Building a Jewish and Democratic State: A Conversation with Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart, formerly an editor of The New Republic, famous during most of the past thirty years for its support of many of the most right-wing policies of the State of Israel toward Palestinians and for its hostility toward American Jews supporting the Israeli peace movement, has caught the attention of U.S. media for his switch to a pro-peace perspective in the past few years. His book The Crisis of Zionism has stirred considerable controversy within the American Jewish community, to its credit.
Michael Lerner: You describe yourself as a Zionist in your new book The Crisis of Zionism, but today many people are not sure exactly what that means and assume that it means that Zionists are those who support the policies of the government of the State of Israel. What does Zionism mean?
Peter Beinart: I’m a political Zionist. I believe that the Jewish people need a democratic Jewish state in some portion of the ancient Land of Israel. The history of Jewish persecution in the Diaspora made it important to have a Jewish state of refuge for Jews around the world, a state which is a cultural center for Jews, a center whose language is Hebrew which has historically provided a bond among Jewish communities around the world and which today is central to a renaissance of Jewish thinking and creativity, and whose founding principles (as embodied in Israel’s declaration of independence) proclaim complete equality for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, nationality, or sex. I believe that a state set up on those principles within the pre-1967 borders of Israel has the capacity to embody those goals.
Lerner: How do you respond to some on the Left who acknowledge the need of the Jewish people for safety but doubt that such a state should be in Palestine where there was already a culture and a people with a long history of their own and who got supplanted by the Jews moving there? Why not create such a state from the territory of those who previously oppressed Jews?
Beinart: I wouldn’t support a state whose founding principles only gave full citizenship to Jews. The denial of equal rights does take place across the Green Line but inside the Green Line (pre-1967 borders), Arabs have full voting rights, participate in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court, and that is a basis upon which to build. Why build a Jewish homeland in pre-state Palestine rather than Easter Europe? Because you cannot deny the Jewish historical connection to that part of the world. To deny it is to deny Judaism itself. But that historical connection should not exclude a Palestinian state on some of that same territory nor should it exclude individual human rights.
Lerner: But there was another people living there!
Beinart: That’s why we need to share the land with them. They need to have national rights within their own state, a Palestinian national flag and national anthem, and the right of return to a Palestinian state. Plus they need to have full individual rights within the State of Israel. When those two things happen, they will constitute a “completion” of the Zionist project, because they will assure that the people who share the land with the Jewish people have the same national and individual rights that the Jews have.
Lerner: Would it be acceptable in your mind to have a democratic Israel if through demographic changes a majority of Israelis were Palestinians? Or would you say that to preserve its Jewish character it would be permissible to infringe on its democratic character?
Beinart: It would be wrong for Israel to take any coercive measure to reduce its Arab population. But I would hope that the state you describe would remain a state committed to providing safety for the Jewish people around the world when they are in grave danger. We are a long way away from the time when an Israeli state would have an Arab majority, but if Israelis thought that was about to happen, I would oppose any measures (such as expulsion of Arabs) designed to coercively impose a Jewish majority.
Lerner: If safety is central, then some people argue that the Jewish people would be better to pitch their tents in the U.S. or some other Western state, rather than in the Middle East surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Muslims, many of them now very angry at the Jewish people and the Jewish State for what they perceive to be harsh and arrogant treatment of their own family, the Palestinian people.
Beinart: These are counterfactuals you wish me to address. Jews are there now and very unlikely to be willing to move. If we think of what might have happened if Israel had not been created, there might have been many more Jews who would be without a home today, from some of the Holocaust survivors to some Ethiopian Jews, possibly some Russian and Sephardic Jews. But there is no question that the wars that Israel has fought have produced animosity in the Arab world. Yet that is not entirely Israel’s fault. There has been an unwillingness on the part of Arabs countries and the Palestinian national leadership to accept a Jewish state in the Middle East. But there has been some progress in that regard as represented by the Arab Peace Initiative in recent years which accepts Israel’s existence along the pre-1967 borders with some changes mutually agreed upon and some solution to the refugee problem.
