Opinion

Notes from the Munayyer-Beinart debate

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Thursday’s debate between Yousef Munayyer and Peter Beinart was a lively affair, pitting a sincere liberal Zionist disappointed with some aspects of Israel’s first 67 years but still clinging to the hope that Israel can fulfill its “promise,” against a Palestinian-American whose life, family and people have been victimized by Zionism, both liberal and illiberal.  Being predisposed to Munayyer’s position, I’d like to begin with some praise (or at least defense of) Beinart.

As a speaker, he was impressive and occasionally brilliant.  His 10-minute opening remarks were well-organized and articulate and potentially persuasive.  He spoke about the difficulties that have beset other “binational” nations such as Czechoslovakia and Belgium.  More specifically, he conjured a nightmarish one-state scenario in which a judge would have to either rule against a Moroccan Jew’s ownership of a house his family has occupied for 60 years or nullify a Palestinian’s pre-existing deed to that same house, and the ethnic makeup of an army that would be required to enforce that ruling.  Viewing such inevitable dilemmas in a one-state future as insoluble, Beinart argued that the only viable alternative is two states.

To be sure, there were some low points in Beinart’s presentation, such as his suggestion that Israel make the conciliatory gesture of erecting a Nakba Museum, a cringe-inducing remark even before Munayyer’s brilliant comeback that such museum would be meaningless to the average Palestinian refugee who was unable to enter the country to visit it.  But on the whole, Beinart ably put forward the best possible case for liberal Zionism, and would have been reasonably effective had Munayyer not destroyed virtually every one of his points (more on that later).

More important than Beinart’s effectiveness as a speaker at this event are his valuable contributions to the ongoing debate for many years.  He has consistently acknowledged at least some of Israel’s violent history and debunked deeply entrenched hasbara, earning the genuine condemnation of many to his right.  Beinart’s rather short-lived Open Zion website gave a platform to a wide variety of columnists, including Ali Gharib, Maysoon Zayid and even Munayyer himself.  While Beinart has been the “leftist” in most of his previous debates on this issue, he eagerly accepted the distinctly different challenge of debating Munayyer.

But enough of the praise.  On issue after issue, Beinart’s sincerely stated positions were no match for Munayyer’s more reasoned analysis buttressed by his own experience and simple refusal to tolerate injustice and inequality that all of us, including Beinart, would consider intolerable.  For while Beinart legitimately enjoys a birthright of equal rights in the country of his citizenship, he also is the beneficiary of a second supposed birthright that deprives Palestinians of their first.  Munayyer is one such Palestinian, one who holds Israeli citizenship, but even he would have to take a back seat in rights, privilege and status to Beinart’s children should they ever decide to exercise their second “birthright.”

Some of the issues discussed:  Beinart insisted that his brand of BDS be directed only at settlement products only so as not to delegitimize the (inherently legitimate) Jewish State.  Munnayer responded that even if one wished to challenge the 1967 occupation alone, Beinart’s version of BDS would be as absurd as imposing “sanctions” solely on the Iranian towns in proximity to nuclear facilities or those universities where nuclear scientists are trained.  Such soft BDS that fails to target the entity responsible for the occupation – Israel itself – is guaranteed to be ineffective.

When Beinart complained that Israel was subjected to a “double standard” that failed to challenge Saudi Arabia’s horrendous human rights record, Munayyer responded that he would be the first to sign up if Beinart organized a protest against that monarchy.

On right of return, Beinart argued that no other conflict has allowed it and neither should this one, though he grudgingly conceded a right of return of perhaps 100,000 refugees that he presumably judges would not threaten Israel’s demographic requirements.  Munayyer responded that the right of return is enshrined in international law.  Moreover, the notion that Palestinians’ right of return has expired after several decades is a curious one to make on behalf of a country whose fundamental founding principle is the supposed return of a refugee population after thousands of years of “exile.”

One of Munayyer’s initial questions – what percentage of non-Jewish citizenship would Beinart consider a demographic threat to Israel’s existence as a Jewish State?  20, 30, 40, etc.? – went unanswered the entire evening.  I would add a question about time as well.  Presumably, Beinart would agree that Israel will forfeit its right to be a Jewish State if it continues to practice discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens that is harsher than Beinart finds necessary.  What is the deadline for Beinart to throw up his hands in depair?  67 years clearly isn’t enough.  75 is fast approaching as well.  So what is it? 100? 150? 200?  Given Beinart’s refusal to support any genuine effort to compel Israel to do anything, opting instead for a milquetoast BDS against settlement products, how does he think there would be the slightest movement toward equality, or an “acceptable” level of inequality, within Israel proper.

