Peter Beinart’s Take Down of Jared Kushner and the Problem of Palestine
By Mark LeVine
It is heartening to see the wide reading being received by Peter Beinart’s January 31 j’accuse in The Forward against Jared Kushner and the Orthodox Jewish religious and educational establishment that produced him. Beinart’s article asks some very difficult questions of American and Israeli Orthodoxy regarding their seeming embrace of an agenda based on intolerance and even hatred of minorities, refugees and other marginalized people in their time of greatest need. Focusing on the weekly Torah portions read and studied by observant Jews (on Jacob’s sojourn in Egypt and the enslavement of the Hebrews), Beinart points out that these most foundational narratives in the Hebrews Scriptures and the portions that come after them—freedom, wandering and the giving of the Torah to the newly formed Nation of Israel, demand precisely the kind of attention to the suffering of others that Trump’s refugee ban so brutally ignores.
Most damning, Beinart discusses the well-known story of Kushner’s grandmother, Rae Kushner, who survived the Holocaust by escaping the ghetto and living in a Belarusian forest for a year. She recorded her story for posterity in 1982. Kushner’s story is made all the more poignant by the fact that having survived the war, her family was forced to spend several years living in a Displaced Person’s camp in Italy before finally receiving a visa to come to the US, which infamously shut its doors to millions of Jews and kept them shut even as the Final Solution became known to American policy makers.
As the head of the American refugee advocacy and resettlement organization HIAS put it, “The blatant discrimination that we’re hearing right now, that’s very much like what we were seeing in 1921,” when the previous era of “America first” became all the rage.
Beinart is rightly chagrined and even outraged that the grandson of refugees could remain silent and even supportive of a President who is engaging in behavior that proved such a disaster for his family and Jews more broadly. The fact that so many of the institutions in which Kushner grew up have remained silent supports Beinart’s indictment of the Orthodox Jewish establishment in the US. Only a few Orthodox organizations, such as the Orthodox “social justice” organization Uri L’Tzedek, have had the courage to condemn Trump’s immigration, refugee and asylum policies.
Beinart’s well justified condemnation of Kushner and the Orthodox establishment is one that has long been made by Tikkun, and hopefully will stimulate a much-needed heshbon nefesh, or soul-searching, among American Jews of all political and religious stripes regarding their core obligations to other human beings regardless of race, creed or circumstances. But it misses another and even more fundamental component of the Orthodox blindness towards the Other in great need; namely, its equal if not greater hostility towards Palestinians exhibited by a large share of the Orthodox Jewish community, both in Israel and the Diaspora. Indeed, what makes Kushner’s paternal grandmother’s story even more interesting is precisely that her son, Charles, would become a major supporter of and donor to the spearpoints of Israel’s brutal fifty year Occupation, giving money to groups from the IDF to the militant Yitzhar settlement in the outskirts of Nablus.
One afternoon spent with Palestinians in villages such as Burin who have been systematically victimized by the fanatical settlers of Yitzhar is enough to produce an understanding of just how toxic is the hatred and bigotry Kushner’s family routinely supports. What such experiences teach us is that there is no way to separate the support of the Occupation and the hatred and bigotry against Palestinians that entails and the lack of sympathy for and even hatred of Arab/Muslim refugees betrayed by the Trump visa, refugee and asylum ban. Even Uri L’Tzedek has a complete blindspot when it comes to Palestinians, not only ignoring them completely in their discourse and activities but even going so far as to hold workshops on social justice in settlements. Of course, in theory there are few places more in need of a workshop on social justice than a settlement. But an organization that doesn’t mention the Occupation (or perhaps only mentions it privately, unwilling to air “dirty laundry” outside the community) is not likely to treat such a subject honestly, if it mentions it at all.
How could a family that emerged out of the ashes of the Holocaust support bigotry in any fashion? Fifteen-odd years ago, when I first got to UC Irvine, the esteemed German-Jewish author and professor Ruth Klüger, herself a survivor with an equally harrowing story, gave a talk at the University to mark the publication of a new memoir. In the Q&A session after her remarks, a student asked her a question so many critics of Israel have long wondered: How could Jews, after the immense suffering of the Holocaust, turn around and oppress another people? How could they not have learned the lessons of the Shoah? Her response still sticks with me almost a generation later: The Holocaust was not a school, she calmly explained. It didn’t teach those who suffered through it anything beneficial, except perhaps the power of survival. Of course, there are some survivors who have become highly critical of Israel and even anti-Zionist. But most have not (at least not publicly), and the Israeli state’s and Jewish establishment’s use of the Holocaust as a justification for oppression of and violence against Palestinians reveals just how the kind of trauma epitomized by the Holocaust (and so many other forms of abuse and oppression) is as if not more likely to produce intense PTSD and a hardness to others rather than greater empathy and understanding, especially if those others are portrayed and/or understood as threatening one’s safety.
