In the last two years, the ideas of Jewish journalist Peter Beinart have been at the center of the conversation over how American Jews should relate to Israel today.
In his 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Beinart argued that leading American Jewish groups, by demanding that Israeli government policies be supported and not questioned, have made it increasingly difficult for liberal American Jews to also be Zionists.
That essay was, for those on the left, a rallying call. Last year, college-age members of the dovish lobby J Street put the writer’s face on T-shirts that proclaimed, “We are Beinart’s Army.”
Now, in the days leading up to the release this week of his new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart has shown that his 2010 essay was just the opening salvo. On March 19, The New York Times published as an op-ed an excerpt from the book’s most controversial section, its straightforward message summed up in the headline: “To Save Israel, Boycott the Settlements.”
In 2010, the right-leaning “establishment” alone felt attacked and compelled to counter Beinart’s criticisms. This time, both the right and the left are rejecting Beinart’s proposal, each for its own reasons.
“Jews boycott other Jews all the time,” Beinart said in an interview last week, responding to those who took issue with his call for a boycott of Jews by Jews. “Many synagogues, if you’ve left your wife an agunah, if you haven’t given her a get [Jewish writ of divorce], you wouldn’t be able to get an aliyah,” he said, referring to a long-standing tradition of denying to such men the honor of being called to the Torah.
Beinart spoke from his office at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he is an associate professor, at the end of a week during which he was frequently responding to critics on Zion Square, a new blog he edits for The Daily Beast, where he is senior political writer.
“Another argument is that this is a slippery slope to BDS,” Beinart said, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which targets the whole of Israel, not just the areas beyond the country’s pre-1967 borders that Beinart plans to boycott. He calls his settlement-boycott proposal “Zionist BDS.”
“I believe that one of the things that fuels the BDS movement is the creation on the ground of a one-state reality and the despair that we could ever partition the land,” he said. “Whatever steps we could take toward keeping that possibility alive is a kind of mechanism against full BDS.”
In the op-ed, Beinart summed up this distinction — between Israel within its pre-1967 borders (also known as the green line) and the areas outside those borders that the Jewish state has been occupying in the four decades since — by calling the areas within the boundaries “democratic Israel.” The area beyond the green line is usually called the West Bank; many on the right call it Judea and Samaria. Beinart wishes to dub it “nondemocratic Israel.”
“The phrase suggests that there are today two Israels: a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically based nondemocracy beyond it,” Beinart wrote in The Times, and advocated for, along with a boycott of settlement products, “an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel.”
If Beinart’s analysis of the situation in Israel still had appeal for many on the left, his boycott proposal did not.
An editorial in the Forward published days after Beinart’s op-ed called it “an empty gesture,” even as it acknowledged Beinart had succeeded in giving expression to “a deep frustration and confusion on the part of many Jews who want to stop the peace process from unraveling and see the occupation end with Israel’s security intact, who want to help reclaim the high moral ground in the struggle for Israel’s democratic soul.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of the J Street lobbying group, whose dovish position has appealed to liberal Zionists most likely to share Beinart’s views, also criticized Beinart’s argument in a statement published on his group’s Web site on the day Beinart’s op-ed appeared in print.
“I don’t think that it makes any sense to put negative pressure on people whose behavior you hope to change,” Ben-Ami said in an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic on March 23. “I think that the way that Israelis will feel comfortable making the compromises and the sacrifices — and Israel as a whole, not just the settlers — is when they really feel that not only American Jews, but the United States, is going to be there for them.
“I think if you begin to do things that say, ‘We’re not really with you, we’re against you, we’re putting pressure on you,’ ” Ben-Ami continued, “I think that causes people to pull more into a shell and pull back.”
For his part, Beinart — who has spoken at J Street events in the past and was one of the featured speakers at this year’s J Street annual conference in Washington, D.C., on March 25 – told The Journal he hadn’t considered what Ben-Ami’s reaction might be before publishing the op-ed, and suggested that organizational concerns might have guided Ben-Ami’s reaction.
“I’m a writer, so I take positions based on what I think makes sense,” Beinart said, “and someone who runs an organization has to think about the needs of the organization.”
Beinart dismisses claims his boycott would be ineffectual, pointing to the success of the Palestinian Authority’s boycott of settlement goods in spurring more than a dozen Israeli companies that once did business in the West Bank to move back across the green line.