Relatedly, Beinart’s biggest point was that the one-state solution is an unachievable utopia.  Munayyer answered that there are many details to be worked out to ensure a reasonable degree of fairness to all, but that there has been a dearth of analysis on this question because of the considerably greater energy directed at a two-state solution.  But there is a bigger problem with Beinart’s position.  His vision of a kinder and gentler Jewish State appears to be an even more unattainable utopia.  Israel at age 67 not only has failed to move in the direction of Beinart’s dream, it is rapidly getting worse.  This is documented in Max Blumenthal’s Goliath and undeniable with the increasing political entrenchment of Israel’s right wing.  And that doesn’t begin to tackle the equally remote chance that a Palestinian State can emerge, since it would require that one or two hundred thousand settlers, many of them armed and fanatical, be compelled to move back within the green line without igniting a civil war.

Even more troubling, if Israel were to reverse course and speedily move to Beinart’s utopian vision, it still would retain vestiges of the ethnocracy that Beinart concedes cannot be entirely eliminated.  In this pie-in-the-sky best case scenario, Israel would give certain status and privileges to Jews over non-Jews that would be deemed unthinkable to Beinart if Jews (or any other minority) were similarly disadvantaged in the US or any other country for that matter.

Beinart is surely right that the one-state solution is not a light switch that can be turned on once the will to do so has been formed.  There are an exhaustive list of details that must be worked out to ensure a reasonable degree of security, freedom, and justice can be provided for all.  But he fails to recognize that the alternative – not just the miserable status quo but also his increasingly remote fantasy of a kinder and gentler Zionism – is one of perpetual discrimination that should be deemed unthinkable in the 21st century.

One audience asked about conflicting narratives.  Munayyer responded that the phrase and concept are over-used.  He has no difficulty acknowledging the most horrific events in Jewish history, but doesn’t see why any narrative would require him to pay for such crimes.  While I don’t recall if Beinart responded to the question, it seemed to crystallize their differences.  To Beinart, sincere empathy and collegial, intellectual dialogue help to move the process along.  To Munayyer, action needs to be taken now to relieve a long-suffering people from continuing and even worsening misery.

When Munayyer brought up a five-year-old quote of Beinart – “I’m not even asking [Israel] to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state” – Beinart seemed embarrassed by his choice of language.  Nevertheless, his actual position has not budged since then.  He is quite willing to compromise the rights of another people, to the advantage of himself and his people.  It’s hard to reconcile that position with minimum contemporary standards of morality.

Beinart made one of the best presentations imaginable on behalf of liberal Zionism and was soundly trounced in the debate.  As someone who made a rather long transition from Zionist (though never a passionate one) to liberal Zionist to non- to anti-, I get the reluctance of those raised with the certainty of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish State to make the final plunge.  But to Munayyer, his fellow Palestinians, and even those neither Jewish nor Palestinian, I can fully understand the impatience of those who would say to Beinart, “What is it about equal rights that you don’t understand?”

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I’m not certain I understand the Czecho-Belgium argument at all, and as for the ‘double standard’ persecution complex, Russia, Iran, Cuba, N. Korea, and on and on. There are sanctions regimes imposed on many countries, with the support of Israel, much more stringent than BDS proposals. see e.g. SWIFT sanctions against Iranian banks and EU attempt to compel SWIFT sanctions against Russia.

A stellar piece, David. Thanks so much for it. So many items stand out for me, including this one: “For while Beinart legitimately enjoys a birthright of equal rights in the country of his citizenship, he also is the beneficiary of a second supposed birthright that deprives Palestinians of their first. Munayyer is one such Palestinian, one who holds Israeli citizenship, but even he would have to take a back seat in rights, privilege and… Read more »

Nice analysis of the debate. I attended and would also commend Peter for a sincere discussion and Yousef for his masterful performance. The “double standard” with Saudi Arabia is a very frequent talking point. I would also add that one purpose of a boycott is to change the behavior of the citizenry. Saudis have no power whatsoever to change their repressive government or its policies, and would topple their government if it weren’t held in… Read more »

An excellent article, clear and to the points. I would also commend Beinart for his willingness to put his case on the public table, even though he may have had a feeling it would be demolished. Perhaps he felt the time had come. “[Beinart] conjured a nightmarish one-state scenario in which a judge would have to either rule against a Moroccan Jew’s ownership of a house his family has occupied for 60 years or nullify… Read more »

The advantages that Beinart gives to Jews over nonJews was twofold: Immigration and public holidays and symbols. There was no other instance of Jewish advantage that Beinart favored.