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Objectifying Palestinians in Beinart’s ‘American Jewish Cocoon’ essay

Israel/PalestineUS Politics

Peter Beinart’s recent New York Review of Books piece, “The American Jewish Cocoon,” makes an important point about the Jewish community’s lack of understanding of Palestinians. However, while it initially reads as a progressive call for deeper understanding, at its core it continues to reflect many of the damaging assumptions of the mainstream Jewish community that he claims to assail.

nyrbcoverOne of Beinart’s central theses is that Palestinians need to be listened to—but primarily so that Jews in the U.S. can better articulate their own positions. He says: “The American Jewish community is hamstrung in its ability to respond by its own lack of experience with Palestinian life under Israeli control.”

While Beinart mentions many examples of the ways that ordinary Palestinian lives are constrained, he does so without the crucial context of the Occupation or the constant degree of violence perpetrated by the Israeli government. Without challenging his readers to recognize this overarching framework and by asking only that American Jews listen to Palestinians—not challenge and change their positions—he avoids the deeper issues of injustice.

Without any serious consideration of BDS as a legitimate and growing tool to address the very violations of rights he mentions, Beinart attacks BDS in sharp terms, calling the analogy with South African apartheid “dangerous and inaccurate,” despite the fact that many from within Palestinian society and outside, including public figures as diverse as Ehud Barak, Desmond Tutu, Shulamit Aloni, and Jimmy Carter, have all explained why the analogy is apt. Further, he makes accusations about anti-Semites in the BDS movement in a way that feels like a cheap shot, rather than taking seriously that—like other uses of boycott throughout history—BDS is based on demands to a state by a people who are being denied their fundamental rights. To suggest that is anti-Semitic is both wrong and distorts and minimizes the meaning of anti-Semitism. He also fails to mention that BDS has been called for by the majority of Palestinian civil society organizations—presumably made up of the same Palestinians he is asking us to listen to—and that it is a specifically non-violent response to Israeli aggression and control.

His overall perspective is that they (Palestinians) do some bad things; we (Israelis) do some bad things. To take one example, he talks about anti-Semitism in Palestinian schools—without providing any evidence—but doesn’t criticize the Israelis at all in this regard even though racism in Israeli schools has been well-documented (see Nurit Peled-Elhanan’s Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education). This consistent equalizing of both “sides” denies the power imbalance and the profound and daily impact of the occupation on Palestinians.

The lack of context that Beinart offers plays out as well in the odd way that he describes anti-normalization calls by Palestinians and his treatment of the Nakba. Anti-normalization principles—which are based on political, rather than racial or ethnic considerations—are a way to force recognition of the overarching power differential between oppressor and oppressed, rather than equalizing the narrative of the two sides. Especially in a piece that calls for dialogue with Palestinians for its own sake, Beinart should have seriously considered the argument by Palestinians about why dialogue alone is so often counter-productive. His failure to do so indicates that he may not be listening to Palestinian voices closely enough.

Beinart says he is “repeatedly struck by the central place they assign the Nakba in Palestinian identity, and by their deep insistence that those Palestinians whom the Nakba made refugees, and their descendants, have the right to return to their ancestral homes.” But we are struck by his surprise, as this has been a central tenet of the Palestinian narrative ever since 1948, when more than 700,000 people were displaced from their homes. Beinart could have instead engaged in the question about why the Jewish and Israeli narrative, so deeply steeped in historical and religious memory, has tried to so completely suppress the past sixty years of Palestinian history.

While Beinart’s piece focuses on the American Jewish relationship with Palestinians, we also note that throughout his piece he erases entire portions of the Jewish community in the U.S. as well: He does not, for example, acknowledge the existence of American Jews who support BDS (and the numbers are surely growing) or that Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace are also excluded by the Hillel guidelines that claim to govern Jewish life on campus.

Finally, Beinart seems to still objectify Palestinians, seeing them as a means to an end, whether that is greater knowledge (“How effectively can you defend Israel’s legitimacy if you don’t even understand the arguments against it?”) or re-connecting with Jewish history. He says at the conclusion of his piece: “By seeing Palestinians—truly seeing them—we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves.”

While calls to understand Palestinian realities are encouraging, they need to be seen to exist beyond the prism of Jewish and Israeli needs and expectations; instead, the focus must be centered on the human, civil, and national rights of Palestinians and on what is just.

This article first appeared in Open Zion

Donna Nevel
About Donna Nevel

Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is co-director of PARCEO, a participatory research center. She is a long-time organizer for justice in Palestine/Israel; against Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism; and for a just public education system. She is a founding member of Jews Say No!, Facing the Nakba Project, and Jews Against anti-Muslim Racism (JAAMR) and she was a co-founder of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

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8 Responses

  1. seafoid
    seafoid
    September 19, 2013, 10:15 am

    Beinart can’t spell out how odious Israel really is because if he does he’ll be labeled as a self hating Jew and he’ll lose his cashflow and status. He doesn’t want the Finkelstein treatment. He wants to get more books out and have better speaking invites. He wants to be a respectable critic. Not like that pup Max Blumenthal. Max will never get a slot in the New York Review. I think Beinart wants to wean Jews slowly off nihilistic Zionism but I guess most people haven’t been paying attention and are more likely to reply

    “I don’t care. I love it”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxxajLWwzqY

    So he has to triangulate . He wants to bring people along. Very few US Hebrews understand the scale of moral degradation which has brought YESHA as far as 2013. It comes back to Phil’s Mom’s friend’s point that “Jews wouldn’t do that”.

    Well, they have been doing it for the last 80 years and they have it down to a fine art and it’s uglier than sin.

  2. pabelmont
    pabelmont
    September 19, 2013, 10:25 am

    Beinart writes about Palestinians “without the crucial context of the Occupation or the constant degree of violence perpetrated by the Israeli government”.

