Media Analysis

Beinart’s ‘earthquake’ — why so powerful? why now?

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When Peter Beinart came out for the goal of one democratic state two weeks ago, saying he had given up on Israel as a Jewish state and on the two-state solution, I underestimated the effect. Beinart’s apostasy has been a bombshell. The AP wrote a long story saying Beinart’s articles in Jewish Currents and The New York Times had caused an “earthquake” in the Jewish-American world. A “shaken” Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street told the AP that Congress members have called him to ask what this means for the two state solution. That’s real influence.

J Street tried to downplay the piece at first but now Ben-Ami will be discussing Beinart’s vision of in one web event. While David Myers, another leading liberal Zionist at the New Israel Fund, is also having a discussion with Beinart. Meantime the ADL has linked Beinart with anti-semites, Dershowitz has smeared him as another Nazi with a “Final Solution,” Daniel Gordis says Beinart doesn’t understand Israel because he can’t read Hebrew, and peace processors who have failed for 25 years dismiss him as a dreamer.

Why is Beinart so powerful? Why does this defection echo like a modern Whittaker Chambers, who left Communism in the 50s? After all, as Rebecca Vilkomerson and Dana El Kurd point out in letters to Jewish Currents, many Palestinians and Jews too have called for one state before without getting much mainstream attention, let alone having congresspeople read the article.

The answer is that Jewish liberal Zionists have served as the gatekeepers of the official policy discussion of the outcome in Israel Palestine, representing the left side of the Israel lobby in Washington; and so the defection of a leading intellectual of liberal Zionism, who often argued against the same vision of political coexistence he is offering now by poohpoohing it as utopian, is a discursive but also a political shock.

Beinart threatens the ability of the Israel lobby to maintain the limits on what is considered possible in Washington.

Twice we have seen betrayals of this dimension before: when South African judge Richard Goldstone issued the Goldstone report in 2010 accusing Israel of targeting civilians in Gaza, and when Tony Judt called for one state in the New York Review of Books in 2003, saying that Zionism is an anachronism. Goldstone, a proud Zionist whose daughter lived in Israel and who had helped dismantle apartheid, came under enormous personal pressure including from his Johannesburg Jewish community (not to mention Dershowitz calling him a moser, or a Jew who informs on another Jew to the goyim) and sadly recanted his charges in the Washington Post. I was staying that night at the house of a J Street member in Boston. I remember his joy and vindication in telling me about the piece’s publication.

As for Judt, his piece caused an uprising at the New York Review and a stream of letters from prominent people castigating Robert Silvers for publishing that view. I remember a liberal Zionist friend lamenting, how could they run such a piece? The fact that Judt was an assimilated Jew was used against his argument. As if he were a “non-Jewish Jew” – in contrast to the observant Beinart. I recall that Judt walked back his piece as a utopian ideal, and Silvers made apologies for it.

In the Goldstone and Judt cases, liberal Zionism, the mystical faith in a “Jewish democracy” on ethnically cleansed land, with half the population non-Jewish,  was under assault by a member of the establishment. If the ideas were not redlined in a hurry, they could open up real challenges to the western commitment to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

The west made that solemn commitment to Israel as a rational/imperial response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Israel as a haven for the Jews reborn as a sovereign people is today a linchpin of western thinking about world order. Michael Beschloss says it was Truman’s greatest decision, etc.

And the Israel lobby in the Jewish establishment burgeoned in the last 60 years to make sure that that commitment was never even questioned (as say, Eisenhower and Ford did). The lobby has relied on a combination of power politics, religion, and ideas to maintain that hold: relying on Jewish donors to the Democratic Party, Jewish media figures who believe in Zionism (“Israel had me at hello,” says Tom Friedman), and behind all that, a Jewish communal embrace of Zionism and Jewish peoplehood as the Destiny of Jews, with 95 percent of Jews supporting that ideology, whose corollary is that American Jews who lead comfortable lives cannot criticize Jews whose sons and daughters fight terrorists.

Vilkomerson describes Beinart as a gatekeeper, but at least Beinart would debate people to his left. Jeremy Ben-Ami and David Myers have both achieved great prominence and in Myers’s case, intellectual honor, while acting as gatekeepers: making certain that anti-Zionism is marginalized as an ideology inside the Jewish community. And so the communal commitment to Zionism was maintained, to the point of Stalinist isolation/recrimination (a lot of people have been “hurt”, as Vilkomerson attests). Ben-Ami enforced the orthodoxy by never inviting Jewish anti-Zionists to J Street conferences, even as he rolled out the red carpet to Israeli rightwingers.

