Opinion

Peter Beinart’s defection is a desperate crisis for liberal Zionists

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I think it would be fair to say that a major earthquake has been happening in the Zionist camp this past week.

Peter Beinart, Prince of ‘Liberal-Zionism’, published a nearly 7K-word essay in Jewish Currents titled “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine”, explaining why he is abandoning the two-state solution. It was followed up by his much shorter piece in the New York Times titled “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State”.

I don’t need to write an essay to explain just how deeply this cuts into the Zionist heart. Equality between Jews and Palestinians is anathema to Zionism, and abandoning the Jewish State is relinquishing the conceptual means by which this inequality is maintained.

These advocacies in general are not novel. Many others as well as this writer have been making them for years. But the person who is now voicing them is part of this story which makes it that much more explosive.  The prince has just abandoned the castle. Even though Beinart seems keen to soften the blow by suggesting that Zionism continue more as “essence” rather than “form”, that is, become a kind of cultural signifier without a Jewish nation-state as such, for Zionists today, this is still very much tantamount to a death blow.

And yet, the liberals can’t just throw Beinart off as yet another negligible anti-Semite cuckoo. They know he has too much clout for that. Thus come the attempts to both be respectful yet dissenting.

Chair of J Street Jeremy Ben Ami starts out with greetings in his main tweet:

“I always deeply value the intellectual gravitas that my friend @PeterBeinart brings to any discussion. I welcome his thought-provoking essay in which he articulates a new trajectory in his personal thinking about and relationship to Israel.”

And then his dissent, in several sub-tweets:

“I remain committed to core principle that the Jewish people, like other peoples/nations, have the right to political independence and a state they can call home.  That state is far from perfect, as are all nations including – it goes without saying – my own United States…

“One day, when the Jewish and Palestinian peoples are ready to stop the bloodshed, violence and tears, they will draw a border and declare that each people gets a part of the land they both want and that each of their states will provide equality for all its citizens…

“I don’t believe the two state solution is dead. I recognize we’re not getting there under present circumstances. So while we change those circumstances, I will work – like Peter – to end occupation, inequality and injustice – and to help Israel live up to its founding vision.”

“Peace process” personas such as Martin Indyk and Aaron David Miller also did their best to keep up appearances beneath the sweat.

Indyk:

“Whether your conjecture is right @PeterBeinart, your prescription is clearly a recipe for continued conflict rather than peaceful resolution. The only way to RESOLVE the conflict between two peoples for the same land is to separate them into two states.”

Miller:

“2 states looks doubtful. And 1 state housing Palestinians/Israelis w/their national/religious aspirations who all live happily ever after is an illusion tethered to a fantasy wrapped in an impossibility. The honest answer right now is there’s no way out.”

These critics need to hold on to their orthodoxy in the face of this shift. Beinart has moved on from the charade of the two-state solution that only prolonged Israeli oppression, and he has abandoned the camp. Although he ostensibly offers Zionists, including himself, a conceptual refuge of identity in “essence” but not “form”, this is not a refuge these Zionists seek. They want to maintain that form.

Enter Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz, and the critique becomes somewhat more crass.

Pfeffer’s piece from yesterday is titled “Peter Beinart’s One State Solution Sounds So Perfect It’s Practically Utopian”, and he ends it with deriding mockery of Beinart, playing on Beinart’s historical reference of rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai– who built a Jewish school in Yavne after the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD: “He is Yochanan Ben Beinart, and his utopian Yavne doesn’t exist on the shores of the Mediterranean. It has, instead been transplanted 6000 miles away, to a faculty lounge on an American campus.”

Pfeffer applies a rather cynical and twisted set of reasonings to supposedly exclude Zionism and the Jewish State from moral scrutiny. First he says that Zionism is not about morals, nonetheless qualifying that it is moral (in parentheses, which apparently need no further elaboration):

“Beinart derives inspiration from these early Zionists, because he wants to believe in a more perfect Zionism, one that can be morally justified by 21st century progressive values as well. But that’s not what Zionism was about. Not because Zionism isn’t morally justifiable (it was) but because Zionism wasn’t about morals. There were Zionist ideologues and thinkers, but Zionism wasn’t an ideology. It wasn’t a vision of a better world.”

