Two cheers for Beinart

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A number of writers here have criticized Peter Beinart’s call in the New York Times Monday for a boycott of the settlements “to save Israel.” Adam, Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel and Gabriel Ash have largely focused on Beinart’s dream of redeeming the Jewish state as a democracy inside the green line. I want to give Beinart two cheers. His op-ed is a milestone in mainstream discourse. He has taken considerable risk, and provided an opening for others to change in the US establishment and American Jewish community. Here is a man who was giving private audiences to AIPAC donors just a few years ago, now he is calling for boycott. What a shift.

Do I agree with Beinart’s Zionist program? No. I don’t believe in the need for a Jewish state. I want Israel to move to a full democracy, and Palestine too, I want to see all human rights honored. The Palestinian nonviolent movement offers the best hope for transformation, and the tool of boycott is the international community’s strongest weapon. Well, now Beinart has opened the mainstream door on boycott. I don’t care if he has taken a halfway measure, boycotting only settlement products in “non-democratic Israel,” his name for the West Bank. He has shown courage to break with his former path.

In the last year both Sarah Schulman and Cecilie Surasky have spoken of the importance of not setting up ideological litmus tests and tests of purity. To reject Beinart’s call is to impose such a test on speakers–because he’s a liberal Zionist. The key is to build a broad political coalition to transform Israel and Palestine. When Omar Barghouti said a couple of years ago, If you want to boycott an egg, we want you to boycott that egg, I saw that as a welcoming, encouraging statement, one that could help people join up. Lately, Schulman described us as a “vanguard movement.” A vanguard has to grow a broad movement, or it’s a failure. 

Do all in such a coalition agree on program? Of course not. As Lincoln said in 1858 when he was building the insurgent Republican party, “Of strange discordant and even hostile elements we gathered from the four winds and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy.” That coalition included radicals and people who wanted to work within the system. And you can say, Well Lincoln was for preserving slavery in the south in 1858. True– and he changed over the next five years.

I believe Beinart– or other people like him who are caught in the middle– will change when they see that his boycott call is ignored and that the settlements only grow. I believe he will ultimately endorse equal rights throughout Israel and Palestine when he recognizes that he cannot save the two-state solution, and stronger tools are needed to break the rightwing Israeli-and-Israel-lobby consensus.

My hope is that our movement will have impact on mainstream American thinking. Imagine if right now Jon Stewart, who is at the left of the mainstream discourse, had one of our friends on TV and said, Wow this Peter Beinart really has stepped out now with a call to boycott the settlements. What do you think? And imagine criticizing Beinart in such a setting. I never would. I want the mainstream to shift. I would say: I approve of his courage and boldness, his stance demonstrates that boycott has been a great tool from the needle trades to the grape pickers. Though I don’t think a settlement boycott is going to do the trick.

This is about changing the American discourse. Even J Street, which represents the left side of mainstream American Jewish organizations, is appalled by Beinart’s stand.

And yes, part of my response is a desire to see Jews wake up. My original religious community is reactionary on Palestine. I don’t care about saving Israel; I do care about saving that wounded community from its unending endorsement of militarism and war.  As Ilene Cohen says, “For many Jews who want some legitimacy for the discomfort (for some, I hope, the horror) they feel about what Israel does, Beinart is doing today what J Street did three years ago: he’s giving those people an address and a community. Alas, Jeremy Ben-Ami [of J Street] dropped the ball early on and hewed to the dictates of the right-wing consensus on Goldstone and on Palestinian recognition at the UN and now on Beinart.”

My support for Beinart springs from great despair about the conflict. Anyone who’s been to the West Bank and Gaza knows that we Americans have helped create a disastrous injustice. Again I put it up there with slavery. Certainly it recalls Algeria, South Africa, Ireland—the very worst of colonial, oppressive arrangements. This is not Syria or Egypt: most of an entire society is committed to this project. As an American I hold out the naïve hope that it might be transformed peacefully. That will only happen if the power communities in the United States and the Jewish community come to their senses. Beinart has struck a blow for that awakening. Two cheers for Beinart.

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Shimon Peres, Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller and Martin Indyk have soured me forever concerning all “well-intentioned” projects originating from “left-wing” Zionist circles. Either they are all grossly incompetent or they have been playing a double game all along — I lean towards the latter speculation.

Absolutely, nothing else to add, even if you cite the master neocon in your headline. ;)

I’m all for boycotting that egg, even if you compensate by buying another egg, laid by the same chicken, on the other side of the coop. I think Jerry Haber made a very good case for supporting “TBDS”, even if you can’t bring yourself to support BDS: Haber also… Read more »

Beautifully written, convincing and persuasive. Thanks so much Phil.

Of course you are right Phil, and I’ve tried to support this position down here in the trenches below the tag. But surely you notice what happens? The hostility and rage directed against this sensible approach? The zealots on any side represent ‘the zealots camp.’ Phil and Beinart are on… Read more »