Peter Beinart is on a crusade to save the patrimony of liberal Zionism in Israel and America. In a wide-ranging interview, the charismatic author slams the American Jewish establishment and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also talks about his latest book, which is already provoking controversy.
|Peter Beinart is on a crusade to save the patrimony of liberal Zionism in Israel and America. In a wide-ranging interview, the charismatic author slams the American Jewish establishment and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also talks about his latest book, which is already provoking controversy. |
But first this ........ The cautionary tale of Helen Thomas
Journalist's words a sign of things to come as US grows weary of conflict, says Mark LeVine.
"The Jews should get the hell out of Palestine."
So said legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas, to a rabbi no less, at a Jewish Heritage Month celebration on May 27 - even worse.
There was, needless to say, no way Thomas was going to remain in her job after that remark.
Why did she make remarks that would so clearly bring her illustrious career to such an ignominious end?
Maybe, at 89 years old, she just did not care anymore and let some hidden feelings of anti-Semitism leak out.
Maybe, as so often happens in this age of constant in your face "citizen journalism," someone with a camera caught her off guard, asked her a leading question, and she vented frustration at a situation she, more than perhaps anyone else in Washington, has seen drag on and on without end. Generations of administrations decry Israel's intransigence - only off the record, of course.
We will never know, for rather than explaining or even justifying her remarks, she issued a seemingly heartfelt apology and retired from public life.
'Any comments on Israel?'
But there are two issues raised by Thomas' remarks that are worth considering regardless of whether she further clarifies (or perhaps obscures) them.
One is what she actually meant when she said them. The second, and more important issue, is what these remarks herald for the way the American public will view Israel in the future should the situation in Israel/Palestine continue as it has.
Thomas' response was to a question by Rabbi David Nesenoff about the protesters in front of the White House who were chanting against the seizure of the Gaza aid flotilla and the killing of nine activists on the ship by Israeli commandos.
The question was: "Any comments on Israel? We're arresting everyone today. Any comments..." But, before the questioner could finish, she looked straight at the camera and said: "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine."
"Ooooh," he replied, in shock. "Any better comments on Israel?"
It is hard to know if by "better" he meant more favourable, or at least less hostile, or even more provocative, guaranteeing that the video would become a youtube sensation. Thomas took the latter path.
Laughing at his response, she continued: "Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land. It's not German, it's not Poland..."
"Where should they go?" Nesenoff asked.
"They should go home ... Poland, Germany ... and America. And everywhere else."
What did she mean?
Perhaps Thomas was thinking of the West Bank settlers when she made her remarks. If so, she seems to be confused about where most Jews come from who live in the settlements, mixing together waves of pre-second world war immigration from Central and Eastern Europe with more recent immigration from the US.
Today, hardly any come from Germany and Poland, most of whose Jews perished in the Holocaust. The pre-1948 Zionist immigrants from these countries tended to stay in the primary areas of Jewish settlement, in Tel Aviv and along the coast and central plain.
Today's ideological settlers are most likely to come from the US or are third or fourth generation Israelis. Other settlers consist of more recent immigrants from around the world who have little choice but to take advantage of the numerous government incentives for moving to the settlements.
But what exactly did Thomas mean by "Palestine" and what era is she talking about?
Given her mix of countries "they" should return to, it seems more likely that, at least in that moment of unreflective - or un-self censored-comment, she was stating a desire to see all the Jews of Israel/Palestine "go home".
Helen Thomas, it seems, had entered a time machine and was adopting the rhetoric of Palestinians circa the 1960s, before the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) changed its ideology to declare that Israelis could remain in Palestine as citizens in a unified, democratic Palestinian state.
Home of free speech
Of course, these sentiments could not be allowed to stand.
This might be the US, the home of free speech, where The New York Times editors see no threat to journalistic integrity in having as their Israel bureau chief a reporter whose son serves in the Israeli army (to his credit, The Times'public editor did argue against such a move, but was ignored), but should a reporter with half a century of distinguished reporting, make one anti-Israel statement she can no longer be considered capable of reporting honestly on any issue.
And sure enough, after profusely apologising for her remarks and declaring her belief that "peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognise the need for mutual respect and tolerance," Thomas retired.
The fact that the entirety of the mainstream US media has blatantly put forward the Israeli propaganda narrative surrounding the justifications for and legality of the commando raid on the aid flotilla requires no soul searching.
Helen Thomas has proved that the whole world is against Israel, even the hyper-liberal US media, so there is no point trying to offer a more accurate account of what happened that deadly night.
