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Munayyer-Beinart debate revealed toothless sentimentalism of liberal Zionism

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If I had to point to the exact moment at which Peter Beinart lost last week’s debate with Yousef Munayyer, it was when he uttered the two words “Nakba museum.” Speaking to a packed crowd at the New York City office of the New America Foundation, Beinart lamented the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians in 1948 as an “enormous historical tragedy” before offering a solution that sums up his brand of liberal Zionism: “I believe there should be a Nakba museum inside Israel.” Though he went on to advocate for “some right of return,” the damage had already been done. Could there be a better symbol for the toothless sentimentalism of liberal Zionism than this imagined “Nakba museum” – a museum that as Munayyer later pointed out, most Palestinian refugees would be unable to visit?

Beinart, who serves as “Senior Fellow in the International Security Program” at New America, spoke confidently on his home turf despite the unfamiliarity of (for once) being to the right of his debate opponent on Israel/Palestine. He denounced the occupation while rejecting full right-of-return on the grounds that “refugees around the world do not have the right to return simply at will…my grandmother who was born in Alexandria, Egypt does not have the right to return to Egypt.” It’s fair to say that you’re on shaky ground when you start holding up Egypt’s government as a model of retributive justice.

Munayyer, for his part, extolled the virtues of “full BDS, not partial BDS” and attacked not just the occupation but discriminatory policies against Palestinians within the green line. He also rejected Beinart’s characterization of Israel’s “preferential immigration policy” for Jews (which Beinart supports), calling it an “anti-refugee policy, particularly an anti-Palestinian refugee policy.” In response to Beinart’s claims that both Palestinians and Israelis are “deeply committed to their separate national identities,” Munayyer emphasized that the largest issue for Palestinians – including those living in the occupied territories – is the right of return. He went on to stress that “the work simply has not been done” in imagining a one-state solution, which explains why the parameters of a two-state solution are easier for many to envision. Ironically quoting Theodore Herzl, he proposed that a binational state is not as implausible as some would have us believe: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Writing in the London Review of Books in 2002, Edward Said wrote of Yasser Arafat: “[He] is necessary to the present landscape. His departure will only seem natural when a new collective leadership emerges among a younger generation of Palestinians. When and how that will happen is impossible to tell, but I’m quite certain that it will happen.” The emergence of BDS from Palestinian civil society offers promise of that collective leadership.

The beauty of the boycott is that it is calculating and pragmatic without ever watering down the central message of equality and restorative justice. It short-circuits any attempts to paint Palestinian activists as unhinged zealots by delivering the very kind of non-violent boycott that many liberal Zionists have been demanding for years. It is frustrating, though perhaps unsurprising, to see some of these same liberal Zionists (and even some anti-Zionists like Norman Finkelstein) rejecting BDS as unworthy of their support. Moments like these reveal how disingenuous the kind of pseudo-progressive Zionism associated with Beinart can be; absent the boogeymen of Hamas and Netanyahu, liberal Zionists seem lost and confused. Take this gem from Beinart’s 2012 New York Times column: “We should oppose efforts to divest from all Israeli companies with the same intensity with which we support efforts to divest from companies in the settlements: call it Zionist B.D.S” His justification for this statement is that “boycotting anything inside the green line invites ambiguity about the boycott’s ultimate goal — whether it seeks to end Israel’s occupation or Israel’s existence.” Beinart’s preoccupation with the distinction between the settlements and Israel proper is bizarre. As Munayyer said during the debate, “This false dichotomy leads to downplaying the incompatibility of Zionism and liberalism even inside Israel. The facts that the so-called democratic Israel refers to non-Jewish citizens like myself as demographic threats, prevents them from living with their Palestinian spouses to prevent what they call ‘demographic spillover’ and passes various discriminatory laws against them are considered tolerable evils by liberal Zionists.” Any effective boycott must target the root source of the occupation (namely the state of Israel), not just the occupied territories.

Beinart has long played the role of Good Cop – the level-headed foil to the Rabbi Shmuleys and Alan Dershowitzes of the world. It’s a role he’s comfortable with, and he plays it to the hilt. When it comes to critics of Israel, Beinart is the kind you can take home to your parents, the kind who will raise important questions without ruffling too many feathers. Yet this quote from a 2010 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg displays the limits of his progressivism: “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.” Munayyer asked whether Beinart still stood by this statement. After drawing a few laughs by saying he had “a feeling [the quote] was going to come up,” Beinart made it clear that he did.

