Beinart and the crisis of liberal Zionism

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In April this year Peter Beinart is scheduled to publish a book called The Crisis of Liberal Zionism, a book that originated in a 2010 article in the NY Review of Books slamming the American Jewish establishment for blind support of Israel.

Because Beinart has intellectual honesty– and his publisher could use a bombshell– I’ve wondered if he isn’t planning to extend his 2010 argument by coming out for democracy for everyone in a country halfway around the world from us, Palestinians and Jews. I was encouraged last month after Beinart’s appearance at the Jewish Federations annual assembly, where he said honestly that there is only one state right now between the river and the sea, and for Israel truly to be a democracy, it must extend citizenship to everyone who lives there–“complete equality of social and political rights.” Here are excerpts:

The Palestinians of the West Bank have been under Israeli sovereignty since 1967. So to my mind that makes them, whether we like it or not, till we have a Palestinian state, Israelis. There is only one state that has sovereignty and dominion over their lives. They’re not Israeli citizens, but Israel is the state that controls much of their lives…

[The] delegitimization of Israel will rise in  direct proportion to the degree that people believe that Israel is no longer living up to its own founding principles. If Israel can become again a country that offers citizenship to everyone in its borders, irrespective of race, religion, sex annd ethnicity, it will not need PR firms.

When I say Israel, I mean all the territory under Israeli domain. Some parts of which I wish were not under Israeli sovereignty. That is Israel. The people there might not be Israeli citizens, but that’s Israel. We have to take ownership of the fact that until a Palestinian state is created, that’s Israel…

I’ve interpreted these statements as meaning that Beinart is calling for voting rights for Palestinians in the West Bank– in this post, for instance. But after I published that, Beinart tweeted that I’m wrong:

Fair enough. Beinart, who used to give private sessions to AIPAC audiences, and who employs a word (Pals) that offends some Palestinians, has always said that he’s a Zionist. “I believe in Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state,” he said in the Federations talk I trumpeted. This is a man who puts an Israeli flag in his kids’ room.

Still: color me confused. 

The “belief” in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state can more properly be described as blind faith given the fact that for 45 years Israel has controlled the lives of millions of people who don’t have a right to vote. Israel’s military induction policy is more racist than our army’s induction policy of World War II. Israel’s governing coalitions are as racist as the Jim Crow south. The utter dissonance between Jewish governance and democracy is truly the “crisis of liberal Zionism.”

Again, though, this is not some fresh crisis. Hannah Arendt pointed this out in 1948 when Israel was founded in violence against Arabs. The Palestinian crisis has been continual since the Nakba. Today Palestinians under occupation are rightsless, while Palestinians in Israel say they are second-class citizens. 

If he hopes to maintain his reputation for intellectual honesty, and speak to a wider audience than Jews whose blood runs blue and white, Beinart has a responsibility to explain: When is the Palestinian crisis going to end? What real likelihood is there of creating a viable Palestinian state, after 21 years of a sham peace process, and following a year in which Israel broke all records for settlement expansion? 

How long should the Tamimi family–whose son Mustafa was killed merely for insisting that his village should have access to its only well— have to wait for privileged American Zionists to work out their views of Israeli borders and constitution?

This is the problem inherent in Beinart’s project. He has set out to resolve the contradictions between Jewish and democratic, sort of like a Soviet propagandist trying to resolve the contradictions between Communism and freedom in the 1980s. Given what Israel has become, you cannot resolve these contradictions. And so Beinart has made a choice: Jewish over democratic.

(Jeffrey Goldberg has echoed Beinart, saying that “we’re only a few years away, at most, from a total South-Africanization of this issue.” So he too gives himself an open window of years in which to perform mental exercises for an American audience as the occupation marches on.)

Update. A reader has pointed me to Beinart’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the drill sergeant of American Zionist orthodoxy, after Beinart was reported to have slept through reveille and not kept his uniform ironed in that 2010 article. Emphasis mine. Ouch.

PB: I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian. I’m not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state. What I am asking is that Israel not do things that foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, because if it is does that it will become–and I’m quoting Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak here–an “apartheid state.”

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