Lerner: The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, re-released in 2007, were not even responded to by the Israeli government. We reported in the pages of Tikkun how Arab leaders asked us to explain why, even if Israel disagreed over some parts of the position being offered, it did not then respond with some counter-proposal. Instead, while Israel claims that there is no one to negotiate with, some twenty Arab and Muslim states have their proposal totally ignored.
Beinart: This was a big mistake that the Israeli government did not respond and that does give some grounds for pessimism. But it’s also true that Ehud Olmert in his negotiations with the Palestinian Authority had given ground and made proposals that are much more forthcoming than any previous government, negotiating very seriously with Abbas, and that someone from Likud could make as many moves toward ending Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a grounds for hope.
Lerner: In Embracing Israel/Palestine, the argument is presented that no political agreement will work unless there is a change of consciousness in both societies. But the peace forces in Israel have been on a major decline in Israel in the past ten years, even though in the past five years there have been no major acts of violence from the Palestinian Authority and there has been a discourse of non-violence from Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. That the peace movement has gotten less support in this period rather than more, the decline of peace voices inside the Labor Party and the decline of Meretz’s electoral base of support, is a fact used by Hamas to argue that Israelis will remain self-satisfied and do nothing for peace when the times are non-violent, and only respond to acts of violence.
Beinart: Yes, this is a problem, though we must note that while there has been a decline of violence from the West Bank, there does continue to be violence toward southern Israel coming from Gaza, which has been traumatic for people who live there. I agree with you that it is worrisome that the Netanyahu government’s unwillingness to negotiate toward a Palestinian state or to stop settlement construction to make negotiations possible contributes to undermining Abbas and does make it easier for Hamas to say “the Israeli only understand violence.” That is a tragic logic that can only make things worse for both sides. I still take some hope from the fact that Olmert, raised in the revisionist movement and deeply infused with its worldview, was able to make the generous offers that he made to Abbas which in some respects went considerably further than the Labor Party was prepared to go in the 1990s.
Lerner: Unfortunately that did not include being willing to take generous steps toward the Palestinian refugees, though they remain one of the three central issues (along with the issue of the borders of the Palestinian and Israeli states and the status of Jerusalem). Tikkun has argued that it will take a spirit of generosity toward the refugees to make it possible for there to be a serious outcome to negotiations.
Beinart: That all depends on what you mean by generosity. It is reported that Palestinian President Abbas accepted the principle that refugee return should not threaten the existence of the State of Israel. The formula will most likely a relatively small return by original refugees who are now getting relatively elderly now to Israel’s pre-1967 Israel—perhaps 20,000 or 50,000 or 100,000, but a number that would not seriously threaten Israel’s demographics, plus a public Israeli statement of acknowledgment of the sufferings of Palestinians which would be very important to Palestinians, plus a concerted international effort to resettle Palestinian refugees (particularly those who are especially suffering in Lebanon and Syria), and for other countries around the world to take some of those refugees into their own borders. The solution will require a global effort, but if Palestinians get a state with a capital in Jerusalem, that will give Palestinian leaders the political cover to accept something less than a large scale “right of return.”
Lerner: We at Tikkun have suggested that Israel take in twenty to thirty thousand refugees each year for the next thirty years, because at the expectable growth rate of populations that number would not undermine the demographic balance and yet would appear to be a rather significant act of atonement. What can pro-Israel progressives do to transform our own Jewish community so it would move in the direction we both support?
Beinart: I think we must reach them with an understanding that they have a stake in what happens in Israel, and that they have a stake in changing the direction of American Jewish institutions which today are supporting Israel in the wrong way (namely in supporting its governmental policies rather than supporting Israel to be the state whose founding democratic principles need to become the guiding principles of contemporary policy). I think we should make the case to younger Jews, even if they feel quite distant from Israel, or even alienated from Israel, that Israel is the great test of Jewish power and their whole experience of Judaism will be shaped by whether Jews meet that test, and that they need to stop thinking that they can absent themselves from that struggle and find some way to re-engage with the American Jewish community in order to shape how that community impacts on American and Israeli policy.
