Over the past week, an ideological battle has been going on concerning the limits of discourse about Israel, between Deputy National Director of Anti-Defamation League Ken Jacobson, and ‘liberal-Zionist’ professor and columnist Peter Beinart. It has been taking place in the pages of the Forward.
It started with Beinart last week writing a piece titled “The Real Reason So Many Republicans Love Israel? Their Own White Supremacy”. Beinart began by pointing to the curiosity, that Israel has been mentioned so many times in conjunction with Trump’s racist rants against the four Congresswomen of color:
If you listened earlier this month to Republican responses to Donald Trump’s call for Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley to “go back” to the “places from which they came,” you noticed something odd. Trump’s defenders kept mentioning Israel.
Beinart says that the reason for Israel being mentioned like this is that “Republicans no longer talk about Israel like it’s a foreign country”:
They conflate love of Israel with love of America because they see Israel as a model for what they want America to be: An ethnic democracy.
Beinart compares the Israeli “ethnic democracy” to what he says Trump and his allies want the US to be:
Israel is a Jewish state. Trump and many of his allies want America to be a white, Judeo-Christian state. Israel, despite its free elections and parliamentary institutions, structurally privileges one ethnic and religious group over others. That’s what many Republicans want here.
Jacobson was angered by Beinart’s suggestion of a racist nexus. His response was titled “Think Israel Is A White Supremacy? Congratulations: Richard Spencer Taught You Well”.
Jacobson criticizes a “deep flaw in Beinart’s argument”, being “the idea that right-wing support for Israel is a product of Israel being a racist state – one that the right admires for that trait and aspires to impose here in America”. Jacobson chides Beinart for using that “euphemism”: “an ethnic democracy”, and charges that Beinart’s “intent is unmistakable” – that is, that he’s calling Israel a racist state, which the US would model.
For Jacobson, these suggestions are “delegitimization”, and by him, this is something that leads to “victimization of Jews”:
Make no mistake: Those who delegitimize the Jewish state bear some measure of responsibility when Jewish people are victimized by this irrational hatred as we have seen on many occasions in Europe and even here at home.
So Beinart is painted as an extremist on par with Richard Spencer:
Beinart associating Israel with the white nationalist right is the best way to deepen progressive antagonism to Israel. How ironic that Beinart and Richard Spencer end up in the same place in their view of the Jewish state.
This is a huge twisting of words and a direct offense to a reasonable commentator like Beinart. Agree with him or not (I disagree with him on a lot), he is light-years removed from Richard Spencer. Beinart made valid and strong arguments based on sound data. Now Jacobson is essentially calling him a Nazi, or, if you like, on par with them.
So Beinart responded with a piece titled “‘Delegitimizing Israel’ Is Code For Pointing Out Truths Israel Doesn’t Want To Admit”.
Here, Beinart points out that “ethnic democracy” and “racist” are “different”. Actually, this is one of those points I deeply disagree with Beinart about, so bear with me for a moment.
I point once again to the Falk and Tilley UN report on Israeli Apartheid, which considers Israel to be a “racial democracy”. That name is almost identical to Beinart’s, basically addressing the same issue. And the report relates to how this “racial democracy” veils Apartheid:
The first general policy of Israel has been one of demographic engineering, in order to establish and maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority in Israel. As in any racial democracy, such a majority allows the trappings of democracy — democratic elections, a strong legislature — without threatening any loss of hegemony by the dominant racial group. (p. 31)
Ronit Lentin’s recent book “Traces of Racial Exception – Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism” also places race front and center in the Israeli settler-colonialist paradigm.
Beinart is reserving the right to not consider Israel inherently and intrinsically racist, with the typical duality of ‘liberal-Zionist’ advocacy. Here it is:
Israel is a democracy inside its original, pre-1967 boundaries because it holds elections in which virtually everyone can vote. It’s an ethnic democracy because it has a special obligation to protect and represent one ethno-religious group: Jews. That means that, even inside the green line, where Palestinians (sometime called “Arab Israelis”) enjoy Israeli citizenship, they lack all the rights of Jews.