There is no shortage of writing to be found on cultivating empathy, fighting ignorance, and examining privilege. Most of this material, though well-meaning, is a dead end. It lays out ways for progressives to feel better about themselves and to burnish their own image as “good allies” while doing nothing to change policy. Very often, politics are treated as a distraction, as if the left vs. right dichotomy were somehow outdated and trite. What made this debate so refreshing is that it had everything to do with the reality of occupation and apartheid and very little to do with “starting a conversation” or “reconciling competing narratives” or any of the cloying fluff that tends to derail debates on Zionism. Whenever Beinart tried to steer the debate in this direction, Munayyer was there to drag him back into the harsh light of reality, where occupation and ethnic cleansing continue unabated.

The lesson to be learned from the history of liberal Zionism is that good intentions do not make a movement. I doubt Beinart is a bad guy or a fake. He truly seems to want a lasting peace in the Levant, and he is no doubt instrumental in getting Zionists to question their own beliefs and begin moving leftward. But when it comes to his defense of Jewish privilege in Israel, he is simply wrong. There is no way to reconcile the ethnocratic bent of Zionist ideology with the liberal values he espouses.

As the debate progressed, a note of anxiety became more apparent in Beinart’s voice. He appeared pressed, agitated, at times stumbling over his words and struggling to express himself clearly. It’s an unfair comparison, but I was reminded of William F. Buckley in his debate with James Baldwin; watching the video, you can see a point at which Buckley knows he’s beat but keeps hammering away anyway, perhaps banking on his reputation to carry him through. Beinart, of course, is not William F. Buckley. He’s smarter, for one, not to mention infinitely less pretentious, and he’s right on the issues a lot more often than Buckley was. But if he wants history to be kinder to him than it has been to Buckley and his ilk, it’s time for him to start changing his tune. He’s done enough to point out the systemic racism and unjustified violence of Israel’s government. Now it’s time for him to support BDS (the real kind, not the Zionist version that exists mainly in his head) and become part of something bigger. Going by Beinart’s statements at the debate, it is unlikely that this change will happen anytime soon. But if he is as committed to Palestinian liberation as he says, and if he wants to be more than a footnote in the long arc of history, it is absolutely necessary.

Rob Bryan

Rob Bryan is a freelance journalist from New York City. Follow him on twitter: @rbryan86.

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22 Responses

  1. MRW on June 12, 2015, 10:56 am

    He [Beinart] denounced the occupation while rejecting full right-of-return on the grounds that “refugees around the world do not have the right to return simply at will…my grandmother who was born in Alexandria, Egypt does not have the right to return to Egypt.”

    Ah, the irony. The entire argument for Israel is the right-of-return after 2,000 years.

    • on June 12, 2015, 6:22 pm

      Palestinians do not have the right to return. “”Ah, the irony. The entire argument for Israel is the right-of-return after 2,000 years.”” – This is brilliant point. Well done.

      • Citizen on June 12, 2015, 8:29 pm

        Not really; Auschwitz is the balance of the argument. Hence the importance of the Grand Mufti to Zionists.

  2. wondering jew on June 12, 2015, 11:22 am

    Beinart’s preoccupation with the distinction between the settlements and Israel proper is bizarre. – See more at:
    Bizarre is certainly the wrong word here, you seem to mean logically inconsistent. There is certainly nothing bizarre about it.

    • annie on June 12, 2015, 1:19 pm

      Bizarre is certainly the wrong word here

      if something seems truly and transparently logically inconsistent then it stands to reason it might appear to the viewer to be a bizarre choice for someone to make.

      they are not mutually exclusive (bizarre and logical inconsistence) and often work hand in hand.

      • wondering jew on June 12, 2015, 1:31 pm

        I don’t have the inclination to find the definition of bizarre at this moment and it’s not that important, but here we go

        very strange or unusual, especially so as to cause interest or amusement.
        “her bizarre dresses and outrageous hairdos”
        synonyms: strange, peculiar, odd, funny, curious, outlandish, outré, abnormal, eccentric, unconventional, unusual, unorthodox, queer, extraordinary;

        bizarre to me means out of left field, totally unexpected, this is not bizarre. it is totally expected. the use of the word says more about the writer than it does about beinart. the use of the word bizarre is bizarre.

      • johneill on June 13, 2015, 7:53 am

        yonah, you fail to take annie’s point that bizarre and logically inconsistent are not mutually exclusive terms. as to your reply, would you not say that logical inconsistency is ‘strange or unusual, especially so as to cause interest or amusement’? your supplied definition dovetails with beinart’s (bizarre/inconsistent) focus on the symptoms of oppression over the causes.
        that this logical inconsistency is totally expected is one more bizarre aspect of the marriage between liberalism and zionism.