What was it then? Pfeffer says it was a pragmatism. But if you want to discuss it, good luck, because it’s already gone, it stopped existing by 1948, according to Pfeffer:

“Zionism was a plan to solve the acute problem of Jewish persecution, primarily in Eastern Europe, but gradually in any place where Jews faced antisemitic violence and discrimination. (I’m using the past tense here because I don’t believe Zionism actually exists after 1948, when the program was successfully fulfilled). It didn’t have to be moral, by the standards of its day or our day. It had to be pragmatic. It had to work because millions of Jewish lives were at stake.”

So, to recap Pfeffer:

Zionism is not about morals, but it is of course moral, and that’s beyond discussion. And it’s also beyond discussion currently, because it doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s why Beinart is wrong and utopian.

This is not just disingenuous argumentation – it is reactionary. “Our” pragmatism trumps all other moral considerations, because it’s singularly moral for us to survive, come what may.

Surely, a future solution cannot rely upon such morals, or lack of them. As much critique as I may have of Beinart, it doesn’t measure up to the horror I experience with Anshel Pfeffer.

Michael Sfard, Yesh Din and Israeli Apartheid

Just a couple of days after Beinart’s bombshell, came another, from another direction. The respected Israeli NGO Yesh Din which focuses on human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories published a legal opinion titled “The Occupation of the West Bank and the Crime of Apartheid”.

The claim: “[T]he crime against humanity of apartheid is being committed in the West Bank. The perpetrators are Israelis, and the victims are Palestinians.”

Furthermore:

“Continued creeping legal annexation, let alone official annexation of a particular part of the West Bank through legislation that would apply Israeli law and administration there, is an amalgamation of the regimes. This could mean strengthening the argument, which already is being heard, that the crime of Apartheid is not committed only in the West Bank. That the Israeli regime in its entirety is an apartheid regime. That Israel is an Apartheid state.”

In a simultaneous interview in +972, the organization’s legal advisor Michael Sfard further elaborates on what this means:

Michael Sfard (Photo: Yossi Gurvitz)

“People should ultimately ask themselves what the end goal of Israel’s policy is. Twenty years ago, most people would say it was two states — but I’m sure that’s not their answer today. And if one democratic binational state is also not their answer, then they have no escape route from apartheid.”

Interviewer Amjad Iraqi summarizes:

“Basically, that ‘no solution’ is by default an acceptance of apartheid.”

Sfard:

“Right. When I started writing the opinion, I had only Israel’s acts on the ground to prove its intention to perpetuate domination. For 50 years the Israeli government was saying the ‘right thing’ — that the occupation is temporary until peace agreements will replace the ceasefire agreements. But then the gap between the Israeli statements and the Israeli actions disappeared. With their own words, Israeli officials have shattered their own alibi — a very lousy alibi that couldn’t hide the deeds anyway. Today my work is much easier.”

This is a good moment to reflect upon Aaron David Miller’s “honest answer”, that there is “no way out”. Oh, it’s so much easier for the privileged stratum to say that there’s just “no way out” and “no solution”, when that “no solution” is by default an acceptance of Apartheid, without one having to say so explicitly. Moshe Dayan said it a bit more clearly in 1967. He proposed saying to Palestinians:

“We don’t have a solution, and you will continue living like dogs, and whoever wants will go, and we’ll see how this procedure will work out”.

Sfard also hammered his point through in Haaretz in a piece titled “Yes, It’s Israeli Apartheid. Even Without Annexation”

That title already cuts through the widespread assumption that this is all just a matter relating to current right-wing policies of Trump and Netanyahu, something that could be turned around by this or that government.

Yesh Din is apparently hedging in its legal opinion. It refrains from actually calling the state of Israel an Apartheid State (merely saying that Israeli practices could “strengthen the argument”). Sfard also hedges in his Haaretz article, that Apartheid as it is known today is not necessarily racist:

“Contrary to popular belief, in international law, a racial group is defined in accordance with sociopolitical classifications, not biological-genetic ones, thus the [apartheid] definition encompasses national or ethnic origin”.

In the legal opinion it’s saying that “although [apartheid’s] origin is historically linked to the racist regime in South Africa, it is now an independent legal concept with a life of its own, which can exist without being founded on racist ideology.”