So, wait a minute – “everyone can vote” – except half the population under Israel’s control for over 52 years under the occupation. But even in what Beinart calls Israel’s “original, pre-1967 boundaries,” Palestinian citizens “lack all the rights of Jews”. So they’re not really equal even there. Beinart fleshes out the many contradictions:
“From its birth,” [Jacobson] declares, Israel has offered “full rights for its non-Jewish citizens.” Really? At its birth, Israel’s Palestinian citizens—but not its Jewish ones—lived under martial law. Israel lifted martial law in 1966, but it still legally privileges its Jewish citizens over its Palestinian ones in myriad ways. “Since Israel’s founding,” Haaretz has noted, “about 600 new Jewish communities have been established but not a single new Arab community has been built.” Israel’s immigration policy allows Jacobson and me to move there and gain citizenship on day one. By contrast, many Palestinians from the West Bank can’t move to Israel proper and gain Israeli citizenship even if they’re married to a Palestinian citizen from inside the green line. Israel also privileges Jews in its symbols: Its flag features a Star of David and its national anthem speaks about the “Jewish soul.” If Jacobson doesn’t think that makes Palestinian Israelis feel like second class citizens, I’d invite him to imagine how he’d feel if America’s national anthem spoke about the “Christian soul.”
And here I’m almost thinking, bingo, Beinart is seeing that this “ethnic democracy” has been discriminatory from “its birth.” Is he becoming an anti-Zionist?!
No, Beinart maintains that this is still “not racist”:
Does this mean Israel is “racist?” No. For starters, Jews aren’t a race. What it means is that there’s a genuine tension between the promise of “complete equality of social and political rights” in Israel’s declaration of independence and Israel’s special obligation as a Jewish state to protect and represent Jews.
This is now pedantic. Whether Jews are or are not a race is a question for racists; because race is not a fact, it’s an idea. Where it becomes a racist reality, is where it is essentially applied as a discriminatory notion, to give one group (call it “ethnic” if you like, Israel calls Jews a “nation”, it doesn’t really matter) over another group. The application is essentially racial, and it doesn’t really matter that Jews are of different ethnicities – the Israeli “Jewish nation” application is racial, involving examination of one’s ancestry to determine how Jewish it is.
But back to the mainstream battle. Jacobson is putting even Beinart’s modest criticisms of the US-Israel nationalistic nexus beyond the pale. Even such ‘liberal-Zionist’ talk is equivalent to Richard Spencer.
And Beinart has to fight with one hand behind his back because despite his eloquence, he has to protect Israel, his “ethnic democracy”, from the suggestion of “racism”, and is offended by Jacobson’s suggestion that he’s calling Israel “racist”.
Though when referring to Republican supporters of Israel, Beinart does not seem to have a problem hitting the nail on its head. “It’s about race”, he writes in his latest response:
If democracy is the reason Republicans admire Israel, why do they want it to maintain its blatantly undemocratic rule of the West Bank, where the vast majority of people under Israeli control can’t vote for the government that controls their lives. Jacobson also says “evangelicals see the rebirth of Zionism as a fulfillment of G-d’s promises.” Yes, some white evangelicals support Israel for that reason. But black and Hispanic Christians—even black and Hispanic evangelical Christians—are much less supportive. Which is a pretty good clue that GOP support for Israel isn’t only about religion. It’s about race.
Bang! So why is it so hard, so complicated, to speak about Israel as being “about race”? Even if you think it might have started out nicely (which Beinart himself rejects), is there any question that it has at least become an utterly racist place? Did the Nation State law of last year not make it clear that national rights are exclusive to Jews in Israel, in case anyone was in doubt?
But I’m not here to put words in Beinart’s mouth – he speaks for himself. And the point of all this was, that he was trying to make a valid point on racist collusion. Even this moderate point was defied by the Anti-Defamation League Deputy Director, who was basically saying that it’s out of the question to even suggest anything that might open up that discussion. And he’s hinting that Peter Beinart is, unwittingly, abetting anti-Semites, by his “delegitimization”.
And that’s a very depressing reality.
I am waiting for the day when Peter Beinart will turn fully anti-Zionist, and offer Jacobson an unapologetic response.