The insensitivity towards the stranger and the other betrayed by the Orthodox establishment cannot be separated from the brutalities and bigotry of the Occupation, and thus even those groups like Uri L’Tzedek which seek “social justice” remain deeply flawed because of their unwillingness to acknowledge the foundational oppression of the Jewish state. (It’s also worth noting that even ostensibly anti-Zionist haredi/ultra-Orthodox movements have been increasingly Zionised in practice, and have adopted much of the same anti-Palestinian rhetoric as their nationalist religious counterparts.)
And as we have documented in Tikkun throughout its thirty year publication history, the allegedly more enlightened and liberal Reform and Conservative movements have also often fallen prey to the kind of “settler Judaism” and its idolization of territory and fetishization of Jewish power exhibited by too many Orthodox Jews (albeit in less blatant forms). To a greater or lesser degree, all three major trends have yet to admit to and confront the threat posed by the Occupation to the very soul of Judaism. A similar unwillingness to confront the ugliest parts of their own traditions exist in many parts of the Christian, Muslim, Hindu and even Buddhist religious communities, as well as in societies that are predominantly secular–as evidenced by the routine violence and militarism saturating almost all of our societies around the world.
In that vein, as Israeli-American anthropologist Jeff Halper’s new book War Against the People so painstakingly reminds us, the Trump Administration’s and its supporters’ callousness towards Muslim refugees is inseparable from the long-term American support for brutal and oppressive dictatorships and monarchies across the region, a system in which Israel plays a central and highly profitable role as a major arms supplier, and which includes many of the countries where the very refugees and asylum seekers most frequently come (Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Iran have all been the victim of either direct US violence and/or support for authoritarian regimes).
The links between the Occupation and the refugee crisis and visa ban are crucial, because they remind us that the entire discourse of liberal Zionism, predicated on the idea that one can be “progressive except Palestine,” is quite simply a lie. Supporting refugees and asylum seeking must begin and cannot be meaningful without support for the society that has suffered the longest and deepest refugee crisis in the post-War era—Palestine. It is no longer plausible to support the rights of Syrian or Iraqi refugees to enter the United States and not support the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homeland. Both are founded in and demanded by the same body of international law.
One cannot criticize Trump and Kushner’s policies on refugees but remain supportive of the untrammeled US support for Israel right or wrong. In the end, all these issues are interrelated, and the very poison that keeps the Occupation humming along for half a century also produces each new wave of human misery, and the chaos they produce.
If the Jewish community is going to stand on the side of justice and humanity for refugees, it will have to come to grips with its long-term support of an Occupation which has been at the center of the policies that produced the latest refugee flood. If we want to take on Trump, we’re going to have to take on the government of Israel—his biggest supporter—as well. Progressive Jewish organizations such as JVP, Tikkun, and the Israeli human rights community have already made the decision, which is why they are at the forefront of the larger fight against Trump, and are creating new and powerful alliances with Black Lives Matter, Palestinian solidarity, Native American solidarity and related movements.
In the schism between two very different visions and experiences of Judaism, sooner or later everyone will be forced to decide which side of justice they choose to stand. To no small extent, the future of Jewish identity, belief and practice hangs in the balance.
Editor Responds to LeVine:
Our Contributing Editor Mark Levine makes several powerful points in this article about the moral bankruptcy of a version of Judaism that does not stand up for the ethical obligation to provide for the well being of refugees. Every day when I pray the Amida (silent meditative) prayer and praise God for being “somech noflim” (supporting those who have fallen) I explicitly ask God to open the eyes and hearts of all human beings on this planet so that we as a human community commit our resources to lifting up those who have been beaten down by becoming refugees or homeless people (we have some 2-3 million homeless right here in the U.S.). They need homes to live in, jobs to support themselves, and counseling to help them negotiate the traumas that they have encountered as homeless and/or as refugees. I share with Levine a deep upset at those who claim to be part of the Jewish tradition who are not similarly committed to caring for the refugees and the homeless. While any serious program for doing this for what are now estimated to be over 60 million refugees around the world will require a global effort, not just the resources of the U.S., the Global Marshall Plan which the Network of Spiritual Progressives has developed, endorsed by Congressperson Keith Ellison could be an important first step (see www.tikkun.org/gmp).