Lerner: There is not a lot of evidence that the organized Jewish community is open to that kind of influence by its younger members. Some even argue that the community is organized not on the principle of one person / one vote but on one dollar / one vote.
Beinart: Well not only old people have money. Moreover, if you get active and put in the time in these organizations, you eventually get taken seriously. But in the past year the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have been willing to take quite critical stances toward Israeli policies or laws that undermine democratic principles. That suggests to me, as some people inside these organizations contend, that there is a lively struggle in a few of these mainstream institutions about how to respond to actions in Israel that undermine fundamental democratic principles, and that these organizations may be encouraged to see Israel more through the prism of their own founding principles that were very much pro-civil liberties and democratic rights.
Lerner: We’ve heard the stories of “the Jewish community is really open now in a new way” many times before, most recently when the Jewish Federation of San Francisco hired the founding director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance Daniel Sokatch to be their own executive director, and accompanied that with statements that seemed to promise a new openness. But when Daniel Sokatch objected to the desire of the board to stop funding the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival two years ago because the Film Festival had allowed a film to be shown about the way that Rachel Corrie was killed by Israeli bulldozers seeking to tear down Palestinian homes, he found that he had to leave his job only a year or so after having arrived with great expectations of a new openness. Sokatch is now the executive director of the New Israel Fund, and the Federation is just as stuck as ever. Perhaps even more so, because it, along with many other Jewish institutions, have banned Jewish Voices for Peace from holding events in any institution which receives Jewish Federation monies. The decision throughout much of the organized Jewish community to exclude anyone who supports BDS has given the exact opposite message to one of inclusion and openness. This message is that even if you agree with Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State, you are banned from participating or holding meetings in our facilities if you hold a pro-BDS perspective.
Beinart: Given that BDS has been advocated for by many who do not support the existence of the State of Israel’s right to exist, this raises important questions about whether one has to be open to those who want the end of the State of Israel.
Lerner: Yes, that’s why Tikkun doesn’t support the BDS movement toward the State of Israel, but only the more limited BDS toward the products produced in the Israeli settlements or by corporations working with the Israeli government to enforce the Occupation of the West Bank, the same position you take publicly. But though I disagree with the BDS perspective, I do not believe it is legitimate to claim to be a supporter of democratic processes and then exclude positions with which I disagree from being able to be expressed inside the institutions of which I am a part. So this kind of behavior on their part by the Jewish institutions sends a strong message that is not open to a serious discussion of how most effectively to change Israeli policies or to influence them from the Diaspora.
Beinart: I agree with you. I think there is a basic hypocrisy here. We exclude people who do not want Israel to be a Jewish state, but we do not exclude people who don’t support Israel being a democratic state! There are many on the Right whose policies would lead to a permanent occupation and annexation of the West Bank without giving Palestinians equal rights with Jews. We should be consistent on this. So there is a paradox in the direction of the American Jewish community. On the one hand you have the emergence of J Street, which has received some critiques from the organized Jewish community but has been received with far greater tolerance than, say, the way Breyra was received several decades ago in 1977. J Street has had prominent members of the Israeli establishment, including Ehud Olmert, come to speak.
Lerner: In your recent widely discussed book The Crisis of Zionism, you mention that Ehud Barak’s supposedly “generous offer” to the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 involved Israel seeking to annex the land on which 80 percent of settlers live, and for that “Israel would have to annex settlements like Ariel, Immanuel, Kfar Adumim, Ofra and Beit El, which sit deep in the heart of the West Bank. And close observers fear that if Israel tried to incorporate many fewer than 80 percent of the settlers, the result might be civil war.” What is the right way to deal with the issue of the settlers?
