'Don't check Zionism at the door'

Over past two years, Peter Beinart has become household name for many American, Israeli Jews.

Peter Beinart (photo credit: Matt Sherman/The Current)
Peter Beinart
(photo credit: Matt Sherman/The Current)
Over the past two years, Peter Beinart has become a household name for many American and Israeli Jews. From his article in June 2010 titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in the New York Review of Books, to the publication of his book The Crisis of Zionism in March this year, Beinart, 40, touched off a fierce debate over the growing conflict between liberal Jewish values in the US and support for Israeli policies.
“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” he wrote, “and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
In his book, Beinart called for a Zionist BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) – a boycott of settlements and settlement products – a move that, among his other tenets, led to widespread criticism by Jewish thinkers and writers in the mainstream press.
Along with his book, Beinart – a previous editor of The New Republic who teaches journalism and politics at the City University of New York – launched the blog Open Zion on The Daily Beast/Newsweek, which seeks to showcase a wide range of viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Beinart spoke to The Jerusalem Post earlier this month about his thoughts on Israeli political life, American Jewry, Iran and his desire to live in the Holy Land.
Were you surprised by the fierce debate that followed the publication of your essay and book?
I expected it would create a discussion but I don’t think I expected it to be as intense as it was... and I think it was because I was describing a real phenomenon, which is a real mounting division in the American Jewish community, in part along generational lines.
Have any of the debates and reviews that followed the book’s publishing made you rethink anything you wrote?
I’m always open to rethinking things in response to events, and if for instance [Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu were to make an offer that was in the same ballpark as the offer [former prime minister] Ehud Olmert made in late 2008, then that would clearly lead me to write differently about his perspective on the Palestinians. If the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee were to start talking about the danger that settlement growth represents to Israeli democracy – all of these things would lead me to thinking differently because I would be responding to changes in events.
Whom do you see yourself as seeking to influence? Do you have a specific target audience?
I’m interested in influencing American Jews who are on the sidelines in this discussion, especially young American Jews. I want to [convince them] that they are implicated in what happens in Israel, that they should have a stake in it, they should care about it and they should try to act to support the vision of Israel that conforms to their progressive values and also, more importantly, to Israel’s own Declaration of Independence. I was also hoping that some leaders of the American Jewish community might rethink some of the ways that their organizations deal with Israel.
In your book you called AIPAC and other similar organizations “indifferent to whether democratic values govern.” Do you see J Street as a welcome alternative voice for American Jews?
I don’t necessarily agree with J Street on everything, and there are other organizations that I also admire. The general idea that you can be pro-Israel while publicly opposing some of the policies of the Israeli government, because you believe that your higher loyalty is to the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, is a very important and welcome argument in the American Jewish community and one that J Street helps further.
What other organizations do you admire?
The New Israel Fund has been really important in strengthening a whole series of groups that struggle for democracy and human rights in Israel. I’m also a fan of B’Tselem, Americans for Peace Now, these are several of the groups that I think strive to define being pro-Israel in a way that focuses on supporting Israeli democracy and not supporting policies of the Israeli government that might be dangerous to Israeli democracy.
What was your reaction to the news of the newly formed unity government – is it a positive or negative change?
It could be a positive change, it’s too early to tell... I think that since Kadima is more supportive as a party of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines than Likud is as a party, then bringing Kadima in and bringing [Shaul] Mofaz in creates a greater opportunity for Netanyahu to negotiate along the terms that his predecessor did.
If Avigdor Liberman were to leave the government, because he was indicted [for money laundering and fraud], then you could see the whole trajectory of the coalition moving further to the center, which would be encouraging.
In one article in the Daily Beast last year, you state that Israel is in danger of treating the entire world as an enemy.
Do you think that is something you see in this particular government or over the course of its history?
It has certainly been exacerbated in this government. There is a tendency to describe hostility to Israel as if it’s completely irrespective of Israeli policy, that it is just the way that the gentile world always was and always will be.
There are people that are fundamentally hostile to Israel’s existence, and fundamentally hostile to Jews, but this government has often conflated criticism of Israeli policy with the basic opposition to Israel’s right to exist, or even with anti-Semitism. That is very dangerous, because it strengthens the hand of people who don’t want Israel to exist by allowing them to find allies amongst those who simply have a problem with certain policies of the Israeli government.
Are there members of the political discourse in Israel today that you would prefer to see in power?
It’s not a particularly bright horizon today in terms of Israeli political leaders who are speaking out boldly about the need for an end to settlement growth and the creation of a Palestinian state.
Although interestingly, you saw [Intelligence Agencies Minister] Dan Meridor, who is one of the more moderate figures in Netanyahu’s government recently calling for at least an end to settlement growth outside what he calls the large settlement blocs, and I think that was significant.
