Viewpoint: The Beinart view II

It's not the job of the organized Jewish community to promote the Palestinian narrative.

Palestinians pass through an Israeli checkpoint. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER / REUTERS)
Palestinians pass through an Israeli checkpoint.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER / REUTERS)
As an American Jewish community professional, I’m well aware of the claim made repeatedly by progressive Jewish groups who accuse the pro-Israel establishment of seeking to silence them because they are often critical of Israeli policies. Now Peter Beinart, the iconoclastic senior political writer for the New York-based news and comment website, The Daily Beast, takes this claim one step further.
In a September essay in the New York Review of Books, Beinart blames the Jewish establishment for consciously ignoring the Palestinian side of the conflict with Israel. US Jewish leaders, he charges, “are unfamiliar with the realities of ordinary Palestinian life because they live inside the cocoon the organized Jewish community has built for itself.” This parochial mentality, he concludes, engenders a lack of empathy toward the Palestinians, a minimizing of their suffering, and a bias that undermines support for a two-state solution.
Is Beinart right? Should synagogues, campus Hillels and Jewish day schools be amenable to inviting Palestinian speakers? Should the Jewish press publish articles by Palestinian commentators criticizing Israel and even denouncing Zionism? Let’s start with Beinart’s premise that American Jews live in a “closed intellectual space” and thus know little about Palestinian hardships.
Like all people, we Jews may have our ideological blind spots, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t exposed to the Palestinian narrative.
National Public Radio, CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” and The New York Times, all popular among American Jews, do a sufficient job of bringing Palestinian suffering – and alleged Israeli culpability – right into our living rooms.
Granted, a news story can’t truly convey the humiliation a Palestinian laborer must endure having to wait long hours at an Israeli checkpoint.
But nor, for that matter, can the average American Jew imagine the pain of an Israeli parent who has lost a child in a terrorist attack.
Beyond the extensive (and often one-sided) media coverage, there are many opportunities to hear the Palestinian perspective more directly.
Missions to Israel organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and other national groups routinely include meetings with Palestinian officials; local synagogues host “Combatants for Peace,” featuring Israeli and Palestinian activists campaigning to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank; Jewish Community Relations Councils sponsor candid Jewish-Muslim dialogues.
Still, Jewish groups shouldn’t have to countenance the full spectrum of Palestinian views to prove they’re open to legitimate criticism of Israel.
Why should synagogues and Jewish newspapers give a platform to Palestinian voices seeking to delegitimize Israel by falsely depicting it as an apartheid state? Beinart suggests that American Jewish attitudes toward the Palestinians will be “more humane” if Jews “encounter Palestinian opinions.”
He’s got it backwards, however. If anything, familiarity with those opinions should have caused mainstream Jewish attitudes to be less humane, yet a majority of Jews in the US continue to support Palestinian statehood.
For Beinart, the onus is squarely on Jewish groups to take into account the Palestinian perspective, not the other way around. But following his logic, wouldn’t Palestinian attitudes toward Israel become “more humane” if Palestinian groups invited, say, Israelis from Sderot to talk about life under the constant threat of rocket attacks? Palestinian groups, especially on college campuses, not only won’t invite pro-Israel speakers, they sometimes disrupt talks given by Israelis in public venues.
Attempting to explain this inconsistency, Beinart justifies Palestinian refusal to engage with pro-Israel groups, stating, “One can understand Palestinians’ reluctance to participate in events that make them appear to consent to an unjust occupation.” Curiously, he offers no such justification for Jewish community reluctance to sponsor forums that include Palestinian speakers who openly disparage Zionism.
To be sure, American Jews, like other faith and ethnic communities, can be insular at times. Though we acknowledge Palestinian suffering, it’s not the job of the organized Jewish community to promote the Palestinian narrative. Zionist organizations aren’t supposed to be neutral; they aren’t universities where issues are examined from different sides. Their mission is to proudly support the Jewish state.
Even so, I know of no other community that has shown more concern for the plight of others – Darfurian refugees, Haitian earthquake victims, Israeli Bedouins, and, yes, Palestinians. For Beinart to have missed that, you would think he’d been living in a cocoon of his own.
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon