succeed where all of his predecessors failed. But whereas such setbacks might have been treated as big news in the past, the secretary’s efforts and the Palestinians’ indifference to his entreaties is being greeted in Israel with more boredom than anguish. And that is something that bothers the American Jewish left.

Sounding a note that has become a familiar refrain among Jewish liberals in recent years, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier became the latest to claim that if the conflict with the Palestinians wasn’t solved pronto, “there will not be a Jewish state for very long.” Speaking to the Associated Press prior to receiving a lucrative award from Tel Aviv University, Wieseltier echoed the title of his 1998 book Kaddish about Jewish mourning rituals by claiming that doom awaits Israel unless it somehow forced the Palestinians to make peace with it. Wieseltier may present a more serious intellectual critique of the Netanyahu government than other liberal American critics like Peter Beinart, yet the disconnect between his attitude and that of most Israelis tells us less about the country’s future than it does about the lack of insight on the part of its critics.

Given the Palestinians’ failure to accept three offers of statehood since 2000 and their boycott of peace talks since 2008, as well as the strength of the Hamas rulers of Gaza, the Israelis can hardly be blamed for giving up on their quest for a two-state solution. As last January’s election proved, the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that a resolution of the conflict is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Despite their desire for peace, they know their only option is to stay strong and to concentrate on making the Jewish state a better place for its citizens rather than to continue to make concessions and beating their heads against a wall of Palestinian intransigence.

But for many American Jews this realistic attitude isn’t acceptable. For some, especially on the left, the obstacles erected by the Palestinians have always been irrelevant to their desire to make Israel conform to their notions of what a Jewish state should be. Thus, rather than accept the fact that peace cannot be forced on the Palestinians they continue to claim that a Jewish state cannot long survive.

The left has always been right to point out that the anomalous nature of the status quo harms Israel’s international image as well as frustrating both sides of the conflict. But if the Israeli right’s desire to hold onto all of the territories has proved to be impossible, the left’s belief that the Palestinians were prepared to make peace and accept a two-state solution is equally discredited. Twenty years of peace processing and Israeli concessions has not brought the region closer to peace. Instead, it has led to the empowerment of terrorists in Gaza and a kleptocracy in the West Bank that is unable to make peace even if it were willing to do so.

Wieseltier acknowledges that the Palestinians are also to blame for the lack of peace, but claims “one of the most shameful aspects of the Netanyahu government has been to succeed in taking the Palestinian question off the table.” But the current lack of interest in dealing with the Palestinians is the result of the decisions of Yasir Arafat, his successor Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals, not any clever scheme on the part of Netanyahu. Were the Palestinians ever to return to the negotiating table and demonstrated that they would end the conflict and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn they would find most Israelis and their government—no matter who led it—ready to deal.

But the main problem with Wieseltier’s predictions of doom isn’t so much that they are divorced from political reality as the way they underestimate the tenacity and the viability of the Jewish state he is consigning to perdition.

It is true that Israel suffers from international isolation and the abuse thrown at it by its opponents. However, the false apartheid charges won’t be any more factual in the future than they are today. Israelis will never accept incorporation of the Arabs of the West Bank into the Jewish state just as the Palestinians won’t accept a state alongside Israel. That creates a standoff that leaves the Palestinians in limbo. But it is the fruit of their own addiction to a nationalism that defines itself solely by rejection of Zionism rather than a positive vision of Palestinian identity. Perpetuation of this situation into the future may seem impossible, but it should be remembered that few in 1967 (when Israel came into possession of the West Bank and united Jerusalem) would have believed that the status quo would have lasted 46 years. At this point, the assumption that it cannot last any longer underestimates both the ability of Israelis to hang on despite criticism and the willingness of Palestinians to go on shooting themselves in the foot. Peace will have to wait until a sea change occurs that will enable the Palestinians to live with Israel. Until then there is no reason why the current situation in which Israel remains a thriving democracy with a solid Jewish majority will be altered by demands for a binational state that will never happen. 