      • Mooser on June 13, 2015, 11:16 am

        Yonah can always pull another pill from his bottomless bottle

      • annie on June 14, 2015, 9:11 pm

        bizarre to me means out of left field, totally unexpected

        it’s irrelevant what bizarre means to you yonah, what is relevant is the definition of bizarre. from your very own synonyms for bizarre that you chose (strange, peculiar, odd, curious) “logically inconsistent” would fit right in with any of these.

        here’s webster for bizarre

        a : odd, extravagant, or eccentric in style or mode
        b : involving sensational contrasts or incongruities

        it is certainly odd and incongruous to advocate targeting settlement products while NOT advocating targeting the very entity that supports and facilitates the settlements. it’s bizarre and logically incongruous and inconsistent.

        maybe you’re not aware of what the synonyms for inconsistent are. let me help you out: oh look, one of the synonyms is inconsistent is incongruous.

        and incongruous? oh look, one of the synonyms is inconsistent :

        see how circular this is yonah. it’s like the mad hatter’s tea party!

    • on June 12, 2015, 6:23 pm

      Beinart is totally irrational when it comes to Israel, like all the liberal Zionists. But the rest of the world is finally noticing this.

    • Brewer on June 13, 2015, 2:03 am

      adjective: bizarre

      very strange or unusual.
      “a bizarre situation”
      synonyms: strange, peculiar, odd, funny, curious, offbeat, outlandish, eccentric, unconventional, unorthodox, queer, unexpected, unfamiliar, abnormal, atypical, unusual, out of the ordinary, out of the way, extraordinary;

      Origin: mid 17th century: from French, from Italian bizzarro ‘angry’, of unknown origin.adjective

      Most apposite. A word I use a great deal when dealing with folks who maintain a right of return spanning 2,000 years for people whose forbears left for unknown reasons (mostly voluntarily) while denying the same to people forced out at gunpoint within living memory.

      Truly bizarre. Can’t think of a better word except it doesn’t quite capture the criminality, the cruelty or the racism.

      Great debate btw. I think we can look forward to more realistic commentary from Beinart after this woodshedding.

  3. can of worms on June 12, 2015, 12:24 pm

    Munayyer began with “you can’t have a productive debate on solutions if you can’t agree on the problem.”

    Well, Beinart is telling us that the problem of Isra-Palestine is how to avert a “clash of two nations” – and Munayyer is saying that the problem is how to attain justice for those who are denied rights: to vote, to return, and to live in equality.

    But the mutually concealed question is one of segregation – and desegregation.

    The ‘separate development’ of areas with two separate languages and two sets of textbooks in public schools is what is manufacturing the “clash of two nations” discourse in the first place. And segregation is what prevents and will continue to prevent justice and equal rights by reproducing and amplifying economic inequality.

    Beinart actually limits the arc of all possible solutions for the purported problem of a “clash of two nations” as: either two states (which he endorses) or a *binational* state (which he fears will lead to violence). Because he prefers to see the problem as a “clash of nations”, rather than as a problem of segregation and desegregation, he mutes discussion of a democratic republic, for that would entail desegregation and economic restructuring to correct a legacy of ethnic cleansing, segregation, and rights abuses.

    Munayyer, like Beinart, seems to be concealing the underlying problem of segregation, which is the main conundrum not only for Jewish citizens but for Palestinians as well.

    Palestinians feel relatively safe and protected in their segregated spaces, but if they think they can ever have equality or dignity without putting on the line their segregated comfort zone they are only fooling themselves.

    On this point the RoR may actually make things easier by boosting desegregation. Returning refugees won’t be willing to wait for the Jewish Israelis to integrate them, they won’t be as willing to wait for Jewish Israelis to make up their mind that they are qualified to live on the same street. And they will demand that children integrate into Isra-Palestinian schools where different narratives are taught in whatever language it is.

    Isra-Palestine has an even worse problem in desegregation than Jim Crow because they’ve even contrived to segregate language, and so now they’ll sure have to break their heads over how to deal with that one! But at least the desegregation problem won’t be buried and concealed.

    • can of worms on June 13, 2015, 12:15 am

      Why is Beinart afraid of a 1ss ?

      If you looked at U.S. de jure segregation the point of it was that the white person was proud of their white racial characteristics, to the extent that they didn’t want to lose it by mixing with any other race. That is the same logic that today drives Israel. To say Israel is all about keeping an emergency place where persecuted Jews could always flee to, it’s a lie, if only because Israel is a danger zone (as is always pointed out.) Since Beinart expects us to accept the desire for a “Jewish State” ipso facto, I’ve had to reach the conclusion that Beinart sees Israel as a museum where “Jewishness” is attempted to be conserved for posterity, by barriers preventing mixing. Especially against mixing with Muslims.