Repeating story lines
Thomas might have been forced to fall on her sword, but her words should serve as a cautionary tale.
Quite simply, people are getting tired of the occupation and its endlessly repeating story lines.
Like a long-running soap opera that has clearly run out of steam, once reliable friends are slowly turning off the official Israeli narrative, even in the US.
It started with General David Patraeus' remarks that Israeli intransigence was putting the US' strategic position in the Muslim world in jeopardy and costing American lives. This from a leader of an institution, the US military, that has profited handsomely from the regional imbroglios, arms races and wars to which the Israeli occupation has contributed.
Next came voices from within the Jewish community, from scholars like Peter Beinart who has recently written that the failure of the American Jewish leadership to criticise Israel is leading younger Jews increasingly to "check their Zionism" rather than their liberalism at the door, and even politicians like Barney Frank, who declared after the flotilla raid that he was "embarrassed to be Jewish".
If a congressman can declare that he is embarrassed to be Jewish, what is to stop non-Jewish Americans from increasingly declaring their embarrassment and even disgust with Israeli policies, and losing any sense of nuance about this ultra-complex conflict in the process.
"Yitzhar? Beersheva? Gush Etzion? Tel Aviv? What is the difference? Just go away, stop taking our money, and leave us alone!"
In other words, Thomas' seeming confusion of the homelands of most Jewish settlers in the West Bank could well be a harbinger of what will happen in the US more broadly - as people grow weary of this conflict, as the economy continues to remain weak, as aid to Israel in the context of an endless 'war on terror' seems increasingly strange and unjustifiable when the Israeli government routinely defies the US' wishes.
Intended or not, Helen Thomas issued a warning to Israel and to the American Jewish leadership. If this conflict is not resolved fairly and comprehensively soon, more Americans - including American Jews - will not just start thinking like her, but speaking like her.
They will not bother trying to understand why Israel is acting as it is or what the differences are between Israel within its 1967 borders, which are recognised by most of the world, and the "Greater Israel" that encompasses large swaths of the West Bank.
Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy put it best in a brilliant piece of satirical commentary entitled Netanyahu was right, arguing that: "Netanyahu said the whole world is against us. Wasn't he right? He also said we live under an existential threat. Isn't it beginning to look like that? Give it another minute and Turkey will be at war with us too. Netanyahu said there's no chance of reaching an agreement with the Arabs. Wasn't that spot on? Our prime minister, who saw danger lurking in every alleyway and enemies waiting around every corner, who has always taught that there is no hope, who has drummed into us that we shall forever live by the sword (just as his father the historian taught him), knew what he was talking about."
Levy is spot on. The only way the occupation can continue indefinitely and Israel can avoid the seemingly inevitable if sisyphean task of disentangling itself from the settlements and territorially separating from Palestinians is for Israelis and their supporters to feel, deep down in their core, that no matter what they do, the world will always be against the Jews and will want to destroy Israel.
If that is the case, then there is no point risking civil war by making incredibly painful territorial concessions that will do little to assuage the animosity against Israel, and Jews more broadly; to stem the belief that Jews, the world's ultimate homeless nation, should leave its mytho-historical and present home and return to countries like Germany and Poland, where they were slaughtered by the millions.
Thomas' words were an unexpected but certainly welcome gift to the Israeli government and its supporters, at least for the moment. Now instead of talking about the 30 plus shots fired into the bodies of activists on the high seas, the media has to bend over backwards to demonstrate its commitment to Israel's narrative. Instead of demanding better access to Gaza, it has to refute the liberal anti-Israel bias of the media.
But her words were also an admonishment. Israel can continue its occupation and defy world opinion because it is still perceived as a strategic and political asset by the American establishment and crucial political and economic constituencies.
Israeli leaders are betting that their best chance of continuing the status quo indefinitely is for the US to remain embroiled in so many conflicts abroad that no administration has the energy or political capital to seriously challenge Israel's actions even when they contradict the assessment of generals and policy-makers about the best interests of the US.
But if things keep going badly in the US - a double-dip recession, weak job numbers, increasing casualties in distant battlefields, more oil and coal mining disasters, another, this time successful, terrorist attack (to name but a few possibilities) - Americans are going to start looking for people to blame. And historically, we all know who tends to get the blame when things go wrong ....
This is what Helen Thomas' words, however intemperate and even prejudiced, were telling us. And needless to say, this is precisely what the leadership of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran would love to see happen - let Israel go about the business of destroying itself while they look on, waiting to pounce, just as Israel did to Palestinian society during the worst years of the al-Aqsa intifada, when the pressure led to widespread chaos and infighting among Palestinians.