In the +972 interview, Iraqi wonders: “I have to confess that my first thought when reading it was that it came off, at least unintentionally, as dissociating the political goal of Jewish supremacy — or to be frank, Zionism — from Israel’s institutional structures. Could you clarify the thinking behind that assertion?”

Sfard:

“One of the problems I’ve encountered when I run my ideas by Israelis is that apartheid, for those who know what it is, is seen as part of a racist ideology in the same way that the Nazis had a racist ideology: that people have biological or genetic traits that scientifically make them inferior to others. Because the Apartheid Convention and the Rome Statute defined apartheid using the word ‘racial groups,’ the interpretation is counterintuitive. It’s not about biological assumptions of race, but rather on social and political groups in which members of a certain nation have preferential group rights. I wasn’t trying to say that there is no ideology of supremacy that puts the principle of Jewish preference over Palestinians; of course there is such a thing (and the report mentions that). What I meant was that there is not the same type of scientific argumentation that one race is better than the other.”

This argument seems to betray a fear of association: Sfard is worried that people will get the idea that he’s saying that Israel is being Nazi, thus he argues for Apartheid not necessarily being founded on “racist ideology”. But this seems to be somewhat pedantic. If there is to be found a non-racist Apartheid regime somewhere, then it is certainly not in Israel, where there is a core motive of Jewish supremacy – which is, as Iraqi frankly points out, Zionism.

Back to Beinart

So we are back to Zionism. And back to Beinart. That Apartheid regime is part of the Zionist venture. Whether Zionism as a whole is Apartheid (and worse, as I claim), whether it is only Apartheid “there” but not “here”, whether Peter Beinart says the A word or not, is not the main issue.  The main issue is that the last bastion of ‘liberal Zionists’, that famous “two-state solution” to protect Israel from being labelled an Apartheid state, is crumbling. It is becoming toxic for liberals to adhere to these imaginations under the presumption that the occupation is only temporary and that it is only a matter of time before the solution (always about “separation”), comes.

And if it’s Apartheid, no matter what you do, then it’s logical that the goal needs to change from managing it, to abolishing it. When the goal is abolishing it, then we are called on to imagine a future without Apartheid. This is where the “pragmatists” of the status quo orthodoxies will come in to demolish these imaginings as “unrealistic” or worse. People once talked that way about Apartheid South Africa, too, until it wasn’t Apartheid anymore.

H/t Annar Follesø, Ofer Neiman, Rebecca Vilkomerson 

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A utopian fantasy? William Blake said, “What is now proved was once only imagined.” If you can imagine it, that is the first step toward creating it.

Jonathan, I think you may be misunderstanding something: “This argument seems to betray a fear of association: Sfard is worried that people will get the idea that he’s saying that Israel is being Nazi, thus he argues for Apartheid not necessarily founded on “racist ideology””. Sfard is a lawyer, therefore his argument are based on legal arguments and definitions of the crime of apartheid: “The crime of apartheid is defined as “inhumane acts … committed… Read more »

https://jewishcurrents.org/the-resilient-fiction-of-the-two-state-solution/ “The Resilient Fiction of the Two-State Solution” Jewish Currents, by Joshua  Leifer, July 9/20 Excerpt: “ISRAEL’S IMPENDING ANNEXATION of the West Bank has put the fate of the two-state solution—or, perhaps more accurately, its death—at the center of the American Jewish communal discourse once again. Yet neither Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement of his annexation intentions, nor the Trump ‘peace plan,’ is responsible for the death of the two-state solution, which long ago ceased to be a realistic outcome for… Read more »

In a webinar today, Peter Beinart pointed out that what Jews mean by a Palestinian state is not what Palestinians mean. Jews mean an entity completely under the control of Israel. Some state.
As for Pfeffer, Zionism isn’t moral. It never was. How could it be, when it meant expelling people from their land and taking it for your own?

I know and highly respect Michael Sfard. But, I’m disappointed in his attempt to intellectualize away the patently obvious fact that Zionism is, by its very nature, racist. The explanation I like to use for this is a statement I managed to have published in a local newspaper, the Oakland Tribune, some years ago. It garnered me hateful tweets and a couple of pieces of hate mail. What I said was that Zionism sees Arabs,… Read more »