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.