Wieseltier is also remarkably naïve about what would happen even if another peace accord were signed. As he well knows, the war on Israel has never been about borders or settlements but the Jew-hatred that runs deep in the Arab and Muslim world. If Israel’s future is to depend on being loved by its neighborhood, his warnings of its demise might well be true. But as much as Israelis have always longed for peace, their survival has always been a function of their ability to persist and thrive despite the conflict.

Israelis would be better off if there were peace, but as they have demonstrated in the last two decades, the lack of an agreement hasn’t prevented the growth of their economy. Nor has it, despite similar predictions of doom, caused an estrangement with the United States where bipartisan support for Israel remains solid.

Rather than enhancing the chances of peace, people like Wieseltier, who claim Israel cannot long survive under these circumstances, are actually making it less likely since such talk encourages the Palestinians to remain intransigent and to cling to fantasies of Israel’s destruction. Palestinians need to understand that Israel has a bright future with or without peace and that it is up to them if they wish to share in the prosperity. Unlike Wieseltier’s foolish pronouncements, such a message isn’t just what most Israelis think; it’s the truth. 

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The New York Times, Leon Wieseltier, and Cartographic Literacy

Last week, the New York Times quietly made two corrections to Jodi Rudoren’s December 2, 2012 news article headlined “Dividing the West Bank, and Deepening a Rift.” In a December 7 “Correction” appended to the article, the Times acknowledged that Israeli development in the E1 area “would not divide the West Bank in two” (emphasis added); and it “would not, technically, make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible” (emphasis added). So technically–not to put too fine a point on it–the central premise of the article was flat-out wrong.

The E1 area, which connects Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem in a stretch of desert less than two miles long, is retained by Israel in the “Everyone Knows” peace plan–as everyone knows who has bothered to look at a map of the Clinton parameters, or maps of various similar plans. But in a December 6 post at the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier called the plan for Jewish housing in E1 “an outrageous proposal …. which would scuttle any cartographically meaningful state for the Palestinians.” Since the proposal would not divide the West Bank, nor prevent a contiguous Palestinian state, nor preclude it on about 95 percent of the West Bank, Wieseltier appears to be cartographically challenged. Either that, or he relies on the New York Times.

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Last week, the New York Times quietly made two corrections to Jodi Rudoren’s December 2, 2012 news article headlined “Dividing the West Bank, and Deepening a Rift.” In a December 7 “Correction” appended to the article, the Times acknowledged that Israeli development in the E1 area “would not divide the West Bank in two” (emphasis added); and it “would not, technically, make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible” (emphasis added). So technically–not to put too fine a point on it–the central premise of the article was flat-out wrong.

The E1 area, which connects Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem in a stretch of desert less than two miles long, is retained by Israel in the “Everyone Knows” peace plan–as everyone knows who has bothered to look at a map of the Clinton parameters, or maps of various similar plans. But in a December 6 post at the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier called the plan for Jewish housing in E1 “an outrageous proposal …. which would scuttle any cartographically meaningful state for the Palestinians.” Since the proposal would not divide the West Bank, nor prevent a contiguous Palestinian state, nor preclude it on about 95 percent of the West Bank, Wieseltier appears to be cartographically challenged. Either that, or he relies on the New York Times.

The executive summary of a new monograph from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), reflecting a six-month study of the Times’s coverage of Israel in 2011, documents “a disproportionate, continuous, embedded indictment of Israel that dominates both news and commentary sections.” CAMERA notes that Arthur Brisbane, in his final column this year as the Times’s public editor, described a worldview at the paper reflecting (in his words) “political and cultural progressivism” that “virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times,” treating certain developments “more like causes than news subjects,” making “thousands of errors” every year. Rudoren’s article was another one.

In contrast to his ill-informed opinion regarding E1, Wieseltier was relatively restrained in describing Mahmoud Abbas’s UN speech, which accused Israel of “one of the most dreadful campaigns of ethnic cleansing and dispossession in modern history;” of unprovoked “aggression” in Gaza; and of “an apartheid system of colonial occupation, which institutionalizes the plague of racism.” Wieseltier thought the speech was “mean and small.”

