The liberal Zionist Peter Beinart last night attributed the violence in Israel and Palestine to Israel’s “moral darkness.” Speaking at Beth Chayim Chadashim, a progressive synagogue in Los Angeles that came out of the gay community, Beinart said, “the Israeli government is reaping what it has sowed” in Palestine because it has denied dignity and basic rights for millions of Palestinians for decades.
Here’s a fuller context for the remarks. He started by saying that it was hard for a traumatized people to hear the truth about terrorism:
The September 11th attacks were a monstrous, demented response to American foreign policy, a foreign policy of support for Arab dictatorships and Israeli policies which produced tremendous suffering in the Arab world. And today’s Palestinian terrorism is a monstrous, demented response to Israel’s denial of basic Palestinian rights.
That’s not a popular thing to say in Israel right now, but within a people as within a family, you don’t build real solidarity by telling people things they want to hear at the expense of what you believe is true.
Then he offered his view of the current violence:
Let me start with what I hope is obvious. No matter how much you object to Israeli policy, stabbing another human being is wrong. Israelis deserve to be able to walk safely down the street, just like every other group of people. A national movement that justifies violence corrupts itself morally. And even if you don’t care about Israeli lives, which you should, it’s simply impossible after the second intifada to credibly argue that killing ordinary Israelis serves the Palestinian cause. The suicide bombings of the early 2000s set the Palestinian liberation movement back massively, and any Palestinian leader today who thinks that he can use Palestinian violence to win concessions from Israel, as Yassir Arafat tragically believed in 2000 and 2001, is a fool.
But while we condemn Palestinian violence, we must recognize this painful truth: that Israeli policy has encouraged it. Israel has encouraged it by penalizing Palestinian nonviolence, by responding to that nonviolence by deportations, teargas, imprisonment, and the confiscation of Palestinian lands. Hard as it is to say, the Israeli government is reaping what it has sowed.
Beinart then offered several examples of Israel penalizing nonviolence. He cited Mubarak Awad, who created the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Nonviolence nearly 30 years ago, and who was dubbed a Palestinian Gandhi by journalists. As In These Times lately noted, “Awad was jailed, tortured and eventually deported by Israel in 1988 for circulating leaflets encouraging civil disobedience.” Beinart said, “He now lives in exile in Washington, DC.”
Beinart also cited the case of Abdullah Abu Rahme of the occupied village of Bil’in. In 2010, Abu Rahme wrote: “In Bil’in we have chosen to protest nonviolently together with Israeli and international supporters. We have chosen to carry a message of hope and real partnership between Palestinians and Israelis in the face of oppression and injustice.” That letter had to be smuggled out of prison by his wife; Abu Rahme was serving a year long sentence for incitement and for organizing illegal demonstrations.
Beinart also related the Israeli contempt for the leadership of former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad. It expanded settlements rapaciously when he was offering himself as an economic partner to Israel in the West Bank.
Under Oslo, Beinart said, life has gotten worse for Palestinians. Settler terrorism is never prosecuted. The Palestinian Authority is merely Israel’s subcontractor for occupation.
Young Palestinians live without dignity. Even some Israelis acknowledge, “We are making the lives of millions unbearable.” Beinart continued:
To stop the violence ultimately you have to change their experience, or at least give them hope that it can change.
Between 1964 and 1967, African Americans rioted every summer, most famoulsy not far from here in Watts. In a 1967 speech about those riots, Martin Luther King quoted the French writer Victor Hugo as saying, “If a soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness”….
I think here must always be individual moral responsibility for anyone who decides to pick up a knife and take another human being’s life.
But there’s also our larger moral responsibility for the moral darkness, for an occupation that for nearly 50 years has left Palestinians without citizenship in the country in which they live, without the right to vote over the government that controls their lives and under military law while their Jewish neighbors enjoy due process.
Beinart devoted much of his time to now-familiar arguments (which I find unpersuasive) against one democratic state and the boycott movement, BDS. His opposition to boycott seems especially weak. He has just related that millions of people have no right to vote over the government that controls their lives and some are resorting to violence. What’s the alternative? Among the hopes Beinart offered is that “the costs” of the occupation would increase for ordinary Israelis– “that’s the hope.” He included economic pressure from Europe, for instance, which creates “new opportunities” politically in Israel. This is BDS by proxy. Because that’s exactly what BDS is now doing: increasing the costs for Israel. It’s the most important force right now in applying that pressure. Beinart is against it largely because he is a Zionist. A Zionist living in New York and having freedom in the U.S. while enabling oppression in Palestine. That contradiction is the weakest point in international Zionism right now.