Beinart: Well, when you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first obvious thing to do is to stop digging. Stop designating places in the West Bank as national priority zones for Israel—e.g., the decision by the Netanyahu government to build a cultural center in Kiryat Arba, one of the most radical settlements in the West Bank. Then you’d want to think seriously about the American Jewish community creating a fund to help settlers move back inside Israel. Why not make this process easier even before you cut the deal with the Palestinians? This has been made more difficult by the way that those settlers pulled out of Gaza were handled, which makes other settlers more skeptical that they will actually be taken care of should a deal be worked out with the Palestinians. Though Israel will try to annex as much as it can, it is not going to be able to annex the 8 percent that Barak sought including everything inside the “separation barrier.” It will probably be 34 percent of the West Bank. And then the world is going to have to get involved in creating a generous fund to help settlers move back within the Green Line. Those who want to stay should have the right to stay in their homes in the West Bank as Palestinian citizens, but there is going to have to be a very clear understanding of what it means to live in a Palestinian state without IDF protection, plus there is likely to be legal issues that we will face for those who have built their settlements on Palestinian land. So while I think it important that settlers have the right to stay, I think at the end of the day not that many will opt to stay.
Lerner: We’ve taken that same position for several decades now in Tikkun. We’ve also addressed the issue from the standpoint of those religious settlers who believe that there is a Hallakhic requirement for Jews to settle and live in all parts of the Biblical “Eretz Yisra’el.” We point out that that Hallakhic mitzvah can be fulfilled by living in Eretz Yisra’el but under a Palestinian government, because there is no hallakhic rule that says the injunction to live in Eretz Yisra’el can only be fulfilled while living under a Jewish secular state’s government. It does not say that either in the Torah, the Talmud or the Shluchan Arukh.
Beinart: A good point. Jews were living in Eretz Yisra’el for all of the past 2,000 years and not under a Jewish government.
Lerner: So how do you suggest we deal with the Palestinian claim of a “right of return?” What is the right way to deal with Palestinian refugees?
Beinart: I understand why many Palestinians argue that they and their children and grandchildren have a right to return. But as a practical matter it would not be the best path to peace to have some kind of massive return that would throw Israel into turmoil and threaten its character as a Jewish state. According to Saeb Erekat, as reported in Palestinian newspapers, the Palestinian position is that Israel must accept 150,000 returnees, whereas former Israeli prime minister Olmert’s position while negotiating with the Palestinians was much much lower than that. I would hope that the number would be lower than 100,000. That’s still fewer people than the number of Palestinians who would no longer be Israeli citizens if the agreement also includes making the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem part of a Palestinian state. So I imagine 50,000 to 75,000 Palestinians coming to Israel over the course of the next several years, and I’d imagine prioritizing those Palestinians who are in the most dire circumstances—e.g., those living in refugee camps in Lebanon. One would have to give Palestinian refugees a menu of options, one of which would be returning to the Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and there would need to be a real international effort to resettle Palestinians and give them decent economic lives, and there would have to an international effort to help Palestinians who have family or connections in other countries to be able to relocate and settle there as well. In short, there would have to be a menu of options to deal with this problem.
Lerner: Tikkun has advocated for a return of 20,000 Palestinians each year for the next 30 years, a total of 900,000 returnees but done at a pace that would not threaten the political balance between Palestinians and Israelis within Israel, yet would recognize the extreme injustice done to the Palestinian people.
Beinart: I hadn’t known of that perspective. It might not be so attractive to those who want to solve this problem in the short run, because it would keep the solution going for thirty years. I don’t know how satisfying it would be to some Palestinians to be told “you can come to Israel in twenty-five years.” But I think that the general principle of not changing the demographic balance while some recognition of the rights of refugees should be followed, however one deals with the practicalities.
Lerner: J Street on its website asserts, ”J Street believes that Iran obtaining nuclear weapons would pose a very serious threat to American and Israeli interests and to peace and stability in the Middle East and around the world.” Do you agree with that position?