Unfortunately, LeVine makes a serious strategic mistake in turning on Uri l’Tzedeck in the Orthodox Jewish world, and on the Reform movement. I too wish that both of these important allies for social justice had a more courageous stand on the immorality of the Occupation of the West Bank by Israel. But I believe it a mistake at this historical moment when the repressive elements of the Trump Administration have already caused many of us to lose our footing.
We need for all of the forces in the liberal and progressive movements to unite and build an alternative strategy (ours is articulated at https://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/overcoming-trump-ism-a-new-strategy-for-progressives). So we should not be picking on those who are our potential allies on this struggle for their failure to be allies in another dimension of the struggle for justice. It is one thing to argue that every country needs to open their gates to refugees. It is quite another to pick on Israel in particular and highlight its failures in this regard when we are needing to build a campaign to open up America’s gates, and need and want many of those who may be turned away if we insist on making Israel a central part of our critique while failing to mention all the other countries in the world that have helped create refugee populations.
In the past, we at Tikkun have critiqued the right-wing supporters of Israel for their ethical failures, but we have not made their agreement with us on that point to be a reason to not praise them when they have engaged in justice-oriented activities in regard to other issues. So, for example, I feel deeply grateful for the Reform movement’s advocacy for social justice programs in the U.S. and Israel, even while feeling disappointed that they don’t take the step they ought to in regard to the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza or in refugee camps around the Middle East.
I believe that this inclusive attitude is particularly important to nurture among people on the Left in the Trump era. I am well aware of the tragic failure of the communist and social democratic movements in Germany to recognize the need to stop fighting against each other and unite to oppose Hitler and his fascistic “National Socialist” political party. Yes, the communists and socialists each had legitimate points of critique of each other, but the late 1920s and early 1930s was a time crying for unity and solidarity against the Nazis, and both sides failed to see that. This moment in U.S. history may be such a moment as well.
I don’t advocate accepting uncritically everyone or every political voice that wants to be part of our world—we still need to stand strongly against racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes and anti-Semites, and to reject anyone who calls for or engages in violence against other human beings as part of the struggle for democracy and human rights. Nor should we accept the shaming and blaming of everyone who either voted for Trump or failed to vote at all, suggesting that they are either all racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic or stupid (or as Hillary Clinton put it, a basket of deplorables). This is the shaming and blaming that pushes people away from us who might eventually have become our allies.
Similarly, we should be very careful to not engage in labeling people who are explicitly involved in aspects of the struggle for social justice as inadequate for the ways that they are not yet engaged in all the parts of the struggle we deem important. We can urge those who label all men or all whites as privileged to stop doing so, because that kind of “I’m more oppressed than you” is a version of identity politics that makes us less effective in building the kind of movement we need to overcome Trumpism, but we will never stop educating people to the dangers of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
So even though I agree with much of what LeVine says in his article above, I decided to take up his invitation to me to print his piece with a response by me, to which he is now invited to respond.
LeVine: Responds to Rabbi Lerner:
I believe Rabbi Lerner has in fact created a straw man that doesn’t reflect my argument. I’m arguing—based on the public information available on its website, and at least one published critique (in the usually right-wing Times of Israel website) that Uri L’Tzedek can’t be engaged meaningfully in “social justice” struggles or education if it ignores the Occupation. This if course was precisely the problem with the “J30” movement that sprang up in the summer of 2011 against high housing prices and quickly became known as the Israeli (Jewish) version of the then still promising “Arab Spring.” That movement too explicitly focused on “social justice,” and its leaders refused to address the Occupation in any meaningful sense in order to avoid offending potential supporters who didn’t want it to become “political.” But of course there is no separation between the “social” and the “political” in reality—that holds as much for Uri L’Tzedek’s work as it does for other Israeli social movements, who have a long history of blindness towards the Occupation that is only now starting to change.
In focusing on an Orthodox “social justice” organization I am not attempting to downplay the many contradictions and inconsistencies with Reform, Conservative and other less doctrinaire and/or secular Jewish organizations, most of whom have exhibited similar blindness towards the Occupation. The ADL’s record on this score is too well known to require rehearsal here, although the strong stand of its new Director against a Muslim visa ban perhaps signals a welcome change in its attitudes towards groups that might traditionally be considered too pro-Palestinian. Other smaller organizations, like Bend the Arc, HAZON, and Wilderness Torah, have also refused to take a more honest tone regarding the Occupation, or even to be willing to dialog—never mind collaborate—with Tikkun, particularly outside of “domestic” issues.
I would be thrilled to learn that my characterization of Uri L’Tzedek or these other organizations is inaccurate, and invite anyone who works with them to correct my understanding or, if in fact the Occupation and Palestinians are rarely if ever treated or discussed by these movements, to explain how organizations dedicated to Jewish social justice values can justify ignoring them, and how that might change.