Peter Beinart has a well-deserved reputation for eloquence and bravery on the Israel Palestine question. The man who once addressed secret AIPAC gatherings to raise money for the lobby later turned on American Jewish organizations for their support of the brutal occupation in an important article and book, and was widely attacked in the Jewish community for doing so.
But Beinart is also a conservative, and his remarks at a forum at the Democratic convention last week demonstrate his limitations as a guide for progressives. Beinart said that Jewish critics of Israel need to study that week’s Torah portion before they criticize Israel so they can’t be accused of being self-hating Jews and that it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in Israel.
Beinart spoke at an event on the Unsustainable Status Quo held by the Arab American Institute, and was introduced by James Zogby, who said that he reads Beinart’s Haaretz column with admiration.
Here are Beinart’s statements. First on the need for Jews to be religious in order to criticize Israel:
Another crucial thing for American Jews is the fear that we will be excommunicated from our communities. You know, my friend Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum likes to say you can go into almost any synagogue in America, at least a non-orthodox synagogue, and come up to the rabbi and say I don’t believe in God and the rabbi will probably say fine, Please take your seat, please pay your membership dues. No big deal, right? They might say I don’t believe in God too! What you can’t do is say that I think what Israel is doing is immoral or I have questions about Zionism. That actually in some ways, that’s what’s been made kadosh, that’s what’s been made holy and sacrosanct. Which itself is a certain kind of idolatry.
So I think that then the challenge for American Jews and this is a challenge I feel in my own life very strongly– the challenge is to root ourselves and our children so deeply in our own Jewish identity that we cannot be excommunicated. When I teach the weekly Torah portion to my children I do it for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons I do it is so that if someone comes along and tells them they’re not really Jewish or they’re self-hating Jews because they’re critical of Israel, which people tell me very frequently, they can say to that person, “OK I am a self-hating Jew, you’re saying I don’t have Jewish identity. Do you know what the week’s parsha is? Do you know what book of the Torah we’re in? Do you understand basic elements of Jewish history and Jewish law? So don’t tell me that I don’t know what it means to be Jewish. I know a heck of a lot more about what it means to be Jewish than you, thank you very much.”
And I think it’s that self confidence that American Jews need in order to be able to criticize Israel. And to be able to suffer the rejection they are likely to feel from people in their own community who say you are therefore not really Jewish. [Applause]
Here is his statement about antisemitism.
Where I think [criticism of Israel] strays into antisemitism is when you deny the rights of Jews to live in dignity and security in Israel, and when you deny, and this may be more controversial, that we as Jews are a people. We are not simply deracinated. We are not simply a religion. We are a people. And we deserve self-determination, as do the Palestinians. And I think to reject that, I do think gets you closer to antisemitism.
To be fair, Beinart also expressed many progressive ideas. He commented on American Jewish power; he said that if Jews only saw the occupation and the rightlessness of the Palestinian people they would begin to identify with the Palestinian experience of having no power over an authority that could wreck your life. He said that the American Jewish organizations had built a “machine” to deny Jews visiting Israel this information, and politicians were taken in by that machine too. And when it came to antisemitism, he said that it was not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel harshly, to criticize Israel disproportionately, or to “question Zionism.”
But Beinart was also upfront about his conservatism. He commented that Daniel Patrick Moynihan had defined conservatism as a belief that culture was more important than politics; while liberals believe that “politics can change culture.” Beinart put himself in the Moynihan camp when he expressed his long-held view that there could not be one state in Israel and Palestine because the two peoples would be at each other’s throats ala Czechs and Slovaks, the Belgians, now the U.K., and so forth.
Some day maybe Israelis and Palestinians will achieve a “transformational identity” so they won’t be nationalist, but not now, he said.
Myself I have always found this conservative argument compelling because Israelis and Palestinians are so angry at one another that the place could become a bloodbath, ala Algeria; and I can well imagine some type of confederated/binational structure to protect national rights and identity. Where Beinart’s conservatism shows is that he really isn’t willing to do all that much to move the place out of a situation of grievous oppression because he hopes that Zionism can be magically redeemed. When the overwhelming evidence is that Zionism has only ever produced suffering for Palestinians, no Palestinians like the current arrangements including nearly 20 percent of the population of the Jewish state, and so forth.
The best answer to Beinart came from a 29-year-old Palestinian American named ‘Atef, who rose to say that the two-state solution everyone on the panel advocated was “unfeasible” because “Israeli leadership doesn’t have the political capital to dismantle” the occupation. So the “only approach” in ‘Atef’s view is a “rights based civil liberties based movement in Palestine” for equal rights for all.
‘Atef told me afterward that he spoke as a Californian who wants for Palestinians over there what people in America have: equal rights, not national rights. I would suggest that it is more progressive, and potentially “transformational,” to recommend our actual American experience and political values to Israel, rather than Samuel, Jeremiah, and Judges.
P.S. One other thing I noticed in looking at the video. Beinart said that while rightwing Jews make coalitions with non-Jews, progressive Jews don’t because they don’t trust non-Jews.
The truth is that American Jews at least the major American Jewish organizations are afraid and hostile about the idea of Christians becoming involved in this conversation, unless they’re rightwing evangelical Christians and this is partly obviously a political calculation but it is something deeper. The truth is that even among many progressive American Jews even if they hear an American Christian say verbatim the same thing that they have said it makes them uncomfortable. Even if it’s entirely rational. There is a deep anxiety and fear about motivations. And I actually think that limits the effectiveness of the progressive side. Because on the right the Zionist Organization of America– they have no problem bringing in whichever rightwing evangelical or Fox News loonytoon host. But on the left I think you see this tendency, we’re going to do it by ourselves.
Beinart called for the left to confront its anxieties and get to know Christians, because they have a right to speak out here.
This is a great insight, and a tender truth; the only miscalculation is that Beinart is a bit of a fogey. The left doesn’t need to do this work. Older Jews do. Leftwing Jews are making friendships and more with non-Jews and getting over their anxieties, and making coalitions with Christians and Muslims too.