Below are two video excerpts of a panel last Sunday in Washington, at which the liberal Zionist Peter Beinart called on the Jewish community to open up its conversation about Israel and then a pillar of that community took exception to Beinart’s call.
Let me set the exchange up.
The panel took place at J Street’s conference and was titled, “Held Hostage: How the Israel conversation is shut down and opened up in communities across the country.” Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, spoke first. I video’d that statement here, but let me summarize. He said the Jewish community has the right to set boundaries to cut people out. The Boston Jewish community has decided to include LGBT Jews and interfaith couples and J Street, but it has chosen to exclude Jewish Voice for Peace, because any political effort that involves pressuring the American government to pressure Israel to do something that Israeli Jews and their leaders are not willing to do “is at best distasteful to us.”
Though Burton said that it’s OK for his community to debate Israeli settlement policy, and for members to urge a boycott of the settlements. Though he would appreciate it if liberal Zionists like Beinart would show some sympathy to the possible loss of Jewish access to the West Bank.
The first video here is Beinart’s response to Burton (and to Melissa Weintraub, a rabbi with the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, who said that his criticisms of the Jewish leadership are too sharp and public).
The best moments are in the second half. Beinart says that Burton is dumbing down the Jewish community by establishing absurd boundaries for the Israel conversation.
At 4:30, Beinart gets a lot of applause by saying that Jews have to listen to Palestinians on the Israel/Palestine issue, that Jews are ignorant about Palestinian views. “From the most narrow tribal perspective, I think we’re going to lose this intellectual encounter,” he says. “Because Palestinians understand what we think, they hear it all around them, and we don’t know what they’re saying…”
Beinart also argues that if the Jewish community is going to rule out an open discussion of BDS– the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement– because BDS undermines Israel’s legitimacy, then it should rule out open advocacy for the settlements, because they also undermine Israel’s legitimacy. Zionism, he goes on, is a wider tradition than Burton’s statist Zionism. Cultural Zionists like Ahad Ha’am did not want a Jewish national state, but per Burton they can’t be part of the discussion.
“If Zionism is bigger than a secure democratic Jewish state, it’s also really important for us to remember that Judaism is bigger than Zionism.”
This second video is of Burton responding.
Burton describes the conversation of Israel’s legitimacy as “an existential debate,” in which Jews are “talking about our existence.” That debate involves the “existential question of whether Israel is going to continue to exist in an un-secure part of the world surrounded by people who have vowed to destroy the Jewish state.”
Then Burton implies that admitting alternative views would threaten the existence of Jews in the U.S., and cites the Ku Klux Klan as a “paradigm” of what is beyond the pale.
“You know what, there are boundaries. And while it’s not necessarily fair to use the Ku Klux Klan as the paradigm, and I’ve definitely heard it used in Jewish audiences before, it is a paradigm about what is beyond, what is about destroying that state, what is it about destroying that thing we love and believe in and is at heart of the Jewish definition– of the Jewish sense of self, about a Jewish state.”
As for BDS advocates, they’re not part of the community; but some Jewish organization might allow a discussion with BDS advocates, and with Palestinians too.
At the end of the video, Burton says that Israel’s legitimacy rests not on its democratic principles. It would make him uneasy if Israel were not striving toward a true and full democracy. But it is more important that Israel be a Jewish state than a democratic state. The democracy standard is holding Israel to a higher standard of legitimacy than China and Saudi Arabia, he says.
P.S. Here are Rebecca Vilkomerson and Donna Nevel commenting on Beinart’s appeal for a wider discussion.