This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Peter Beinart’s latest attempt to enter the Israel fray comes with his analysis of the American Studies Association boycott resolution. He begins by dispensing with the “singling out Israel” and “anti-Semitism” criticisms voiced by the Jewish establishment. Beinart concludes they’re red herrings.
Beinart’s criticism lay elsewhere. He thinks that behind the resolution is opposition to the very idea of democratic Jewish state of Israel. Here’s Beinart:
The best argument against the ASA’s boycott isn’t about double standards or academic freedom. It’s about the outcome the boycott seeks to produce. The Association’s boycott resolution doesn’t denounce “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.” It denounces “the Israeli occupation of Palestine” and “the systematic discrimination against Palestinians,” while making no distinction whatsoever between Israeli control of the West Bank, where Palestinians lack citizenship, the right to vote and the right to due process, and Israel proper, where Palestinians, although discriminated against, enjoy all three. That’s in keeping with the “boycotts, divestments, and sanctions” movement more generally. BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders. The BDS movement’s call for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” denies Israel’s right to set its own immigration policy. So does the movement’s call for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”, which presumably denies Israel’s right to maintain the preferential immigration policy that makes it a refuge for Jews. Indeed, because the BDS movement’s statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land, it’s entirely possible to read it as giving Palestinians’ rights to national symbols and a preferential immigration policy while denying the same to Jews.
This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one. I don’t think that position is inherently anti-Semitic, but I do think it’s profoundly misguided.
Beinart is interesting here in ways that aren’t always obvious to those who read him. They may not be obvious to Beinart himself.
Everyone knows that Israel isn’t going anywhere. Palestinians aren’t going to be saved by Israel disappearing. Everyone knows that Palestine isn’t reappearing in any form hoped for or recognizable by Palestinians.
Nonetheless, the rhetoric that places Israel as a Jewish state on hold has its place in the political economy. Hitting at the (im)possibility of a Jewish and democratic state is important. It sends a message to our fully assimilated Jewish leaders, including our rabbinate, that the claim of Jewish privilege, historically established or not, is contradicted by Israel’s oppressive and Jewish leadership’s enabling behavior.
Jews can have it both ways – being special and conquerors – only in the assimilated Jewish imagination. But Beinart shouldn’t expect Palestinians or non-Jews in the West to sign up for Israel boosterism.
Jews of Conscience aren’t going to play a game of Jewish musical chairs involving the idea of a Jewish democratic state – especially when the chairs are upholstered with Star of David helicopter gunships.
Jews of Conscience are tone deaf to assimilation to power. Chalk it up to the DNA of the Jewish prophetic.
What makes Beinart aggravating is that he continues to play around the edges of the Jewish prophetic. If and when his deeper conscience kicks in, he won’t have anywhere to go except prophetic. Whether this will override his status and income stream remains to be seen.
Beinart operates within the illusion of innocence he seeks to preserve through his criticism of Israeli policy. Nothing on record, including this current round of peace initiatives, suggests that Israel is anything but a colonial and imperial power with regard to the Palestinian people. While it can certainly be argued that American politics closely resembles Israel’s double whammy of democracy and imperial power, every Jew in the world knows that this well-trod dichotomous behavior is impossible to justify forever in Jewish life.
The reason is obvious. It has to do with the prophetic which was and remains the indispensable disposer of euphemisms. Especially when stripped of overt religious language, the Jewish prophetic tradition is relentless in its honesty. The last thing the Jewish prophetic can abide is the possibility of calling a state democratic and Jewish when it permanently oppresses another people.
Someone should spell this out to Beinart. As long as the Palestinians are without their freedom the Jewish prophetic critique of Israel will continue. Non-Jews aren’t going to shut up either.
Palestinians have to guide their own ship of state. But to suggest, even by critics of Beinart, that Jewishness is beside the point in the discussion of Israel/Palestine is simply scoring (important) rhetorical points. Beinart has a right and a responsibility – as do other Jews – to fight for a Jewish particularity that responds to the deepest impulses of Jewish history.
When I hear One State discourses void of Jewish life and possibility, I wince. Is the oversight deliberate or simply the unintended consequence of a universalism that seems so real that another’s particularity fails to register? That’s when I remember that Jewish sensibilities have always been troubling and at odds with intellectual and societal trends. But, then, after all is said and done, doesn’t the struggle Palestinians are waging against insurmountable odds bear a similar claim – that Palestine and Palestinians have a destiny?
Ultimately, Beinart attempts to discipline the Jewish prophetic because he hasn’t gone deep enough to dispense with the euphemism, “democratic Jewish state.” A democratic Jewish state is, has become, and can only be a euphemism as long as Palestinians are not free.
What such a Jewish state might become if it survives in its present form without this specific and horrific form of oppression I leave for future generations. To speak of a democratic Jewish state now, as Beinart does, is regressive, illusionary and dangerous to the wellbeing of Palestinians and Jews alike.
Holding onto this euphemism of a democratic Jewish state is an ideal already infused with a Palestinian contradiction. There doesn’t seem to be a way back. The only way of overcoming this contradiction is traveling the road that Beinart interprets only from a safe distance.
The paradox is that Beinart isn’t safe at all. Remaining with the euphemism of a democratic Jewish state makes him culpable in the destruction of Palestine.