The question is will Israel play according to their script and continue to defy world public opinion, slowly alienating the population of its only (until now) unequivocal benefactor, or will its leaders and so-called friends change course before it is too late?
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
Peter Beinart: A prophet of liberal Zionism sounds an alarm
“Part of the problem in the American Jewish community is that people worry too much about what their aunt Esther and what the right-wing guy who they sit with at shul are going to say, and not enough about what their children are going to say,” Beinart tells me in an interview at his office at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. “You can disagree with my analysis, that’s fine. But if you agree with my analysis of the situation, then that is what you worry about. You worry about how you’re going to explain to the next generation that we squandered this patrimony.”NEW YORK CITY − “If Israel does not survive as a Jewish democratic state, I want to be able to tell my children that I did what little I’m capable of. I’m a writer, so what I can do is to try to sound an alarm. I just want to be able to say that to them.”
The man speaking is Peter Beinart, the journalist, essayist and author who became American Jewry’s most prominent prophet of doom following the
publication of his 2010 article, “The Failure of the Jewish Establishment.” It is a role that will now be cemented in stone with the publication of his new book “The Crisis of Zionism,” in which he calls on American Jews “to defend the dream of a democratic Jewish state before it is too late.”
The patrimony that Beinart is referring to, of course, is that of liberal Zionism, in both Israel and America. It is the legacy that Beinart cited in his controversial New York Times article this week which called for a boycott of settlements and which elicited a firestorm of condemnation and criticism. Beinart is on a crusade, if you will, to save the birthright of liberal American Jews, and his two main culprits – the “enemies” with whom he is doing battle – are the American Jewish establishment, which blindly follows right-wing Israeli policies, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who orchestrates them.
As far as Beinart is concerned, it is Netanyahu who is leading the Jewish people astray by misinterpreting historical precedents and misapplying them to the present. It is Netanyahu who has converted the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying organization, and recruited Christian Evangelicals to support his right-wing anti-liberal agendas. It is Netanyahu, aided and abetted by these very same American supporters, who has derailed President Barack Obama’s Middle East peace policies, a move that could go down as a “historical tragedy,” Beinart asserts.
“His arrogance and his intellectual insularity remind me of the worst of American politics in the Bush era,” he says. “This idea that because he’s done some reading about the 1930s and 1940s, nobody understands history better than him, is intellectually sophomoric, you know? This constant putting of everything that Netanyahu encounters into the Holocaust analogy, first the Palestinians and now Iran, is the worst form of policymaking. His line that no one knows history beyond what he had for breakfast is [Dick] Cheney-esque, really. And it drives me up the wall.”
Throughout Beinart’s texts, speeches and interviews, it is clear that most everything that Netanyahu says or does drives him up the wall. Netanyahu is the arch villain, the embodiment of everything that has gone wrong with the Zionism that Beinart swears allegiance to. One of the reasons for this fixation, Beinart readily admits, is the fact that Netanyahu is so “American” − that he plays so skillfully in the American political arena. That he is for many Democrats, as Beinart says, “the Republican senator from New York.” And it is in this context that Beinart offers what is, for this writer at least, one of the more incisive insights of his new book, an eye-opener that, admittedly, may not be accurate but is nonetheless spectacularly original.
‘A nasty world’
According to Beinart, Netanyahu’s mistrust and dislike for Obama do not stem from the fact that the president is a Democrat, or a liberal, and definitely not because he is black, god forbid, or because his middle name is Hussein.
No, Netanyahu distrusts Obama because Obama reminds him of Jews. And not just any Jews, but leftist Jews − the Jews that Netanyahu detests, the kind of Jews that Netanyahu once famously told an Israeli rabbi “have forgotten what it is to be Jews.”
“What really struck me when I read his writings and that of his father Benzion, and then about the Revisionist tradition, is this belief that the world is a very nasty place, and the Jews are in danger because they don’t recognize its nastiness. Because they’ve gotten this crazy idea that they’re supposed to be better than everybody else. And that this is deep in our history, it’s something that has emerged over hundreds and hundreds of years in the Diaspora − and we’ve got to get rid of it. We’ve got to become like everybody else.”
