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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Peter Beinart strikes a nerve.

He condemned AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. He claimed, more or less, that it is impossible for liberal Zionists to defend them. He seems to have a point. In his reply to Beinart, Jonathan Chait is reduced to lying about what Beinart said by removing necessary context from a quote

Chait dishonestly wrote

"Peter, for instance, twice writes that Palestinians 'wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders.' " OK lets search for the text in context.
I only found it once and found no other instance of "ill-served by their leaders." The word "twice" makes the claim technically false. However the word "that" makes the claim a lie.

"The 2006 AJC poll found that [skip] Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews tended to believe that average Palestinians wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders."

This is plainly not a statement by Beinart that Palistinians "wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders." Beinart is daring to accurately quote the results of a poll. He is describing the views of Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews as assessed by the American Jewish Committee, not making any statement about Palestinians. Chait's position is that the actual opinion of actual Jewish Americans is unmentionable if Chait disagrees with it (I agree with Chait on Palistinian opinion, which was not the topic discussed by Beinart in his essay on Jewish Americans).

Chait does not take issue with any of Beinart's actual arguments. Neither does Jeffrey Goldberg. I admit that in checking on those two I am influenced by (blush) politico where Ben Smith gave a convenient list of who might respond to Beinart

"It will cost him friends, and start a conversation, particularly in the shrinking space occupied by liberal, Zionist* voices like his, Jeffrey Goldberg's, and Jonathan Chait's."

Goldberg wrote that he agrees with Beinart but objects to writing for the New York Review of Books.

I've only read through Beinart's essay quickly (though not so quickly that I haven't already exchanged a couple of e-mails with him about it) and I think it is in many ways analytically valid, if unsympathetic to some of the existential challenges faced by Israelis. But the essay's placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic.

Beinart wrote the essay for The New York Times Magazine which didn't publish it for "stylistic" reasons.

In any case, Goldberg has a whine and a gratuitous insult, but provides no defence of AIPAC or the Conference of Presidents.

Back to Chait.

First he claimed he said it first

Not long ago, I ran into an AIPAC staffer at a social gathering. We debated the Middle East for a bit, and continued the discussion over lunch. I told him that I thought the political estrangement of liberalism and support for Israel posed a long-term existential threat, and that his organization was contributing to the problem. We agreed to disagree.

Then he notes

Former TNR editor Peter Beinart has a sharp, attention-grabbing essay in The New York Review of Books making this case not just against AIPAC but most of the mainstream American Jewish organizations. Indeed, he goes much further. Those groups, he argues, have abandoned liberalism on the Middle East

A long essay follows in which one might imagine that Chait discusses the differences between AIPAC and most of the rest of mainstream American Jewish organizations and considers which if any have abandoned liberalism on the Middle East.

I can detect no effort whatsoever to address these points of possible disagreement with Beinart. There is certainly no claim that AIPAC is substantially less "liberal on the Middle East" than the Conference of Presidents and no discussion of any sign that either has any trace of sincere liberalism "on the Middle East."

Chait does contest Beinart's claim that the mainstream Jewish organizations have an effect on young Jewish Americans (with friends like Chait they sure don't need enemies).

Mostly he attacks the messenger, expressing respect for Beinart and then bringing up his idiotic essay “A Fighting Faith,” The argument evidently is that, while Beinart is "one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known," he is also such a demonstrable idiot that there is no need to respond to his actual arguments. In any case, bringing up "A Fighting Faith," is undeniably an argument ad hominem and not a valid response to Beinart's accusations against mainstream Jewish organizations.

He also discusses un-named leftist critics of Israel who claim that to support Meretz is to be right wing. Oddly he doesn't name any such critics or provide any evidence whatsoever that they exist. He had to mention them (whether they exist or not) to ballance his criticism of conservatives, who say that to be a good Zionist one has to vote Republican.

I conclude that it is impossible for liberals to defend the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations. I mean if no such defence is to be found in an essay in The New Republic which sinks to ad hominem arguments and removing necessary context from quotes, then I conclude no such defence is possible.


David Schraub said...

I have to admit, I find this post a little baffling. Chait and Goldberg make clear that they agree, by and large, with Beinart's essay. Your complaint is that they don't provide a "defense" of AIPAC or the Conference. I'm not sure why they should be expected to, given Chait's belief that "somebody needs to grab the American Jewish leadership by the lapels and shake some sense into it." I agree, and I think you agree, which is why I find so strange your distress over the fact that Chait and Goldberg don't disagree.

Robert said...

I agree that the most striking feature of Chait's and Goldberg's posts is that they offer no defence of the Major Jewish Organizations. This is fairly shocking (note Ben Smith's prediction).

However, distorting the meaning of a quote by removing necessary context is an offence against the truth which should be condemned. I don't care what Chait concludes, he lied. The New Republic Should publish a retraction. Beinart did not say that most Palestinians want peace with Israel.

I don't care about Chait's opinions, he has the right to his opinions. He doesn't have the right to his own facts. I think I agree with Chait's opinions about the Middle East. Therefore I conclude that he has written a lie which must be retracted. What's so odd about that ?

I condemn lies from people whose conclusions I accept just as much as I condemn lies from people whose conclusions I reject. You seem to find this incomprehensible.
I assume you accept the idea that objective reality exists and that lies are not just opinions we don't share. Do you care at all about the difference ?

Also note that Chait says nothing about say the AJC or the ADL. He says he agrees with Beinart only about AIPAC. He doesn't even address the main point of Beinart's article which is the claim that the AJC and ADL have abandoned liberalism (broadly defined as meaning respect for the human rights of all humans).

No one is surprised by the claim that AIPAC is right wing and closer to Likud than to Labour. They are recognised and accepted as a conservative organisation. Chait says he does not agree that the ADL is illiberal. He thus does not agree with Beinart's main controversial claim. He also doesn't respond to it at all. He won't break with the ADL but he can't defend it, so he brings up Beinart's past errors and lies about what Beinart wrote.

I have a problem with that. It is not related to the ADL about which I care very little. It is related to the idea of plain honesty about facts and, a much lesser issue, honest argument which engages others rather than changing the subject to their faults.