Peter Beinart

Rabbi Michael Lerner’s May 3rd interview with City University of New York journalism professor Peter Beinart was a polite and illuminating exchange of views. It was especially interesting to see the contrast between Rabbi Lerner’s ethical radicalism and Prof. Beinart’s pragmatic liberalism. They disagree on some particulars, but obviously are in agreement in fundamental ways. For example, both agree on a targeted boycott strategy (what Beinart calls “Zionist BDS”) against Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Prof. Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, is mostly quite good, but I fear that he–along with a majority of our dovish pro-Israel camp–may understate the extent to which episodes of Palestinian violence (e.g., Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacks during the 1990s, the frightful toll on Israelis of the Second Intifada, and the intermittent rocket and other attacks from Gaza following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005) have undermined the trust of a majority of Israelis in the utility of peacemaking–even as Israel’s counter-measures have further alienated many Palestinians from faith in a negotiated peace.

Still, his depiction of the failures at Camp David in 2000, the pernicious and inexorable advances of the settlement movement and the ways in which Prime Minister Netanyahu resists a deal that would require a major curtailment of settlements, humbling Pres. Obama in the process—all seem spot on. Since a deal has especially been possible after Abbas replaced Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, and the Arab League has been offering a regional peace since 2002, this is all very sad and maddening.

I share Beinart’s concern for Israel’s future if a two-state agreement is not reached soon. This is not because I think a one-state solution is a viable alternative, but because I think it is not. One state, whether as an ongoing status quo of occupation, with Israel ruling indefinitely over several million non-Israeli Arabs, or if a unified one-person/one-vote regime is imposed in all of Israel and the Palestinian territories, would mean either Jews or Arabs ruling the roost over the other. In the long run, and we don’t know if this means ten years or 50 or more, it is the Arabs who will likely win out, but at a terrible cost.

One would not have expected this line of thought from the editor of The New Republic magazine from 1999 to 2006, known as unwavering in its support for Israeli policies under his then-boss, Marty Peretz, the former publisher and editor-in-chief of TNR. He has sharply turned away from his and TNR’s support for the Iraq war in 2003, but it’s unclear to me if he has also strayed from the internationalist-liberal hawkishness that defined his first book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. According to Wikipedia, this book attempted a difficult synthesis (a project I sympathize with, by the way, even as I wince at that overweening book title):

… Beinart argued that, paradoxically, the only way for America to distinguish itself from the predatory imperial powers of the past is to acknowledge our own capacity for evil. Acknowledging our own moral fallibility, Beinart argued, would lead America to embed its power within structures of domestic and international law. This, Beinart argues, was the great accomplishment of early cold war liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther and Harry Truman. The Bush administration, by contrast, carried on the tradition of right-wing anti-totalitarianism – exemplified by cold war intellectuals like James Burnham – which warned that recognizing America’s fallibility would lead to crippling self-doubt.

I apparently would find much to agree within his second book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, HarperCollins, 2010, as depicted in this same Wikipedia article:

… according to George Packer in The New Yorker.., [Beinart] “look[ed] back at the past hundred years of U.S. foreign policy in the baleful light of recent events [and found] the ground littered with … the remnants of large ideas and unearned confidence [as demonstrable in] a study of three needless wars”, the First World War, Vietnam, and Iraq. … WWI, Vietnam and Iraq were presented as each “based on an oversimplifying ism – Progressivism, liberal anti-Communism, and neoconservativism – and … respectively, the hubris of reason, the hubris of toughness, and the hubris of dominance.”

Beinart’s view of the closed-minded rigidity of most Jewish community organizations on the one hand and the growing embarrassment and alienation of liberal American Jews regarding Israel on the other, also seems correct. Yet I find his suggestion that public education authorities subsidize general academic subjects in Jewish day schools, so that new generations can afford having a good Jewish education outside of a right-wing Orthodox environment, a non-starter (and off-topic).

I fully understand the logic of his proposal for a “Zionist BDS” to engage in an economic boycott of West Bank settlements in order to emphasize the illegitimacy of the settlement enterprise and to blunt the fundamentally anti-Israel intent of the leadership of the international BDS movement. I see this as making a moral statement and helping to define the issues, rather than a practical way to break the logjam.

I agree on the need to emphasize the legitimacy of Israel within the Green Line, even taking into account Israel’s imperfections, and similarly take issue with the international BDS movement for its semi-hidden agenda to undermine Israel as a majority Jewish state. Aside from this, Israel’s unequal treatment of its Arab citizens does not rise to the level of legislated segregation and disenfranchisement that was true in South Africa; primarily, this inequality is in the underfunding of Israel’s Arab towns and villages and in not insuring Arab citizens equal access to housing and jobs. But apartheid is uncomfortably closer to the truth in the West Bank, where Arabs have no citizenship rights and are systematically denied equal rights and protection under the law.

Yet Israel is nowhere nearly as vulnerable to an international boycott as apartheid South Africa was; for one thing, unlike South African whites, Israeli Jews are not a small minority in their own country. For another, most Israelis (and Israel’s American supporters) dig in their heels when they feel under attack. Any kind of boycott action, including “Zionist BDS” that only targets West Bank settlements, tends to get lumped together as anti-Israel.

And I’m not just speaking of right-wingers. Hence, there’s the bristling reaction to his book that we see even among some liberal-ish writers and editors, as discussed in a long, insightful article in New York magazine. But I think it’s really only right-wingers who have questioned Beinart’s loyalty and passion as a Jew. (He happens to attend an Orthodox shul and to send his children to a Conservative Jewish day school.)

I know from my own experience that you have to have a thick skin. It’s not easy going against the grain and being an iconoclast. But it’s the right thing to do–and not just for moral reasons–but to promote a pathway for a more secure and better future for Israel and for ourselves as Jews in the Diaspora.

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