Obama, according to Beinart, is a product of this Jewish worldview that Netanyahu rejects. He is a “Jewish president,” as Beinart relates in his book, heavily influenced by liberal, leftist tikkun olam Jews (i.e., who believe in repairing the world), who “came out of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam protests” and among whom Obama lived, worked and thrived as he launched his political career in Chicago. And Netanyahu, so well versed in the ways of America, knows full well where Obama is coming from: a quintessentially Jewish place that “frightens” and “alienates” the Israeli prime minister, Beinart says. And it is to thwart this Jewish-inspired worldview of Obama’s, especially as it pertains to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that Netanyahu has enlisted Jewish America’s most powerful agent of influence, AIPAC.
What’s wrong with AIPAC?
“There is nothing wrong with the people themselves. Most AIPAC people are not ideological. They don’t see themselves as right wing. They’re mostly moderate Democrats. They just want to do something for Israel. They want to feel connected to Israel. They go to their synagogue dinner, they go to the Federation dinner, and they go to the AIPAC dinner. But I disagree with AIPAC’s definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. Obviously, they have every right to be involved and engaged, and I feel ambivalent – because there’s a part of me, as a Jew, who, when I look at the AIPAC conference, says: ‘Wow, we’re good. Who else could do this?’ I feel the same way when I see the list of Nobel Prize winners.
“But the AIPAC conference is a fantasy of power without responsibility. The whole AIPAC ethos is about the Jewish experience of power. You’re a dentist in Cleveland. Your dad was a liquor-store owner in the Bronx. Your grandfather was a peddler in Riga. Your uncles and aunts and cousins were massacred in the Shoah. Nobody gave a shit about you. You come to AIPAC, and all the politicians come to tell you how great you are, and to tell you what you want to hear. For WASPs, it wouldn’t be such a powerful experience. For Jews, especially older Jews, it’s a very powerful experience, especially when you tell people that you’re using this power to save the Jewish people in the way that your parents and grandparents couldn’t in the 1940s.
“But the problem is, it’s only a narrative of power and survival. It’s not a narrative of power and ethical responsibility. And that’s a point I try to make in the book: What’s missing from the American Jewish conversation is a recognition that our tradition has something to teach us about the responsibility of power and the capacity to abuse power, and we don’t see that in the Israel debate.”
It is this attempt to eradicate the Jewish imperative for moral responsibility which, according to Beinart, is also a major reason for Netanyahu’s appeal to the Christian Evangelical right and its support for Israel, which Beinart describes as “an unmitigated disaster.”
“They fit so well with Bibi,” he says, “because Bibi wants a Zionism and a Judaism that kicks to the side any notion of the Jews having a special ethical mission, and that’s what the Christians want as well ... Do you know why they love Israel? Because they see themselves in a global struggle against Islam, and they believe that what’s great about Israel is that Israel is taking it to the Muslims. Well, that’s not what I love about Israel.”
Beinart’s rallying cry to fight for the Israel he loves, and his harsh attack on those he views as undermining it, were the backdrop to his groundbreaking May 2010 article in the prestigious New York Review of Books, which catapulted him into his current status as the main ideologue of American Jewish liberals. The article took the American Jewish world by storm to a degree that surprised Beinart himself. It lambasted the Jewish establishment for driving away young and liberal Jews, for failing to stand up for human rights and democracy in Israel and in the territories, and for betraying the historical values of liberal American Zionism.
“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead. Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States − so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel − is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.”
Beinart’s article was well written and well argued, but what turned it into such a sensation was its impeccable timing. He expressed, often with polemical hammer blows, what many Jews had been feeling in mid-2010. His message spread like wildfire in Jewish intelligentsia, among people who were increasingly dismayed by the undeniable contradiction between Obama’s 2008 election and his liberal agenda, which they had fervently endorsed, and the values and voices that were emanating from Israel in the wake of Netanyahu’s 2009 election: Avigdor Lieberman, settler violence, antidemocratic legislation, insularity abroad and intolerance at home.
Beinart was tapping into the same kind of frustration with the status quo that had led to the establishment of J Street in 2008. The liberal, urban, intellectual elites of Jewish America were looking for a voice, and in Beinart they had found their would-be Jeremiah.
Beinart, almost a quintessential Jewish American intellectual, might not get very far in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of political discourse in Tel Aviv, but in New York and other urban U.S. Jewish centers, he fits the bill perfectly. He is undoubtedly more charismatic in the eyes of young American Jews than the heads of the organizations that he so caustically criticizes. At the recent General Assembly of Jewish Federations in Denver, I witnessed how swarms of young female listeners lapped up his words − even those who later found it necessary to say they reject his message completely.
