We expect a public intellectual to take sides, frame arguments, articulate thoughtful analyses and help shape our thinking.
Liberal journalist Peter Beinart is a public intellectual who fills very few of those expectations. Instead, he has shown himself to be overly focused on arguing against Israel as a Jewish state. His periodic provocative pronouncements keep mainstream Jewish organizations awake at night.
Last month saw the publication in The New York Times of Beinart’s op-ed “Has the Fight Against Antisemitism Lost Its Way?” Beinart’s answer is a disturbing “yes,” based upon a flawed argument. Beinart maintains that the expanded definition of ‘antisemitism’ to include attempts to delegitimize the state of Israel has led to use of the fight against antisemitism as “a vehicle not for defending human rights but for denying them.”
Here’s Bienart’s reasoning: Israel denies human rights to the Palestinian nation. If every criticism of Israel is viewed as antisemitic, then the shield of antisemitism is being used to promote deprivation of human rights. And that, he says, is what organizations like American Jewish Committee are doing when they criticize Human Rights Watch for accusing Israel of “crimes of apartheid and persecution,” and calling the accusations antisemitic.
But he doesn’t stop there. He also accuses AJC and others of not just denying Israel’s repression of Palestinians, but of stifling human rights around the world.
Similarly, Beinart is critical of U.S. support for Israel’s efforts to expand the Abraham Accords. Beinart claims that there is some kind of agreement between American Jewish organizations and the U.S. government to ignore human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, for example, and to reward those countries for their bad behavior because it benefits Israel.
Thus, he argues: “As relations have warmed between Israel and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, American officials have begun using the struggle against antisemitism to shield those regimes from human rights pressure.” And just to be sure that you get his point, Beinart tweeted: “The fight against ‘antisemitism’ as waged by the American Jewish establishment and the US government, has become a threat to human rights.” Beinart’s paranoia is disturbing. His accusations are outrageous.
No one denies that the Persian Gulf states have horrendous human rights records. That has been the focus of much commentary and discussion as efforts to bring those states closer to Israel and the West have been pursued. No one is accepting of those violations. No one is encouraging those violations. And it is naïve or worse to believe that violations of human rights are being tolerated in the Middle East and around the world in order to benefit the state of Israel. As the old joke goes: We wish Israel had that much power and influence.
While we can ignore Beinart, we worry that his tortured imaginings give cover to those who are trying to separate antisemitism from anti-Zionism and hammer the Jewish state. Beinart is Jewish. But that doesn’t give him license to invoke and promote hateful antisemitic tropes. His ramblings jeopardize Jewish lives.