Beinart gets a Jewish conversation going in the media (just don’t call us a cabal)

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When Peter Beinart came out in favor of a boycott of the West Bank settlers two weeks ago and Jeffrey Goldberg started smearing him, and Jeremy Ben-Ami didn’t take Beinart’s side, I thought we were about to see the Walt and Mearsheimer-ing of Beinart: he was going to be vilified everywhere.

I was wrong. Beinart has driven the wedge. He’s still getting angry spitballs from the right (Alana Newhouse saying in the Washington Post that he’s doing it out of personal ambition) but he has started a real discussion. And let’s be clear: It’s a Jewish conversation, and it’s about the big rock candy mountain (saving the two state solution).

Beinart is saying much what Walt and Mearsheimer and Jimmy Carter said six years ago: to save the two state solution we must fight back against the lobby and end the settlements. Those authors all had greater status than Beinart, but they all made the big mistake of not being Jewish. Forums were organzed to call these men anti-semitic. Terry Gross berated Jimmy Carter on Fresh Air.

She was very respectful toward Beinart yesterday (her biggest concern is that he’s sending his kids to Jewish schools, depriving them of interaction with other races).  But as Gross interviewed Beinart, I got several emails from people who were offended that it was an all-Jewish conversation about Palestine– a cultural hegemony reinforced when Gross interviewed Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Week, to balance Beinart.

Jews don’t want non-Jews in this conversation. Israel was established because we are not safe among the gentiles and we must have sovereignty to be safe; so when non-Jews criticize Israel they’re immediately suspected of seeking to endanger our safety (they must be anti-semites). And you can understand the thinking. Israel was a concerted community project in the wake of the Holocaust, in which half of European Jewry was exterminated; and Israel’s protection inside the U.S. power structure is such a crucial part of that project that there is the highest community taboo on any American Jew who would criticize it and give fuel to Israel’s enemies. This is why there’s far more criticism of Israel in Israel than here; we don’t trust the goyim.

You can see the prohibition at work in someone who is inside the Jewish community (as I am not; I got spat out long ago), Dana Goldstein, writing in the Nation about how anguished she is to voice any criticism of Israel.

I write about Israel-Palestine issues only occasionally, because the onslaught of emails and comments calling me a self-hating Jew can be emotionally overwhelming. It’s also difficult to weather the respectful but strident disagreement from some friends and members of my family, who consider me insufficiently pro-Israel because I support the international community moving with deliberate speed to pressure the Netanyahu administration to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian state… So I am somewhat in awe of my colleague Peter Beinart, who seems to be made of stronger stuff than I am. I can only imagine what Beinart has experienced over the past few weeks…

Remember: both Goldstein and Beinart are liberal Zionists! Still, Goldstein offers a sincere expression of how hard it is for most Jews to offer the mildest criticism. 

Ilyse Hogue of the Nation and formerly said the same thing at J Street when she said it was harder for her to come on to that stage and just align herself with liberal Zionists than it was to take on her usual political adversaries, rightwing radicals or bank CEOs. This time she was taking on her parents in AIPAC.

Because I love my parents, I have made sure to avoid this issue at all costs… I don’t want to make them want to reject me… I love Israel, I love Israel with all my heart.

So Beinart is performing a vital role. He is opening up the conversation inside the Jewish community. Terry Gross echoed Goldstein yesterday when she said it is impossible to have a conversation about Israel inside the Jewish family. Now Beinart allows her to go there. Because he has such Jewish bona fides (Orthodox synagogue attendance, kids in a Jewish day school, worked for AIPAC and the New Republic), he is allowed to speak inside the community– as say, I am not and John Mearsheimer is not. Yesterday I heard Terry Gross make more criticisms of Israel than ever—we Jews criticize rightwing governments in the U.S., why can’t we crititicize them over there?

And on WNYC earlier in the day, in another Jewish conversation, Andrea Bernstein was openly critical of Israel, asking Beinart how Israel could be a Jewish state and a democracy at the same time. Good question, Bernstein.

And David Remnick, interviewing Beinart in yet another Jewish conversation at the 92d Street Y last night, surely expressed rage against the settlements, and – I bet—staked out a position to the left of Beinart.

So Peter Beinart is brave. And this is an important conversation.

But let’s be clear. The parameters of this conversation are racist. Palestinians, the group most affected by these deliberations, are not invited into the conversation. No one is balancing Beinart with Palestinian-Americans Ali Abunimah, Remi Kanazi, Susie Abulhawa, Nadia Hijab or George Bisharat. Author Pamela Olson isn’t invited into the conversation. Paul Woodward isn’t. Walt and Mearsheimer either.

When Peter Beinart spoke of Jewish power and mentioned Ivy League presidents being Jewish and five of the last seven New York Times editors being Jewish, Terry Gross chided that people might think Jews run the media– that we’re a cabal. We may not run the media, and we may not be a cabal, but this conversation is certainly cabalistic and reeks of arrogance. We have our heads in the sand.

When are Jews going to feel safe enough to let others in on this conversation about cosa nostra, which happens to affect all Americans? A long time. (Too long for the two state solution, maybe too long even to keep expressions of anti-semitism from rising in the U.S.).

In the American Conservative this month, Scott McConnell, in an admiring review of Beinart (whose view he shares that the two state solution is the paradigm, and we need to grab it), hints at his own mannerly impatience.

The Crisis of Zionism also has a problem of agency. Though few writers are more clear-eyed about the hurdles American Jews face in changing the way their community relates to Israel, Beinart nonetheless writes as if they are the sole audience that matters for a serious argument about Zionism….

can such a circumstance endure? America’s engagement with the Middle East once centered on the construction of schools and universities, an outgrowth of the Protestant missionary presence in the region. The first generation of Western-educated Arabs often studied in such schools, so the American presence in the region was associated with science, the education of girls and women, a modernity untainted by colonialism—in short, a genuine program of liberation. …

Just as “the question of Palestine” resonates far beyond the borders of the Palestine Mandate, so in American politics its significance has begun to be felt beyond the confines of American Jewish opinion. If American Jews are to help forge a democratic and non-racist Israel, they are unlikely to succeed without allies. It would not be without irony were such allies to be found, among other venues, among the politically active Muslim students in the American universities and those mainline Protestants who are now, finally, finding their voice to say “Enough!” to America’s unconditional support for Israel.

I hope this leads to more outspokenness. America needs non-Jews. So do Israel and Palestine. Occupy the Jewish establishment.

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“Occupy American Judaism.” Love it! Thank you Phil.

America needs non-Jews.

Why would a country need 98% of its citizens?

Thanks for the topmost informative lead article of my newsday Phil. It looks like hophni is right again, nobody is talking about Beinart and he didn’t start a conversation. “Jews don’t want non-Jews in this conversation. Israel was established because we are not safe among the gentiles and we must… Read more »

“Jews don’t want non-Jews in this conversation.” Phil, consider the parallel question: “Would any decent and sensible person want to allow the discussion of what to do about global warming to occur ONLY within the oil industry executive suites?” Phil, you are probably right about the movers and shakers wanting… Read more »

Great article. There are so many here. Israel is one attack on Iran away (with the economic devastation it would cause) from making this conversation all inclusive. Given that even the minor challenges from outside (or even inside) the Jewish community to Israels “right” to do whatever it wants are… Read more »