“Beinart is a classic Washington scholar-journalist-pundit, a Yale and Oxford graduate who has edited the New Republic, stamped his wonk pass at the Council on Foreign Relations and now hangs out at the New America Foundation and the City University of New York.” That was how The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada described him in 2010.
Born in 1971 to immigrant parents from South Africa who made their home in the elitist intellectual milieu of Harvard and MIT, Beinart was for many years described by the adjective “wunderkind.” He studied at Yale, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and at the ripe old age of 28 was appointed editor of Martin Peretz’s influential, soft-at-home, tough-abroad New Republic. Beinart is the author of two books on American foreign policy, which received mixed reviews.
In 2006 he published “The Good Fight: Why Liberals − and Only Liberals − Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again,” which focused on the works of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr a few years before he became a household name due to his influence on the foreign policy thinking of President Obama.
In 2010, Beinart wrote “The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris,” in which he blames American overconfidence and hubris for a century of foreign policy mishaps, follies and tragedies. It is in this second book that Beinart recants his own support for the 2003 Iraq war, leading a reviewer in the Christian Science Monitor to describe the book as “a history of Beinart’s own hubris.”
Beinart’s born-again ardor, his zeal of a convert, is one of the motivations critics ascribed to his hard-hitting New York Review of Books article. It is probably just one of a series of broadsides that Beinart will have to confront with the publication of “The Crisis of Zionism” by Times Books, the publishing arm of The New York Times. It is, in many ways, a turbo-charged version of his original article.
It includes a detailed and utterly unflattering account of the relations between Netanyahu and Obama over the past three years, as told to Beinart by sources close to the latter who are clearly no great fans of the former. It expands and expounds on Beinart’s original indictment of antidemocratic Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians. It laments the Israeli betrayal of the liberal values that Beinart believes Israel was founded on and, consequently, its growing distance from American Jews. It lambasts the perpetuation and fostering of the Jewish sense of “victimhood” by Netanyahu and others of his ilk, which serves to absolve Jews of any need to come to terms with their own moral shortcomings. It is, at once, a condemnation of the Jewish establishment and a call to arms for liberal Jewry. It is, or may come to be, the “Little Red Book” of left-leaning American Jewish intellectuals, the “Liberal Manifesto” of sophisticated Jews who insist on clinging to their old-style Zionism, even if it no longer exists.
The book is, I tell Beinart, like a compendium of all the leftist opinion articles that have been written and that will be written on these subjects for years to come. His critics will say that the work is more indicative of Beinart’s own clueless liberalism than it is of misguided Israeli policies − a shining example of how leftists have lost their way. His facts and statistics are not borne out by the research and the polls, they will claim. He doesn’t live in Israel, of course, doesn’t send his children to the army and shouldn’t be criticizing Israel in the first place. He is arming Israel’s worst enemies with some of their best lines. And sometimes it seems that he just doesn’t get it: “Beinart ignores what Israel has gone through over the last decade and thereby misreads what Israelis are thinking today” − as ADL chairman Abe Foxman said.
Indeed, for an Israeli reader, even one who is sympathetic to Beinart, there are some glaring gaps in his book, made all the more striking by the fact that these were widely pointed out to him in many reviews and critiques of his 2010 article.
It often seems like you just don’t feel the pain, that you don’t grasp the impact of the trauma of the suicide bombings and the second intifada on the Israeli psyche and public opinion.
“I’m sorry. If that doesn’t come through, then it’s a failure of the book. I didn’t live it, but I totally understand it. This randomness of the violence, the sense that the whole of Israel was a battlefield. If you say that this pushed Israeli politics significantly to the right, I think that’s incontestably right. But people go from that descriptive reality to a normative claim: that therefore, the interpretation of the second intifada, that became dominant on the Israeli right and among most American Jews, is correct.
“9/11 had an incredibly traumatic impact on Americans. Nobody can understand American foreign policy in the ensuing years without understanding the trauma. But that doesn’t mean it justifies the way that American leaders, and to some degree even American public opinion, responded to 9/11. It may be more understandable, emotionally, but it doesn’t mean it was wise.”
But it also seems you don’t give enough weight to Iran. And the Arab Spring. And to a whole host of similar events.
“That may be true, but I don’t think any of these events are good reasons to create a one-state solution in the West Bank. The point I’m trying to get at is that these things become manipulated by people who have no interest in the creation of something along the lines of the Clinton parameters. And it seems to me that we can’t play that game forever. Because then you get what you most fear, which is from the river to the sea, you know? And when I listen to American Jewish leaders or, frankly, when I listen to Netanyahu, I don’t feel a kind of recognition that this is not some distant potential, that there could be a triggering mechanism, a Palestinian intifada of some sort, which washes away the Palestinian Authority. And we could be there, a week from Tuesday. Sometimes I think we’re like in the old Road Runner cartoon where he goes off the cliff but [doesn’t fall because] he hasn’t looked down, you know?”
