Peter Beinart is urging progressive American Jews to take on “establishment” Jewish groups and call for sanctions against Israel. In a piece in the Forward, Beinart says the $3.8 billion a year of US aid should keep flowing but it should be conditioned: No money for house demolitions, child detentions, illegal settlements, or Gaza siege.
The article is important because a liberal Zionist is echoing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s idea of conditioning US aid (which is consistent with the Sanctions portion of the BDS call) and endorsing Betty McCollum’s groundbreaking legislation to use US aid as a means to punish Israel for its detention of children. Beinart says it’s shameful” that only one presidential candidate, Rep. Seth Moulton, has endorsed the legislation.
So Beinart continues to show leadership. He is deeply embedded in the traditional Jewish community for which Israel support is the definition of Jewishness. He is breaking ranks with the people he loves most; and when few liberal Zionists have taken any such risks, his move puts pressure on other Israel supporters who claim to hate the occupation to put their money where their mouths are. J Street has not supported McCollum’s bill.
A few comments on Beinart’s theory of change.
The appeal is sectarian: to Jewish progressives, not Americans as such. Beinart doesn’t completely trust non-Jewish critics of Israel.
If other progressive Jews are like me, they feel an internal dissonance when it comes to pressuring Israel, a voice inside their head that says: Don’t turn on your own…. Once American Christians grow comfortable condemning and pressuring Israel, maybe we’ll find they enjoy it just a little too much.
Beinart obviously ascribes great power to the American Jewish community (as I do). He goes through a litany of events in which Benjamin Netanyahu nullified American policy and got away with it, routinely humiliating Barack Obama; and Obama never used American aid to Israel “as a lever to change the [Israeli] policies he decried.”
Even presidents like Obama, who disapprove of Israel’s actions, don’t penalize Israel for them. They fold… The American government’s capitulation — under both Democrats and Republicans — is the unspoken elephant in the room when Americans discuss Israel’s embrace of permanent occupation. It is impossible to understand the looming death of the two-state solution without understanding that, for more than a twenty-five years, no American president has made Israel pay a price for undermining it. During that time, the notion that an American president might refuse to subsidize policies that brutalize Palestinians, harm America’s image, and threaten Israeli democracy, has become almost inconceivable. It’s time for a new generation of American progressives — especially progressive Jews — to make it conceivable again.
One reason conditioning aid has become inconceivable is that any American president who proposed it would be labeled anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic.
The elephant in the room is the Israel lobby; on the Democratic side anyway, that’s why pols “fold.” Beinart implicitly recognizes that. He does not mention all the pro-Israel contributions to political campaigns, but his insistence that Israel is hurting America in the Middle East is a heresy in the Zionist community (he quotes Petraeus and Mattis on Arab mistrust of the U.S.).
While Beinart applauds the progressive shift in the Democratic Party, he assigns a central role to Jews:
If a Democratic presidential candidate endorses this shift — of the major candidates, only Bernie Sanders has so far come close — it will likely help them among Democratic voters. A University of Maryland poll this spring found that 57 percent of Democrats think the US should respond to settlement growth with “economic sanctions” or “more serious action.” But that candidate will come under ferocious assault from Republicans and establishment American Jewish groups. And it will be up to progressive American Jews to thrust themselves into that fight.
Again, Beinart says this fight is “up to” American Jews. We’re still gatekeepers in Democratic Party politics. And the main reason the occupation has lasted for over 50 years without a hitch.
What Beinart fails to address directly is, What is the role of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions? On the one hand, Beinart’s theory of change is that Israel will only change if it is rebuked/shamed:
Israel fears any delegitimization in international fora. That is what Netanyahu brags about that he wants to undercut: his complete impunity for his actions, guaranteed by Jewish establishment figures like Dennis Ross and Malcolm Hoenlein who have insisted that Israel only takes steps when you show how much you love it.
American politicians and pundits rarely acknowledge: Israelis re-elected Netanyahu because he showed them he could undermine the two-state solution with international impunity. Indeed, he made that accomplishment a central theme of his campaign.
Again and again in recent years, Netanyahu has mocked political rivals who warned that his policies toward the Palestinians were making Israel a global pariah
But if there’s one thing that freaks Israel out it’s the BDS campaign and its threat of delegitimization. BDS is a nonviolent lever, invented by members of the oppressed class. That ought to count for a lot in ending Jim Crow.
The ultimate question is, How effective is organizing inside the Jewish community as a means of changing US policy? Answer: It doesn’t work. Most of the Democratic progressives whom Beinart is counting on don’t hear a voice in their head saying that non-Jews will criticize Israel too much. They have depended on diverse coalitions for leadership and ideas. They support BDS because they know it is Palestinian-led and taken up by the grassroots, and so has the power to affect political leaders and finally threaten the lobby’s inside track. Beinart is a brave leader inside his community, and timid in the broader context.