Peter Beinart has now been excommunicated from his original community, the Establishment Israel lobby media, and Joshua Holland has a great interview up with Peter Beinart at Alternet in which the brave writer’s further evolution can be glimpsed.
The interview is remarkable for two points: First, Beinart’s shift toward cultural Zionism, away from political Zionism and the need for a Jewish state. He is readying himself to call for democracy for all citizens between river and the sea, so long as Jewish cultural existence is safeguarded. Second, there is Beinart’s very sharp analysis of how American Jews have become more conservative– lost their commitment to the idea of social equality– because of their support for Israel.
First Holland asks Beinart if he was surprised by the angry reception for his book. Beinart says No. I don’t believe him, but it’s the question I’ve always wanted to ask.
Peter Beinart: Not really. I knew this was a very emotional issue. I knew that it would produce a lot of anger. For somebody within the Jewish community to take a view of Israel’s direction that suggests it is deeply in the wrong path – this is an issue close to many people’s hearts. People come at it from their own perspectives. I wrote it knowing that whatever the initial reaction would be that this is going to be a debate that is probably going to continue in some form for the rest of my life. I wanted to try and make some statement about the danger of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank becoming permanent and threatening Israel’s status as a democracy while there was still time to do so.
Now here’s where he indicates that he is stepping away from political Zionism. He doesn’t go in for the celebration of “Jewish democracy” we heard so much of just a few weeks back.
I think there are very important questions that Israel is going to have to face. Remember this is a country without a constitution and that has never even really defined what the word “Jew” means. I think you can imagine an Israel that evolves toward greater mechanisms for full representation of the Arab population without fully losing the special responsibility it has for the safeguarding of Jewish life. It’s important to remember that Zionism historically has been a very broad canvas. I consider myself a political Zionist who believes in the democratic Jewish state, but it’s worth remembering that there was another strain of Jewish Zionism called cultural Zionism. It was from Theodore Herzl’s great rival Ahad Ha’am. It doesn’t even necessarily believe that a Zionist had to believe in a Jewish state. It posited that there must be a Jewish community inside Israel representing a cultural point for Jewish people in the diaspora.
Here’s his analysis of the American Jewish political presence. Note that Eric Alterman likes to say that Jews are liberals. I think the truth is far more nuanced, and Beinart is on to it:
I think what you’ve seen is the weakening of the institutional Jewish community’s historic commitment to issues of equity. There was a time, believe it or not, where the major instruments of American Jewish life would have been deeply invested in the Supreme Court’s decision on healthcare. In the middle of the 20th century, civil rights and questions of economic justice were very much at the fore in the institutional American Jewish community in a way that they’re not today. Obviously, lots of American Jews are very involved in the issues, but institutionally the community has moved toward a much stronger focus on defense of Israeli policies and defense against anti-Semitism — I would say that sometimes it’s perceived anti-Semitism, or anti-Semitism defined in a way that makes the term meaningless.
That was partly a response to the rise in Republican power in Washington and the need for the American Jewish community to do business with Republicans. It has fed into this alliance with the Christian right.
I believe that Peter Beinart has crossed a Rubicon, that his brave stance against his own community, the pro-Israel Establishment, has set him on a journey that will lead ultimately to his abandonment of the idea of a Jewish state.
Beinart has now been all but excommunicated by that community. Last week, Ben Cohen published an attack on him in Commentary that characterized him as “anti-Zionist” (a misrepresentation). Also last week, Beinart’s name was invoked from the podium at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in Pittsburgh, in one Presbyterian’s speech calling for divestment from companies doing business in the occupied territories. The speaker noted Beinart’s call for boycott of settlement products in a piece in the New York Times. So Beinart is now alienated from liberal Zionist groups Americans for Peace Now and J Street (whose shameful stance on divestment MJ Rosenberg slams here).
(Correction: Ben Cohen contacted us to say he has not worked at the American Jewish Committee since January 2011. The post has been amended.)