Nonetheless, you seem to pay lip service to the effects of the violence and to the rejectionism of the Palestinians and of Hamas and of Iran. You go through the motions on what is, after all, 99 percent of the story as far as the Israeli public is concerned. Often it seems that for you, Israel is at fault for everything.
“No, I don’t think that’s fair. In my own narrative of what I think happened through the Oslo Process and going through the second intifada, you will find again and again references to Palestinian culpability. I made a point of describing the grisly details of the Itamar massacre, precisely because I wanted to put on paper what the Palestinian terrorists did. But people are used to hearing a narrative in which there’s never much recognition of the fact that there is culpability on both sides. I genuinely believe there is very serious culpability on both sides for the failure of Oslo, for what happened at Camp David and for what happened in the Gaza disengagement.”
You sound very disappointed with Obama. You thought he would carry through with his peace agenda, but then he capitulated.
“I was disappointed at the way he handled the settlements fight, and then I was probably even more disappointed at his reaction in the wake of his ’67 lines-plus-swaps speech. And now I’m disappointed that he acts as if the settlements issue basically doesn’t exist and that he is willing to essentially live within a purely Iran framework, which is what Bibi wanted from the very beginning. I’m disappointed in Obama, but I’m more disappointed in us, because you can’t expect Obama to care more about the survival of Israel as a Jewish democratic state than we American Jews do. We American Jews played a huge role in making the political price for Obama doing what he believed in too high. So he said, ‘Do you expect me to lay down in front of the train tracks, when you are determined to go on a path that could destroy Israel as a Jewish democratic state?’”
Maybe you have misplaced expectations. This is what American Jews are.
“I think there are many American Jews –I don’t know if it’s most – who have responded to what they saw during the first intifada, the Lebanon war and, in even larger numbers, since the Netanyahu/Lieberman government emerged. And what they see is a government that’s not genuinely committed to a two-state solution, and is pursuing an agenda that undermines liberal democracy at home. I think American Jews are concerned about these questions of the legislative agenda in the Knesset and the questions of free speech and the issues with the Haredim. Even the American Jewish Committee and ADL have spoken out about it. I think you see it in the American Jewish intellectual conversation. Look at The New York Times, which is the house newspaper of the American Jewish community. Look at their columnists.
“It’s hard to quantify, but I think if you did an honest poll of the AIPAC agenda versus the J Street agenda with American Jews, you would have a roughly 50/50 split, which I think you would find was quite generational. And that among non-Orthodox American Jews under the age of 40, you would find that the J Street agenda was more popular (with the J Street agenda being active government intervention to try to bring about a two-state solution.)”
But I can make the counterargument that if you take American Jews who are actively interested in Israel, you will find that 90 percent will agree with the Israeli government stance that Iran is a threat and the Palestinians don’t want peace.
“Barack Obama won more than 75 percent of the Jewish vote. So you have to reckon with the fact that despite the statements from Jewish leaders who voiced suspicion of Obama, the vast majority still voted for him. And I would be willing to bet what little money I have in the bank that Barack Obama will win 70 percent of the Jewish vote in November. A lot of those Jews are not voting on Israel, of course. But they’re not totally uninterested in Israel. Which is to say, if they genuinely believed that Barack Obama was a threat ... then he wouldn’t be able to get that number. I think people who are actually involved in Israel-related organizations, who are on the right, are not a representative sampling of American Jews, and this is a fundamental problem you have more broadly in American politics. I mean, the Cuban lobby does not represent most Cubans, but it represents the Cubans who care the most. That’s probably true for gun owners, too.
“I think one question that American Jews who are on the left have to face is how much they care about this compared to everything else. People say, ‘Yes, and what about global warming?’ That’s part of the reason I don’t come at this from a purely universalistic perspective. You say to people: You have to be involved in this struggle because it’s the struggle of your people, it’s your honor. The future of Judaism is going to be impacted by this, you can’t run away from it.”
It doesn’t seem like multitudes of Jews are flocking to your point of view, J Street notwithstanding. Do you think some are afraid to speak their minds?