By my reading, Tzipi Livni was someone who was quite seriously committed to the negotiation of a Palestinian state, and in her final speech in the Knesset she said that Israeli democracy is in mortal danger as a result of the occupation. One of the tragedies of the last few years is that she did not emerge a more capable politician.
Over the past year the predominant talk about Israel has been more focused on Iran than the Palestinian issue. Do you think that’s damaging to negotiations and do you think Iran should be the top of the agenda right now?
Iran is a very important issue on the agenda, but I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
I don’t think Israel can afford to put the Palestinian issue on the back burner while it focuses on Iran.
My views [on Iran] would not be very different than the ones expressed by a whole series of former Israeli military and intelligence leaders, that an Iranian nuclear weapon does represent a threat to Israel, but that military action would be a counterproductive way of responding to that threat and a better solution is covert action, sanctions and tough diplomacy – that’s the path Israel and the US should be pursuing.
But the Palestinian issue doesn’t go away because Israel decides it doesn’t want to focus on it, and I fear that the longer we go without progress the more likely we are to get a third intifada, and potentially the end of the two-state solution.
In a much less-talked-about part of your book, you advocate US government funding for Jewish schools. How do you think the Jewish community in the US can actually achieve that?
It would take lobbying, a political coalition by American Jews, evangelicals, Catholics, African Americans, who might for their own reasons have an interest in it.
Right now the American Jewish organizational leadership is still relatively hostile to it, but I think that may be changing – there is certainly a lot of support in the Orthodox community for it.
What I hope will happen is people will come to realize the absolute vital importance of economically affordable, academically ethical Jewish schools for people of every religious persuasion in the Jewish community. A strong Jewish education – which can be best facilitated by Jewish schools – is the best answer for creating a Jewish community that is literate enough to be Jewishly committed.
It’s hard to ask people to be committed to Judaism when the American Jewish community simply hasn’t given them the tools to know very much about it.
What do you see as the vision of your new blog, Open Zion? My vision is to kind of model to the American Jewish community and to the American media more generally what a truly intellectually open discourse is like, in which we debate the fundamental and difficult questions. Not just between liberal Jews and conservative Jews or liberal Israelis and conservative Jewish Israelis, but to include Palestinians as very much a part of the conversation, debating Israeli Jews both left-wing and right-wing.
We had [Likud MK] Danny Danon do a column a couple weeks ago, we also had Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi. We have Palestinians who support a one-state solution and we have fairly right-wing Israelis like Benny Morris [writing for the blog].
Part of the problem in the American Jewish community is that we have a very cloistered discussion a lot of the time, there is not an openness to a full array of voices and arguments especially including Palestinians.
We feature on Open Zion positions that I very much disagree with: I am a Zionist, I believe very deeply in Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state, but I also believe in having a discourse with Palestinians who are likely to disagree with me.
Since the publication of your book, have you seen your call for a Zionist BDS taking root in any meaningful way?
There is evidence that this has taken hold: The Methodists in the US rejected full BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions], which I’m very pleased about, but they did support not buying settlement products.
There’s a British retail supermarket [Co-op] that has taken it on as well and I just saw that the government of Ireland has contemplated it as well.
I can’t say that it’s necessarily because of my op-ed and my book, but there are other people who are looking for a way of expressing opposition to Israeli policy in the West Bank while supporting Israel’s right to exist, and I think that’s very important.
My own proposal is that any boycott of settlement products has to be paired with an embrace of the products of democratic Israel, and we have to be absolutely unmistakably in support of Israel’s right to exist within democratic borders. My suspicion is that this kind of idea is going to take greater hold in the coming months and years, unless we move toward a negotiated two-state solution, which would of course be the best option of all.
Do you support the Palestinians’ bid for statehood at the UN?
No, I didn’t support the Palestinian bid at the UN, I supported [US President Barack] Obama’s response to it, which was essentially to say to the Israeli government that we really need to start serious negotiations along the 1967 lines as a way of providing an alternative to this.
There has been a strong backlash against the book among American Jewish leaders – was there anyone who reached out in support that surprised you?
There has been support in op-eds by [executive-director of Kivunim] Peter Geffen in The Jewish Week, [editor-at-large at The Forward] J.J. Goldberg, although these are people whose politics are more on the progressive side.
People who lead Jewish organizations – they’re not likely to come out in praise of a book that criticizes their organization, but privately I have had, over the last couple of years, constructive conversations with some of the major Jewish organizations. There are some people in those organizations who are concerned about the direction of Israeli policy and the alienation of young American Jews, and are perhaps more concerned than they might let on publicly.
Would you ever consider living in Israel?
Yeah, I would consider it. I think it would be an incredible experience and opportunity.
Right now our life is in New York, but I would certainly very much hope that we would have a chance as a family to spend a long period of time in Israel, and if it turned into something more than that then all the better. The more time that our family can spend in Israel the better off ourselves and the better off our kids would be in terms of their appreciation and connection to Israel.