      Israel is a place where Jews are rewarded for not mixing by being given a sustained competitive advantage over others.

      The other side of Beinart’s coin is his fear of violence in the implementation of a 1ss. But violence against Palestinians already exists, so one has to assume he just fears Palestinian-on-Jew or Jew-on-Jew violence. The latter is frankly more likely in the implementation of a 2ss than a 1ss (do you think settlers will ever give up their homes, never mind Jerusalem, without a fight?) As to the former it sounds like Beinart is suffering from a certain stereotype, forgetting the entire context of who it was that created that stereotype and who it was that used it to destabilize the Middle East.

      Anyhow, Beinart’s fantasy solution against mixing is that Palestinian citizens will be limited in number, and live separately. That in itself is mindblowing. With a few touch-ups and reforms, he tells you that Palestinian citizens can integrate into the Jewish-only economy while still being told which street they can live on and which schools they can therefore send their children to. And he is counting on Palestinian citizens to agree to be separated in this relatively comfortable (because already familiar) but economically catastrophic way than to have real power.

      Liberation for everyone, Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, starts with desegregation within, now. That pillar of racism down the whole power structure crumbles. If so, the choice of a solution is not 2ss or 1ss, but binational vs. a democratic republic.

    • can of worms on June 13, 2015, 1:59 am

      If Munayyer is saying that the problem is how to attain justice, then what I am amplifying is not only justice, but power.

      The problem is that the Palestinian was made subservient by being repeatedly ethnically cleansed, having his or her home and land given away to Jews, and being forced into ghettos.

      So the problem is breaking out of all the ghettos, out of subservience.

      Now, one would think that the surest place to start is in the ghettos of the north. But people in Haifa watched how brutally the Israeli police put down peaceful protests against the Gaza massacre, not to speak of those others whose minds are so colonized that they think that they came to Palestine on an Aliya boat.

    • Brewer on June 13, 2015, 2:27 am

      “you can’t have a productive debate on solutions if you can’t agree on the problem.”
      Israel and its supporters have expended enormous effort in obfuscating the problem. This has been to buy time. At the current point you have liberal Zionists like Beinart admitting that bad things were done but, what the heck, its all in the past and you can’t change things now.
      I call that bullshit. If all the land that was stolen were returned tomorrow in an orderly fashion, it would cause less trauma than the Nakba.
      During the debate I kept waiting for someone to interject “but what is the MORAL, LEGAL and RIGHT thing to do?”
      There is only one answer. In its absence, these people have no claim to any moral high ground.

    • SQ Debris on June 13, 2015, 1:14 pm

      Free Free Israel!

  4. ritzl on June 12, 2015, 1:49 pm

    Why is it so hard to say “occupied PALESTINE” instead of “occupied territories?” “Occupied territories” is identity-negating Zio-speak. The country that is occupied is called Palestine.

    When the USSR occupied Czechoslovakia post WWII did anyone anywhere ever call it or any part of Eastern Europe an “occupied territory?”

    Other than that great article.

  5. Bornajoo on June 12, 2015, 2:09 pm

    Spot on article. Many thanks

    “Ah, the irony. The entire argument for Israel is the right-of-return after 2,000 years.” +1 MRW!

  6. Balfour on June 12, 2015, 2:43 pm

    “I believe there should be a Nakba museum inside Israel.”

    How about a Nakba Museum inside the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.?

  7. JLewisDickerson on June 12, 2015, 11:30 pm

    RE: “I was reminded of William F. Buckley in his debate with James Baldwin; watching the video, you can see a point at which Buckley knows he’s beat but keeps hammering away anyway, perhaps banking on his reputation to carry him through.” ~ Rob Bryan

    MY COMMENT: Baldwin made Buckley look truly pathetic! ! !

    AN EXCELLENT BBC DOCUMENTARY: Racism – A History [VIDEO, 2:56:20] –

  8. SQ Debris on June 13, 2015, 2:08 pm

    OT but very important to Beinart’s concern for and fantasies about the “Jewish State.” The demographics cited in this article were predicted to be the status quo by 2010. Here it is in full color:

  9. DaveS on June 14, 2015, 2:00 pm

    Excellent article! “Toothless sentimentalism” is a great phrase. And the suggestion of a nakba museum perfectly sums it up. Beinart is occasionally useful for his analyses and honesty, but his own conclusions are more useful for exposing the vacuous core of liberal Zionism than anything else. For that matter, Benny Morris’s historical scholarship is often useful, even though his opinions have become right-wing lunatic fringe.

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