“If you live in the Jewish organizational world, then it’s harder to be a public critic of Israel. If you live in the world of electoral politics, it’s harder. If you live in the Orthodox community, it’s certainly harder. Other than that, I don’t think it’s very hard. It just depends on how close you are to this part of the American Jewish community. If you’re just some left-leaning Jewish person living among other left-leaning people, then it’s not hard. I don’t want to suggest that I think people on the left who criticize Israel are persecuted. But there are some environments in which it’s difficult.”
Don’t you think one of the reasons your article resonated is that people were surprised that anyone dared to say the things you did? Is open discussion of Israel in the American media being stifled?
“I want people, non-Jewish Americans, to have opinions about this like they have opinions about anything else. They may be wrong, they may be stupid, they may be ignorant. Let them have their opinions. And don’t call them anti-Semites unless they have a history of animus toward the Jewish people.
“The problem is that we have a Jewish organizational world whose business model is anti-Semitism, and there’s not enough of it in the United States. So they have to keep looking for it in the Israel debate, when what’s going on is not anti-Semitism. And it upsets me a great deal that American Jewish leaders never have to pay the price. Nobody ever loses their job for getting up on the wrong side of the bed one morning, reading an op-ed they don’t like, and then saying that that person is an anti-Semite. And you should lose your job for that. There should be consequences for that. The pain of being called an anti-Semite in this post-Holocaust world, when you’re not, is just agonizing to watch, frankly.”
You won’t be called an anti-Semite; you’ll be called a self-hating Jew.
“Whatever. What is a self-hating Jew? All Jews are self-loving and self-hating. It’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. I love Jews more than anything in the world, and Jews drive me crazy. But I actually think I’m lucky, because I think the debate is opening. I think a lot about what it was like for Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who had a great influence on Obama, when he founded Breira [an organization devoted to recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination in the mid-’70s, which was fiercely subdued by the establishment]. I’m operating [at] a time when the space is widening; perhaps I’m trying to widen it a bit more than some people would like.
“I think American public discussion is really shifting and I don’t think Netanyahu understands. I feel like there’s a lot of hubris in the way he goes to AIPAC and he goes to Congress, and he thinks he has some vision of what the real America is like – of those God-fearing Christians out there. I don’t think he understands that this is more and more precarious. The sands could shift quickly.”
Do you get hate mail? Are people nasty to you?
“I get some. I’ve gotten some disturbing calls on my cell phone, but they’ve stopped. One has to keep this in perspective. I mean, there are journalists around the world who face real consequences, you know? Someone sends me a mean e-mail, I send them a mean e-mail back, or I just delete it. The truth is that when you respond in a human way to people, I find that they melt. I think a lot of these people are lonely. They just want some response."
Beinart is to be the featured speaker at this weekend’s J Street conference in Washington. He has recently launched a blog for liberal-Jewish opinion writers, called Zion Square, on the popular Internet website The Daily Beast.
What started out as an article has, it seems, taken over much of his professional life. It is a position that will place him in the crosshairs of many right-wing critics, but it has also made him the darling of left-wing circles. And in New York, far more than in Tel Aviv, that is as comfortable an environment as one could wish for.
One of the criticisms against you is that you represent this detached American Jewish liberal whose main need is to be appreciated by his own leftist liberal milieu, and who isn’t connected anymore to the mainstream of where Jews are going.
“My Jewish identity, my sense of connection to being Jewish, is not because I’m on the left. I drag my kids to shul every week, I read the parchment with my son every week, and I send my kids to Jewish school. J Street is hosting a panel on how to talk to your children about Israel. And what I’m going to say, very explicitly, is that I think the most important thing to do with Jewish kids is to instill in them a love of, a commitment to and a fascination with Judaism and the Jewish state. To do all of that first.
“I’m going to pass on a Jewish identity that is defined by disliking Bibi Netanyahu. My hope is that I can pass on a Jewish identity that is rooted in having beautiful memories of Purim. People can say whatever they want about me, but if you want to look 20 or 30 years down the road and see who succeeded with their kids − I’m willing to put that effort up against somebody who thinks that the way they’re going to instill Jewish identity in their kid is by taking them to the AIPAC conference.”
By Chemi Shalev:
Peter Beinart calls for a ‘Zionist BDS,’ not finding many takers
Peter Beinart, who called this week for a boycott of West Bank goods, meets students at the J Street national conference in February 2011. Beinart is due to keynote this year's conference by the liberal pro-Israel group at the end of the month. (J Street)
Should Jews shun other Jews? And should they shun Jews who call on Jews to shun other Jews?
Peter Beinart’s call in Monday’s New York Times for a boycott of goods manufactured in West Bank settlements reignited a debate not just about what works and doesn’t when it comes to advancing a two-state solution, but also about what should and should not be said during the debate.
