Beinart calls for boycott of settlements ‘to save Israel’

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Today on the New York Times op-ed page, Peter Beinart calls for a boycott of Israeli settlements. “To save Israel, boycott the settlements” is the headline. “As I write this, I cringe.” (And just in time for his forthcoming book, Crisis of Zionism.)

Beinart’s move is very important in the Jewish discourse and therefore the mainstream American discourse. Unlike so many others, Beinart is not in denial that Israel is in crisis. He knows that half the people under its government have no political rights. 

In this piece he is establishing the new pro-Israel line: the two-state solution is a live item, Israel as a Jewish state and Jewish democracy with a strong Jewish majority can be saved and valorized, the Republicans and neoconservatives are trying to consolidate a greater Israel, they are working in parallel with the BDS call, which would make one democracy between river and sea. That a liberal Zionist would issue this call was inevitable (some have done so already; I long predicted that J Street would put its foot down on the settlements; I guess they were just  waiting for the book launch).

Here is Beinart’s argument, which includes a call to recast the language:

It’s time for a counteroffensive — a campaign to fortify the boundary that keeps alive the hope of a Jewish democratic state alongside a Palestinian one….

we should call the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel.” The phrase suggests that there are today two Israels: a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it. It counters efforts by Israel’s leaders to use the legitimacy of democratic Israel to legitimize the occupation and by Israel’s adversaries to use the illegitimacy of the occupation to delegitimize democratic Israel.

Having made that rhetorical distinction, American Jews should seek every opportunity to reinforce it. We should lobby to exclude settler-produced goods from America’s free-trade deal with Israel. We should push to end Internal Revenue Service policies that allow Americans to make tax-deductible gifts to settler charities. Every time an American newspaper calls Israel a democracy, we should urge it to include the caveat: only within the green line.

But a settlement boycott is not enough. It must be paired with an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel.

Here is a true (and obvious) principle that it’s great to hear him embracing:

settlements need not constitute the world’s worst human rights abuse in order to be worth boycotting. After all, numerous American cities and organizations boycotted Arizona after it passed a draconian immigration law in 2010.

Beinart specifically leaves out East Jerusalem, where some 250,000 settlers live, where Palestinians are being evicted from their homes, and religious zealots are using the bible as a real estate guide:

the boycott should not apply to East Jerusalem, which Israel also occupied in 1967, since Palestinians there at least have the ability to gain citizenship, even if they are not granted it by birth.

Beinart is not shy about using the word Zionism. At J Street’s conference next weekend, they are eschewing this term. But Beinart is old school, and wants to blow new life into Jewish nationalism. He is trying to do what Todd Gitlin is also trying to do (in a piece in Raritan): to deny that Zionism is colonial, to separate the 45-year settlement project from the 64-year-old story of Israel.

When Israel’s founders wrote the country’s declaration of independence, which calls for a Jewish state that “ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” they understood that Zionism and democracy were not only compatible; the two were inseparable.

More than six decades later, they look prophetic. If Israel makes the occupation permanent and Zionism ceases to be a democratic project, Israel’s foes will eventually overthrow Zionism itself.

The piece will be unpopular among full-boycott supporters, whom Beinart decries as threatening the Jewish democracy– and for many others who consider Palestinians part of their political community (including those who have witnessed the apartheid conditions in the West Bank and welcomed the Arab Spring as liberating all Middle Eastern peoples who have not, per Lincoln, consented to their governments). 

The issue of community is crucial here. Beinart has called for a “Jewish conversation” about these issues, and his piece will be seen as revolutionary in the circle where he wants to stand, the Jewish community and US establishment. Here are Sarah Wildman and Jeffrey Goldberg discussing it on twitter:

[Wildman] I must admit the word ‘boycott’ makes me twitch. And yet we must acknowledge the settlements undermine Israel. 

[Goldberg] As you know, I’ve been arguing against settlements forever. But anti-Jewish boycotts? I know where this ends.

He’s talking about Nazis. Later Goldberg took it further:

You know what? I find it unpleasant to talk about boycotting Jews on a day when Jewish children have been murdered for being Jewish.

Ronn Torossian has a more sober response (thanks, Paul Mutter):

Beinart is a shame to the Jewish community – a self-hating Jew. Beinart doesn’t represent the Jewish community any more than a black member of the KKK would represent African-Americans.

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strange that Phil is trumpeting Beinart’s Op-Ed and “call” — Richard Silverstein thinks otherwise: “Beinart calls for a “counteroffensive” against Bibi Netanyahu’s “one-state” vision. I’m down with that. But what does the campaign involve? He doesn’t like the Bibilical terms Judea and Samaria. Nor does he like the term, “West Bank.” Instead, he comes up with the hopelessly flawed, “nondemocratic Israel.” How do I hate this phrase? Let me count the ways. First, it… Read more »

Meanwhile, over in Israel, there aren’t 0.1% of Israelis who have ever heard of Beinart. I doubt 1% have heard of BDS. The total number of Israelis affected is in the hundreds, if one counts all the humanities professors whose papers may have been rejected in European publications, even as the EU pours gigantic research funds into Israeli science departments.

We should call the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel” This assumes that Israeli democracy still functions behind the Green line And it doesn’t look good. Dimi Rieder from the NYR blog : “Other recently passed legislation includes a law that prescribes the withdrawal of government funding to any organization or institution marking Israel’s Independence Day as an occasion for mourning; a law allowing communities in the Negev and Galilee regions that are smaller than 400… Read more »

Beinart: “Israel’s founders … understood that Zionism and democracy were not only compatible; the two were inseparable.” But this is hogwash as the present situation proves. Beinart is becoming an intellectual contortionist in an attempt to try and align his Zionist idealism with what his two eyes can plainly see. Kübler-Ross Stage 1.

It’s really good to see this kind of militant effort directed against the part of Israel that occupies or supports the occupation. Sure, militant for liberals, but more evidence of the progress J Street and others are making possible.