Peter Beinart, who once did fundraisers for AIPAC, has been at the left wing of the Israel lobby for ten years now. While he has provoked that community by criticizing Israel’s human rights violations and the Jewish establishment’s blind support for the country, he maintained his status inside the lobby because he never challenged its core faith, in a sovereign Jewish “democracy” as the answer to Jewish history. His eloquence and earnestness gave liberal Zionism a good name.

Now he has betrayed that political community, and we are seeing the shock waves. God bless him; he is opening the floodgates to the voices that matter the most here, those of the persecuted, the Palestinians.

Beinart has surely advanced the process (led by the likes of Henry Siegman and Yousef Munayyer) of undermining the two state paradigm in Washington. Reflect that J Street withdrew its endorsement of Rashida Tlaib when it found out she was for one state– because it is a heresy to call for the end of the Jewish state. But Tlaib is a leftwing Muslim politician in Detroit whom J Street can ignore. They can’t just withdraw their endorsement of a Jewish leader of Zionist thought when he says the same thing. Earthquake. (And Beinart will not be excommunicated. He is a communal Jew; his essay begins with the word “Yavne,” a reference to Jewish religious history of the Second Temple period.)

Why now? After all, Ali Abunimah made the argument for One Country 15 years ago. Many anti-Zionist Jews have made this argument for years. And Palestinians suffered massacres and apartheid for a long time without dislodging Beinart’s belief in greater Jewish rights in that country.

I think the answer is that Beinart has faultless timing when it comes to mainstream thinking; and the reality of Israel got to be too much for him to stomach in the era of George Floyd and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman. The cruel hypocrisy of supporting two states when you know that’s never going to come about and it only prolongs Palestinian suffering in the name of some mythical Jewish destiny – it became too much. The Floyd protests have shown that liberals have a responsibility to take on structural racism in the U.S. AOC has shown that the only response to annexation is some form of sanctions– BDS. Bowman has shown us that the Israel lobby with all its millions can be humiliated, 56-40. These understandings are now universally held on the left. Beinart’s leftwing values were more important than his communal i.d. card– and look, he could clear the gap with one little jump.

The attacks on him from the Israel lobby vindicate his position. They have been smears and name-calling and accusation. He’s trying to “cancel” Israel. Or the AP is airing an “obscene” argument. These people are out of ideas, Scott Roth says. Beinart saw that bankruptcy, and knew it was time to leave the party.

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View all comments Video: Noura Erakat: “Oppose Israeli apartheid & annexation of Palestine” June 24/20 “Ahmed Erekat, a 27-year-old Palestinian man, was on his way to pick up his sister on the day of her wedding when he was shot dead by Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint after seemingly losing control of his car. Ahmed was the cousin of Noura Erakat, a well-known human rights attorney and Rutgers professor. Erakat is calling for justice for Ahmed… Read more »

But Tlaib is a leftwing Muslim politician in Detroit J Street can ignore. “

I think I know what you meant, but she is facing a serious primary challenge. It might be mostly just local politics, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Why now?
Surely Israel’s annexation plans are a milestone too in giving the death blow to the two state solution. Remarkably, although the annexation has not been executed, the discourse has changed as if it had been executed.

This “earthquake” was likely accentuated by a subconscious reaction to the rejection of inequality and injustice by the death of George Floyd. Jews likely have been nervous regarding the future implications for them of the Greater Israel program with privilege under the law. Structured inequality is a probable path to future anti-Semitism. American support for Israel has been based on both religion and mistreatment of Jews and it would be undermined through privilege. Fewer Christians… Read more »

Why now? Because beinart is an activist, rather than a lobbyist or a politician. He was an activist stymied by reality (the dynamics of Israel’s refusal were depicted by Ian Lustick and demonstrated by the exiling of Kadima and Tzipi Livni from mainstream Knesset electoral contention.) He didn’t suddenly discover: oh, maybe this might work out like North Ireland and South Africa, he decided as someone dedicated to action that the dynamics of a movement… Read more »