Beinart, a journalist and essayist whose book “The Crisis of Zionism” is about to come out, tried to cast his call in pro-Israel terms.
“If Israel makes the occupation permanent and Zionism ceases to be a democratic project, Israel’s foes will eventually overthrow Zionism itself,” he wrote.
Beinart referred to his boycott proposal as “Zionist BDS”—a play on the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting all of Israel, which Beinart firmly condemned in his Times essay as an effort to dismantle the Jewish state.
The pushback was immediate and came from multiple camps in the Israel debate: those who rejected Beinart’s thesis but sought to engage him and those who think his latest call places him beyond the pale. More pushback came from advocates of a broader boycott movement targeting all of Israel.
Beinart has been a high-profile figure in the debates over Israel ever since he penned a much-discussed 2010 essay in The New York Review of Books suggesting that what he depicted as an Israeli slide away from democratic values would alienate American Jewish youth. The essay won him plaudits from the pro-Israel left.
Beinart is scheduled to be a featured speaker at this week’s J Street national conference. But even the dovish J Street was cool to his boycott proposal. Its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said that boycotting settlements was unlikely to yield positive results.
“We favor a border not a boycott—we want to get the political process going to arrive at a border,” he said.
Ben-Ami hastened to note, however, that the idea of boycotting settlements was not out of place in the Israeli discourse. Another J Street conference keynoter, he noted, was Amos Oz, the widely respected Israeli novelist who has signed onto a letter supporting Israeli artists who refuse to perform in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
“It’s a legitimate point of view that a lot of passionate two-state Zionists share,” Ben-Ami said. “And Peter is within the mainstream in Israel.”
Seth Mandel, writing on the Contentions blog at the conservative Commentary magazine, assailed Beinart’s boycott proposal as well as his labeling of Israel proper as “democratic Israel” and Israeli settlements as “nondemocratic Israel.” Mandel called these arguments “both morally reprehensible and a dangerous slippery slope.”
“The slippery slope, of course, is that the ‘legitimate’ vs. ‘illegitimate’ argument will immediately be applied to those, anywhere and anytime, who voice any support for the Jews Beinart says to stay away from,” Mandel wrote.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for The Atlantic who also has harshly criticized the West Bank settlement enterprise, chose the path of engagement, parrying with Beinart in a much-watched exchange on Twitter.
“What’s your alternative for stopping the settlement growth that dooms Israeli democracy?” Beinart asked Goldberg.
Goldberg replied: “Longer discussion, but int’l boycott will only make mainstream Israelis more sympathetic to settlers, not less.”
Centrist Jewish groups were critical of Beinart’s proposal.
“I don’t think a JCRC would support any organization that would support any kind of activity that would bring any harm to a segment of Israel,” said Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Halber said he did not think Beinart would become a pariah in the Jewish community, arguing that it “sounds like he wrote the piece more to start a discussion than advance the proposal.”
“I find it a less than serious proposal from a person I consider thoughtful,” he said.
David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, said that questions of whether Beinart was in or out of the discussion were rendered moot by the welcome Beinart received in venues like the pages of The New York Times—and that meant he would continue to score speaking gigs from Jewish groups.
“Peter Beinart is not knocking at a proverbial tent; Peter Beinart has been let in by the New York Times,” he said. “I only wish he were as open to some of the ideas of the hosting Jewish institutions as they are to hearing his thoughts.”
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said that Beinart’s proposal would alienate Israelis and so violated a basic tenet of first heeding what another Jewish community was considering before recommending action.
“We don’t have the Palestinians, and with a campaign like this you won’t have the Israelis—that’s a great accomplishment towards peace,” Foxman said sarcastically.
One Jewish group, however, has taken a similar line to Beinart. Americans for Peace Now, which is a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, announced its backing for settlement boycotts last July.
The debate is sure to continue, if only because Beinart was stoking it at the virtual meeting place he hosts at the Daily Beast/Newsweek. The newly launched blog, called Zion Square, has assembled an array of prominent contributors, predominantly hailing from the left of the political spectrum.
One of Zion Square’s writers, Raphael Magarik, chided those who said Jews boycotting Jews should be out of bounds, and noted that such actions have been commonplace throughout Jewish history.
“To cut from our playbook the best tactic Jews have for censuring other Jews, a tactic that dates at least to the Talmud and has as its targets the likes of Leon Trotsky, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Baruch Spinoza—well, that’s what I call painful and unnatural,” he wrote.
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