Beinart: Yes, I agree with that. Iran getting a nuclear weapon—it would shift the power balance in the Middle East toward Iran, which is run by a malevolent group which has suppressed its own people and whose values I deeply abhor, and has supported forces like Hezbollah and Hamas (though Iran is a little less connected to Hamas than it was). And Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons would encourage the Saudis and the Egyptians to similarly seek to acquire nuclear weapons. So I think that we should do whatever we can that is constructive to try to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I don’t think that a military attack on Iran is a constructive response, but do support efforts to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Lerner: Why not use the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” with Iran as we did successfully with the Soviet Union—Iran would certainly know that any first use of the bomb against Israel or the U.S. would lead to Iran’s destruction by massive nuclear retaliation?
Beinart: There was no realistic possibility for the U.S. to stop the Soviet Union from getting nuclear weapons. There is such a possibility with Iran through a combination of sanctions and diplomacy you could stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon (though they still might have some nuclear capacity but not a weapon).
Lerner: J Street recently honored the launch of your new book at its conference in 2012. Are there any ways in which you do not feel fully aligned with its policy positions?
Beinart: J Street’s fundamental constituency is the U.S. Congress. J Street was created because for a long time the political dynamics in Congress have made it difficult for an American Administration to exercise leadership in trying to bring to fruition a two-state solution that we need, and J Street believed that it could provide political cover to some in Congress who would urge the Administration to take positions that would be more in the best self-interest of both Israel and America—namely, ending the Occupation and creating a two-state solution that allows Israel to survive as both a Jewish and democratic state. So I don’t blame them for focusing on what kinds of policy positions will work within the particular constituency of the U.S. Congress.
As a journalist, I, like those of you at Tikkun, don’t have to tread so cautiously in regard to Congress, and so I can say that I did not think that the U.S. should veto at the United Nations a resolution on settlements ( particularly since the U.S. position is in fact against settlement growth) and we should have supported that position at the United Nations. J Street didn’t take that position. We have a different role than J Street, which is trying to shift the debate in Congress, so we have more freedom than they do.
Lerner: One disturbing aspect of J Street is that it makes the argument for ending the Occupation and helping the Palestinians create an economically and politically viable state solely in terms of what is best for Israel’s interests. We at Tikkun believe it important to also include in the discussion as equally important in God’s eyes and humanity’s eyes the suffering of the Palestinian people, recognizing them as equally to the Jews created in God’s image, and equally to the Jews deserving of being treated with full respect and dignity (as we hold should be the way everyone on the planet should be treated).
Beinart: That is a very important question and something I wrestle with as well. The suffering of the Palestinian people is immensely important and has had a significant influence on me personally. But there is a different question about what is the most effective way to talk to the American Jewish community. I find that when I speak in that community, people really want to know that you have a special commitment to the Jewish people, that you are “inside the tent,” and that a purely universalist argument can be somewhat alienating for people. And since I do feel a very special connection to the Jewish people, as I know you do too, and since I’m not purely a universalist, and I struggle to balance my universalist commitments with my own particularism, my support for universal human rights but also my sense that I have special obligations to my people, just as I have obligations to my family which sometimes come first, that I find it more effective to speak not just about our self-interest as a people but also our honor, our sense of ourselves and what our purpose is, and I find that a more effective way to start these kinds of difficult conversations inside the American Jewish community.
Lerner: The spiritual well-being of the Jewish people requires the ability to identify with the suffering of others, and the mistaken notion that “Never Again” means never again only for the Jews not to ever have to suffer hatred, racism and genocide, has led a spiritual crisis or at least a crisis contraction in what Jews used to be. There is something in the Jewish tradition that would lead us to say, as it does in the Torah, ve’ahavta la’ger, “You shall love the Other (the stranger).” The catering to the “we are all family and should give priority to the needs of our family” which is, as you have pointed out, the underlying assumption which leads J Street to adopt the discourse it does, has the possible consequence of leading the Jewish people away from its own spiritual core just in the way that the settlers and their approach to Judaism does. So this approach on the part of J Street, while it may be effective in Congress, may actually be detrimental to our people.
