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The Israel Debate Cory Booker Didn’t Want to Have

Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s ascent to the national stage has been at once a long time coming—the chief executive of the country’s 68th-largest city received Time cover treatment four years ago—and unexpectedly accelerated since Senator Frank Lautenberg died earlier this month. Governor Chris Christie announced that the election to replace Lautenberg—an election in which everyone had basically known Booker would be the frontrunner—would be held not in November 2014, but rather October of this year. What had been an extremely steady, and doubtlessly well-planned, rollout has become a rushed affair. Outside actors wishing to influence Booker’s positions on issues he has not needed to take a stand on would be well-advised to act extremely quickly.

Likely sensing this, Peter Beinart chose late last week to act. Once an editor of this magazine, Beinart remade himself over the past couple of years as a chief proponent of “liberal Zionism,” which is equally adamant that Israel ought to continue to exist as a Jewish state and that the land on the other side of the Green Line ought to be a Palestinian state—and that Israel’s occupation and settlements in the West Bank are much to blame for the Palestinians’ continued statelessness. Last year, in his book The Crisis of Zionism and an excerpt published in the New York Times, Beinart differentiated between “democratic Israel” (inside the Green Line) and “nondemocratic Israel,” and controversially urged a boycott of Jewish products from the latter.

Now editor of a Daily Beast blog that reports on the region, Beinart published on Thursday an essay questioning Booker’s relationships to two Chabad rabbis whose views on the conflict are far to the right of Beinart and many liberal American Jews. Booker met these rabbis, Shmuley Boteach and Shmully Hecht, many years ago while heading Jewish students societies at Oxford University and Yale Law School (seriously). While Beinart lauds Booker’s spirituality and ecumenicism, he also raises the rabbis’ opposition to Palestinian statehood and how that may reflect Booker’s:

How could rabbis so blind to injustice against Palestinians forge such a close bond to a politician who has built his political persona on impassioned pleas for justice? The answer, according to almost everyone I asked, is simple: Cory, Shmuley, and Shmully don’t discuss Israeli politics. …

But Booker is no longer just a spiritual seeker looking for community in unusual places. He’s on his way to being one of the most important politicians in the country. He says he supports a Palestinian state but when he speaks on the Middle East he generally recites the standard AIPAC half-truths. Indeed, although he reminds audiences that the word “Israel” means “struggle,” he doesn’t appear to have struggled with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians at all. To truly become the moral leader he’s capable of being, he’s going to have to start.

This is concern trolling at its finest. Beinart’s writings on Israel have not infrequently smelled of strategic posturing (for example, he calls his boycott program “Zionist B.D.S.”—B.D.S. standing for “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” and being the abbreviation of the favored tactic of anti-Zionists around the world). But at least in this case, he has a discrete target in mind: a well-liked politician with a national profile who is, as the Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman tells Beinart, “genuinely curious, genuinely open.”

Here is what Beinart is doing, I suspect. He could hardly care what these two relatively powerless rabbis think about the conflict. And he knows it would be unfair to impute their views to Booker, and carefully does not do this. Booker’s problem, in Beinart’s telling, is not that he is wrong on Israel, but that he is wishy-washy, asserting shibboleths without going into specifics. As Forward, the Jewish newspaper, noted in a comprehensive Booker profile, “For all his interactions with Jews, Booker has rarely addressed publicly issues such as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank [or] its policies toward the Palestinians.”

So instead, Beinart merely raised the question. He started the conversation about a likely future senator’s Israel politics in the very short window when those politics could be up for grabs.

It seems to be working. As Beinart surely knew, Boteach is famously un-averse to publicity (he was, for example, a spiritual advisor to Michael Jackson). Duly, Boteach responded to Beinart. Beinart returned fire, keeping the conversation going. Today (just four days after Beinart’s initial article), Boteach responded again, dousing this little flame with yet more oxygen.

The substantive bases of Beinart and Boteach’s disagreement are that standard-issue mix, familiar to seasoned observers of Jews Arguing About Israel, of trading facts everybody already knows (Israel “still maintains a security corridor inside the Gaza Strip”), opinionating, and umbrage-taking (“Peter shamelessly cited the most extreme examples of murderers like Baruch Goldstein”).

But it doesn’t matter who wins their debate; the fact that we are now talking about Booker’s views on the conflict—and that Booker is more likely to talk about them, in a context in which he has been (implicitly, sorta, kinda) attacked from the left for not having liberal enough instincts—is already a win for Beinart.

In recent years, Beinart has come to be associated with J Street, the “counter-AIPAC” founded in 2008. But J Street has increasingly focused on highlighting the more liberal aspects of a Democratic administration and largely ignored the mission of pulling the national Democratic Party to the left. J Street is a political advocacy group whose self-described mission to be a “blocking back” for the president on Israel has effectively disarmed it from the realm of political advocacy. If J Street more committed itself on a national scale to the mission Beinart has assigned himself here, it might force a real debate in the Democratic Party about the values that should inform reaching a solution to the conflict.