“There have been some significant examples of companies that have moved back within the green line as a result of pressure,” he said. “The Swedish Mul-T-Lock company did. Barkan wine did.”
Beinart couldn’t say when he last purchased goods made in the West Bank, but he said he intended to put his boycott into practice.
“I am going to do my best to abide by what I write,” he said.
If the criticism of Beinart from voices on the left focuses on the practicability of his proposal, the American Jewish establishment is still taking him to task over his basic assessment of the situation in Israel.
“However simple and clear-cut things may seem from his Upper West Side perch, these are immensely complicated issues,” American Jewish Committee Executive Director David A. Harris told Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York. “A consistent majority of Israelis wants nothing more than to extract themselves from an unsought occupation for the sake of peace,” Harris said, “but it just can’t be done unilaterally. The Palestinians have not been prepared to do their part, irrespective of what they might say to some all-too-receptive Western ears.”
Harris spoke after Beinart’s op-ed appeared, but before the release of “The Crisis of Zionism”; it’s unclear whether he had read the book (in which his name appears on three separate occasions) when he made those comments.
Now that the book is out, one might also wonder whether the conversation sparked by Beinart’s boycott proposal will actually give way to a discussion of the subjects that make up the bulk of “The Crisis of Zionism.”
The book relies in some measure on anonymous sources, and it paints a picture of the events leading up to the current impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians that breaks significantly with the American Jewish establishment’s narrative of Israeli generosity met by Palestinian intransigence.
In two chapters that form the heart of “The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart tries to mount a case against the arguments that Harris and other establishment leaders use against American Jews who criticize Israeli governmental policy.
The American Jewish establishment, to hear Beinart tell it, insists that American Jews refrain from weighing in on “immensely complicated” matters between Israel and the Palestinians and thereby promotes a narrative that lays the blame for the stalled peace process solely at the feet of the Palestinians. They also attempt to silence, he believes, anyone who blames Israel for the impasse, even in part. Beinart, meanwhile, presents an account of recent Israeli history that holds Israel accountable, along with the Palestinians.
Many of Beinart’s critics allege that he does not assign enough blame to the Palestinians. That accusation “baffles” him, he said.
“If you look at the narrative that I write about Oslo and Camp David and Taba,” Beinart said, referring to three successive rounds of talks between Israelis and Palestinians, “I say that the Palestinians didn’t effectively fight terrorism as they were obligated to; that Arafat’s reaction to the Clinton parameters was terrible; that his acquiescence to the Second Intifada was, I say, not just a mistake, but a crime.
“I give the details of the gruesome Itamar massacre,” he continued, “and also of the lynching of the Israeli reservist near the beginning of the Second Intifada, so no one will be able to say that they read my book without having some actual, tangible description of what Palestinian terrorism is actually like.”
Despite being assailed by both the right and the left, Beinart said he is heartened by those who find his arguments convincing.
“Nobody likes being criticized,” he said, “but I’ve also had some really moving and powerful experiences, sometimes with surprising people, I think, who agree with what I’ve written, or at least think that the conversation is an important one.”
But though he helped to instigate an earlier round of this conversation two years earlier, Beinart acknowledged it was tough to identify signs of improvement.
“It’s hard to see that it’s gotten better,” he said. “You don’t have a meaningful peace process going on. You have growing settlement growth, which I think is dangerous to Israel’s democratic future, and, I think, to the dynamics on the Palestinian side. They [the Palestinians] are also becoming more inimical to a two-state solution.”
And, for Beinart, maintaining the feasibility of a Palestinian state alongside a smaller state of Israel is essential; that’s why he talks so often about Ariel, a 34-year-old settlement with a population of 20,000 located 13 miles east of the green line.
“Inside the American Jewish community, people often say that Israel only wants to retain settlements that are right on the green line,” Beinart told me. “And Ariel, whatever you want to say about it, is not on the green line. It really stretches very deep in to the West Bank.
“I don’t know whether Israel can dismantle Ariel, but I also know that the Palestinians have real, legitimate concerns about Ariel,” Beinart continued, noting that its relatively remote location made the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state difficult.
“The reason I mention it,” Beinart said, “is to try to ask people to see the danger of what’s happening, and then to think about whether continuing to subsidize people to move to a place like Ariel is a good idea.”