Beinart: I find a lot to which I resonate when you speak, and it reminded me that when I was a teenager I bought the first issue of Tikkun at a newsstand in Harvard Square when I was in high school, and I read it a lot. I was very struck by the way you pointed out how frequently in Torah there is this explicit injunction to care for the well-being of “the Other” and the Jews knowing the heart of the stranger. That became a very important part of my own sense of what it is to be Jewish.
On the other hand, I have to say that when I look at the orthodox community where there is the highest level of Jewish education and commitment as measured by synagogue attendance and ritual observance, yet they do not identify with the values that you emphasize. I don’t feel comfortable suggesting that they are in any way in a spiritual crisis. I do disagree with the political and moral currents that are in the ascendancy in the Orthodox community, but can I say that they are in spiritual crisis? When I sit around the Shabbat table with Orthodox Jews, I don’t sense I’m with people who are in spiritual crisis, I see people who are living a really spiritually rich life and a very attractive life in a lot of ways to me—I just don’t see them as ethically and politically where I wish them to be, but I don’t know that I could say that they are in spiritual crisis.
Lerner: We at Tikkun don’t accept the division or ability to separate a spiritual life from an ethically coherent life. One last question: we sent out an email to the large number of people on our lists in which we endorsed the position taken in Embracing Israel/Palestine of a targeted BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) against products made in West Bank settlements and against corporations that build or supply products or material used by the IDF specifically to enhance or support the Occupation. This is the position taken by you, Peter Beinart, in your own recent writings, and it is virtually the same position taken by many in the Methodist and Presbyterian worlds (though they have falsely been accused of supporting a more general BDS against the State of Israel, and though even this limited BDS was recently defeated at the 2012 conference of the United Methodist Church of the USA). While we got a range of responses as we always do on Israel-related issues, one such was particularly troubling. It said something like this: In Embracing Israel/Palestine (EIP), you argue that it is critical to peace to have people recognize that both the Israeli and Palestinian people are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that PTSD cannot be healed through coercion, an argument that EIP uses to argue against a broader BDS against Israel. But won’t even this more narrow BDS feel coercive to Israelis, and open up the opportunity for the Netanyahus and Liebermans and Baraks to say: “See, the whole world is against us, so we have no choice but to strengthen our defenses against the rest of the world because they will betray us as everyone in the past has always done to the Jewish people.”
Beinart: It is a reasonable critique of the position. My biggest concern about the targeted BDS is that it can cut off dialogue when dialogue is really needed. So I worry about this too. But there is a need for there to be some way to both affirm the existence of the State of Israel and to provide an alternative to the BDS movement which is likely to grow and grow (based in part on my guess that there is not going to be a US-led peace process like we had in the 1990s). The BDS movement is largely one-state oriented, and does not affirm Israel’s right to exist. This is what led me to propose this. I think it’s important that the Palestinian Authority is supporting a settlement boycott and NOT a boycott against the whole State of Israel, because the PA is non-violent and for a two-state solution.
Lerner: Another weakness of the targeted approach at the moment is that it is often hard to identify which products are in fact made in West Bank settlements and which are not, since Israel resists labeling them as such.
Beinart: The European Union has been trying to get Israel to explicitly label products made in the West Bank. Israel doesn’t want to label those products explicitly, and that of course makes it harder for us to make the case for a more targeted boycott and gives strength to the BDS movement that seeks to boycott all of Israel. There have been companies that have moved from the West Bank into Israel, so there have been some successes from the targeted BDS movement so far.
Peter Beinart is the author of The Crisis of Zionism and The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. He is an associate professor of Journalism at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. This interview was conducted on May 3, 2012.