Since the occasion for Abbas’s slander was the Palestinian rejection of the fundamental commitment of the “peace process” (not to take “any step” to change the legal status of the West Bank outside negotiations), a better informed, more morally precise description of the speech would have used the word “outrageous.”

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Wieseltier Skewers Rachel Maddow

Leon Wieseltier’s latest piece is worth reading in full for his take on Syria and Iran (too much talk of Auschwitz on the latter, he says. Maybe. In terms of the existential threat, it is true Israel still holds the ultimate nuclear trump card if it concludes that Iran’s ambitions are unstoppable by traditional military means).

But Wieseltier’s piece is also an immensely satisfying read because it doubles as an obliterating take-down of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s latest book, which sounds about as unreadable as her nightly news show is unwatchable. TNR has called out Maddow for her unseriousness in the past, most recently in its list of DC’s most overrated thinkers, but Wieseltier really follows through in this piece:

Written in the same perky self-adoring voice that makes her show so excruciating, it offers some correct observations about certain lamentable trends in the American military— its reliance on contractors, its exploitation of reservists, its surfeit of nuclear weapons; but its righteous aim is to make the use of force itself seem absurd. (Maddow is an absurdity artist, who thinks that all you have to do to refute something is to make fun of it.) What offends her is “the artificial primacy of defense among our national priorities.” …

Maddow adverts to the Founders a lot, proving again that originalism is just the search for a convenient past, a political sport played with key words. …

Trashing force may win you a lot of friends, but it is stupid. There is nothing “artificial” about the primacy of defense because there is nothing artificial about threats and conflicts and atrocities. The American political system’s “disinclination” to war must not be promoted into a disinclination to history. We are not the country we were in the eighteenth century, as every liberal insists about every other dimension of American policy. Anyway, this is what President Jefferson said in 1806: “Our duty is, therefore, to act upon things as they are, and to make a reasonable provision for whatever they may be.”

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Leon Wieseltier’s latest piece is worth reading in full for his take on Syria and Iran (too much talk of Auschwitz on the latter, he says. Maybe. In terms of the existential threat, it is true Israel still holds the ultimate nuclear trump card if it concludes that Iran’s ambitions are unstoppable by traditional military means).

But Wieseltier’s piece is also an immensely satisfying read because it doubles as an obliterating take-down of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s latest book, which sounds about as unreadable as her nightly news show is unwatchable. TNR has called out Maddow for her unseriousness in the past, most recently in its list of DC’s most overrated thinkers, but Wieseltier really follows through in this piece:

Written in the same perky self-adoring voice that makes her show so excruciating, it offers some correct observations about certain lamentable trends in the American military— its reliance on contractors, its exploitation of reservists, its surfeit of nuclear weapons; but its righteous aim is to make the use of force itself seem absurd. (Maddow is an absurdity artist, who thinks that all you have to do to refute something is to make fun of it.) What offends her is “the artificial primacy of defense among our national priorities.” …

Maddow adverts to the Founders a lot, proving again that originalism is just the search for a convenient past, a political sport played with key words. …

Trashing force may win you a lot of friends, but it is stupid. There is nothing “artificial” about the primacy of defense because there is nothing artificial about threats and conflicts and atrocities. The American political system’s “disinclination” to war must not be promoted into a disinclination to history. We are not the country we were in the eighteenth century, as every liberal insists about every other dimension of American policy. Anyway, this is what President Jefferson said in 1806: “Our duty is, therefore, to act upon things as they are, and to make a reasonable provision for whatever they may be.”

Maddow has apparently written a book that relies on the premise that the Founders were anti-war, mainly by taking Thomas Jefferson quotes entirely out of context. That’s not exactly out of character for her. Notice how on her nightly news show she only responds to the parts of her opponents’ arguments that can be twisted into unrecognizable strawmen and set-ups for easy punchlines.

Which is why I can’t imagine she’ll respond to Wieseltier’s criticism. Maddow really is one of those people who believe any argument can be won with enough ironic eyebrow raises. Responding would mean she’d actually have to take the critique seriously, and that just wouldn’t be cute or endearingly quirky.

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