    By this time, if he doesn’t know this stuff, he’s either an ignoramus or so deeply under psychic pressure not to “know” that he is useless: he says “know the Palestinians” but does not or cannot take his own advice.

    I think seafoid has it right: he wants someone else to be the Jewish hero who speaks truth (about the horror of Israeli control in the OPTs) to power (American Jews).

    He acts like a coward in all this either because (as seafoid suggests) he is a coward or because (as I suggest, as a possibility) he is psychically unready to open his own eyes (and, having done so, to open his own mouth) to the horrible truths.

    Another possibility must also be considered: every publication edits (and censors) the material it publishes. The pressures to “see no evil, speak no evil” regarding Israel is profound in the USA, profound in NYC. Has the NYRB yet come out with Jewish condemnation (or even mere accurate description) of the occupation? And how often? What pressures do its editors face?

    Or, contrariwise, might NYRB’s editors have demanded more “truthiness” and if so, and it was not provided, why did they agree to publish?

  3. American
    American
    September 19, 2013, 10:42 am

    ”……he avoids the deeper issues of injustice.”

    All Israel believers do…..they cannot, will not ever admit their own guilt and ‘original sin’ in taking another people’s land and dispossessing them to begin with.
    Even if a rare one admits to that crime they will justify it by saying it served the Greater Good for the Jewish victims and whats done is done and now the problem is only about how to rearrange the facts on the ground.
    They never talk about or ask what they should do ‘to make up for’ everything they have done.
    True, true,true, true pathological narcissism.

  4. Woody Tanaka
    Woody Tanaka
    September 19, 2013, 11:00 am

    Finally, Beinart seems to still objectify Palestinians, seeing them as a means to an end, whether that is greater knowledge (“How effectively can you defend Israel’s legitimacy if you don’t even understand the arguments against it?”) or re-connecting with Jewish history. He says at the conclusion of his piece: “By seeing Palestinians—truly seeing them—we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves.”

    What??? A zionist who is so self-absorbed that he essentially denies the humanity of the Palestinians while placing himself at the center of the universe??? You don’t say…

  5. marc b.
    marc b.
    September 19, 2013, 2:58 pm

    funny this from Beinart’s article:

    In part that’s because establishment Jewish discourse about Israel is, in large measure, American public discourse about Israel. Watch a discussion of Israel on American TV and what you’ll hear, much of the time, is a liberal American Jew (Thomas Friedman, David Remnick) talking to a centrist American Jew (Dennis Ross, Alan Dershowitz) talking to a hawkish American Jew (William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer), each articulating different Zionist positions. Especially since Edward Said’s death, Palestinian commentators have been hardly visible. Thus Palestinians can’t easily escape hearing the way the other side discusses Israel; American Jews can.

    this paragraph later after an opening salvo describing the ‘us versus them’ echo chamber American Jews debate Israel in, the debate being amongst themselves. ‘so wasn’t he just part of a Palestinian-free debate at Columbia?’, I ask rhetorically. he is the individual embodiment of the J-Street Trojan Horse.

  6. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870
    September 19, 2013, 7:09 pm

    RE: “While Beinart mentions many examples of the ways that ordinary Palestinian lives are constrained, he does so without the crucial context of the Occupation or the constant degree of violence perpetrated by the Israeli government. . . Without any serious consideration of BDS as a legitimate and growing tool to address the very violations of rights he mentions, Beinart attacks BDS in sharp terms . . .” ~ Nevel & Vilkomerson

    FOR AN INTERESTING PARALLEL, SEE: “Albert Camus and the Liberal Dilemma”, by Ron Jacobs, CounterPunch.org, 5/17/13

    [EXCERPTS] . . . It has always been a curiosity, then, why Camus had such a difficult time understanding the desire of the Algerians to create a meaning to their lives that required overthrowing the French colonialists. His understanding that human freedom was perhaps the greatest quality humanity possessed seemed to stop short of recognizing the denial of that freedom under colonialism. This shortsightedness led Camus to justify situations in a manner that remind this reviewer of Rube Goldberg’s inventions, only without the result desired. In other words, explanations full of loops and turns but without even the conclusive ending Goldberg’s inventions achieved. . .
    . . . Unbeknownst at the time of their writing, Camus’ writings about the French colonization of Algeria are also chronicling its end. His personal laments regarding that demise represent the thinking of those who either cannot or will not acknowledge that the brutality and theft that all too often defines settler colonialism does not appear able to end without violence and tragedy.
    Parallels to the situation of Algeria abound in modern history. One could easily argue that one of today’s still existing examples of this dynamic is found in Palestine. The Palestinians are colonized in their own lands and their struggle to liberate those lands is often violent, as is the repression of that struggle. Most of the solutions presented are those created in Washington and Tel Aviv
    , much like many of the solutions to Algeria’s situation were created in Paris. The idea that Palestinians deserve the right to determine the nature of their struggle is still not a popular one in imperial capitals. Neither was the idea that the Algerians (or the Vietnamese, to name another people struggling for their liberation) deserved that right in the time of their struggle.

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/17/albert-camus-and-the-liberal-dilemma/

  7. Kathleen
    Kathleen
    September 19, 2013, 10:01 pm

    “While calls to understand Palestinian realities are encouraging, they need to be seen to exist beyond the prism of Jewish and Israeli needs and expectations; instead, the focus must be centered on the human, civil, and national rights of Palestinians and on what is just.”

    I believe Beinart stance is relatively new. And you can be sure he has been aware of the very serious injustices for a long time. Yet did nothing. He is part of the better late than never crowd and his intentions are clearly not altruistic. He fears for the state of Israel.

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