Peter Beinart wrote a column for Haaretz last week in which he characterized anti-Zionists, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, as revolutionaries.
[P]olitically, the reality is this. The activists of Black Lives Matter – like the anti-Zionists with whom they have made common cause – are revolutionaries. And the less legitimate the existing order becomes, the stronger revolutionaries grow. If you want African Americans to believe in the American political system, you must show that that system can address structural racism. If you want Palestinians to accept Israel’s existence, you must show that Israel’s existence does not preclude a viable Palestinian state. All the rest is commentary.
This is an important assertion, and needs to be addressed. Norman Finkelstein made something of the same argument four years ago at the New School, when he challenged anti-Zionists: The two-state solution is now international law, do you understand the damage you are causing by undermining that paradigm? People think that you want to “destroy Israel.” So consider all the bloodshed you in your dreamy chairs in the United States are risking for others, far away.
The problem with this argument is its time and place. As to time, in 2012, Peter Beinart wrote his book The Crisis of Zionism, which was catalyzed by his watching a horrifying 2010 video from the West Bank. And now six years have passed, and: The situation for Palestinians has not changed, it only gets worse, the power balance is as bad as ever.
As Beinart states, maintaining such an injustice undermines the legitimacy of authority. Palestinian conditions are revolutionary material, a bonfire waiting to happen. Anti-Zionists find that status quo not just “unsustainable,” as all the politicians proclaim (protecting their asses) but deplorable; and they have acted, by endorsing a nonviolent program, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) that would, yes, radically transform Israeli society.
Beinart’s prayer that Israel’s defenders must show that “Israel’s existence does not preclude a viable Palestinian state” is simply that, a prayer, and an empty one. All the evidence over the last 28 years since the Palestinian concession on the two-state solution is that Zionists don’t want a Palestinian state, now less than ever.
That’s a long time of trying things out. As Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark argued in 2013, things only get worse the longer we give Zionism a chance. Zionism’s record after 70 years of power is quite clear: it fosters discrimination, and that discrimination merely increases over time.
Our horizons are formed by our lifespans; and human beings have a right to look on four years of stasis, let alone 28 of them, as a proof of political failure. The Civil War in the United States followed by just six years the collapse of our two-state solution; the 1850 compromise in which slave states and free ones agreed to follow separate laws regarding slavery was set aside by the Congress in 1854 and slave states grabbed even more territory. Abolitionists found that outcome intolerable, and they funded a violent revolutionary, John Brown, who explained to poets and judges and transcendentalists across New England that slavery would only be ended by “verry much blood.” Not even by boycott! And Brown followed through on his belief through the late 1850s, and the civil war soon followed, and 600,000 people died and 4 million slaves were freed. The Algerian liberation struggle began in earnest after World War 2 and in 15 years produced a lot of bloodshed, and independence.
That’s what Beinart is warning about when he says that we are “revolutionaries”: we want to violently upend a system, putting hundreds of thousands of lives not our own at risk.
The answer is that history changes; and revolution doesn’t necessarily mean bloody revolution. The U.S. civil rights struggle of the 1960s, as well as the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement, culminating now in same-sex marriage and the rise of the trans movement — these were all revolutions, and they have been effected through nonviolent struggle, marches, boycott, and the ballot box.
But millions of Palestinians in occupied territories cannot vote for the government that rules their lives, even as Jewish settlers living right alongside them can. That system is why we use the word apartheid; and it is a blot on the west that backs Israel and on all the powerful Jewish organizations that support Israel. When Peter Beinart says we have to show that Israel’s existence does not preclude a viable Palestinian state– after 50 years of occupation and governments that grow more rightwing by the year, and the unending theft of water and land, what world is he talking about? There is no reality check here.
And though I know that Beinart finds the occupation distressing, and actually did activism against it last month, it’s not enough to just call for settlement boycott. Not when the entire Israeli government is behind this project.
A friend recently said that Beinart was a few drinks and one late night argument short of endorsing BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). I don’t believe it. I think the stop on Beinart’s progress is his attachment to Zionism as the liberation of the Jewish people. This idealist in his 40s believes that deliverance story the same way that 75 year old Jews do.
And this is the heart of his anti-revolutionary argument. He doesn’t want a Jewish revolution against Zionism. At J Street a couple of years ago he said that if Zionism fails, the consequences for Jewish life would be calamitous; we would be stumbling through the rubble of this dream for decades to come. And he’s right! It’s a lot like the Shabbatei Zvi messianic Jewish dream of the 1600s, another false prophet unmasked, producing convulsions in Jewish life for generations to come. That’s the revolution Beinart fears as much as any other.
Which brings up the place problem. The place is here. Here is the revolution Beinart has the most power to effect, simply by changing his mind about whether Jewish nationalism (much of it on stolen land) is the answer to our modern condition. More and more American Jews understand that it is hypocritical to live in a liberal democracy and enjoy and defend and expand its freedoms, while advocating for a Jewish state thousands of miles away. As Neimark said so eloquently:
Could it be [that] no matter the potential merits and good will of the founding plan, the effort to establish and sustain the Jewish character of the intended Jewish democracy doomed the democratic character from the start, and it’s been spiraling downward ever since?
Many Jews see an urgency in cultivating this awareness. They understand that Palestinians don’t want to wait any longer, that violent resistance is inevitable and natural. They believe that Palestinians should have equal rights and be able to vote. It’s that simple.
Changing the American Jewish mind is the most important step toward accomplishing this revolution bloodlessly. That mental revolution is not something we are prescribing for others an ocean away, but in this country. Beinart has much more power than we do to bring about that change.
Thanks to Stephen Low, who wrote this about Beinart’s article:
It’s extremely troubling to see Beinart characterize BLMers and anti-Zionists as revolutionaries. It’s a loaded charge, semantically justifies Establishment “violence” to overcome and defeat these enemies of order, and is just not true! BLM is working to synchronize police behavior within a legal system that already exists, and anti-Zionists are working to synchronize the Israeli government and its people with human rights principles codified by the international community in which it covets membership and, ironically, also possesses a lot of Jewish DNA.
And he reflects ignorance about the true human rights conditions faced by Israel’s Palestinian minority–again proving what I’ve been saying all the time: continuing to think of the conflict as a simple one one over land and then invoking a false resolution by “ending the Occupation” would strand 20% of Israel’s Palestinians in “Moishe Chicken” Israel just as African Americans were stranded in the Jim Crow South for 100 years after the Civil War forced it to “withdrawal” from slavery.