Brandishing bulldozers: The Beinart-Gordis debate

Into the Fray: Last week’s exchange in NY was disappointing – more for what was not said rather than what was.

Beinart vs Gordis_370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beinart vs Gordis_370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I wish you all, the parents and the entire tribe of settlers... restorers of the Jewish settlement in Hebron... great blessing and joy in raising your son. Bringing your son into the covenant of the Patriarch Abraham, in the city of Abraham after 40 years separation from it, has a special symbolic significance. It bears testimony to our continuous connection to this place, to which we have returned never to leave.
– Yigal Allon, January 29, 1969
These sentiments, conveyed in a congratulatory letter from the Labor Party’s iconic moderate, to a family in Kiryat Arba, the Jewish neighborhood adjacent to Hebron, on the occasion of the first brit ceremony in the community, underscores how decoupled from historical fact and political context the discourse on the Palestinian issue has become.
Allon, who commanded the Palmah in the War of Independence, served as deputy prime minister, education minister and foreign minister under Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.
He was arguably the first mainstream politician to explicitly propose making far-reaching territorial concessions in Judea and Samaria, in what came to be known as the Allon Plan. Yet even he, the archetypical “pragmatic” secular Zionist, understood the profound significance of Hebron for the Jewish people, its heritage and its nationhood.
Relativity of ‘radicalism’
It is instructive to keep this in mind when assessing last week’s debate between Peter Beinart and Daniel Gordis at Columbia University, sparked by the publication of Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism.
In the opening minutes of his address, Beinart berated the government for assisting in the construction of a cultural center in Kiryat Arba, which he dubbed “one of the most radical and remote settlements in the West Bank.”
Radical? But wasn’t it endorsed by a revered Labor leader, the author of the policy of “territorial concessions,” as a “place to which we have returned never to leave”?
Indeed, wasn’t it David Ben- Gurion who in 1970 declared, “We will make a great and awful mistake if we fail to settle Hebron, neighbor and predecessor of Jerusalem, with a large Jewish settlement, constantly growing and expanding, very soon.”?
So what makes Kiryat Arba “radical” – established as it was in the era of Labor-hegemony, years before a Likud-led government was conceivable, in an era when Zionism was presumably still true to its liberal-humanistic principles, allegedly so dear to Beinart’s heart?
Moreover, what makes it “remote”– barely 24 km. from the Malha shopping mall in Jerusalem, roughly the same distance from London’s Whitechapel to Heathrow Airport – and considerably less than the distance from the US Capitol to Dulles International Airport in Washington? How “remote” is that?
Contextual lacunae and factual lapses
Nowhere could the unfortunate audience get the sense that “radical, remote” Kiryat Arba was created under the Labor Party, and situated so close to Israel’s capital that both could easily fit within the confines of many Western cities. Nowhere could they get the sense that the development of the Jewish presence in Hebron was not some deranged initiative of renegade right-wing religious radicals, but a reflection of the vision of the founders of state – even those who embraced the “land-for-peace” formula.
It is thus a great pity that Gordis did not seize the opportunity to rectify this – along with many other contextual lacunae and factual lapses in Beinart’s presentation. After all, as one of participants remarked, she came because “as a Jew invested in Israel, I thought it’d be an opportunity to educate myself.”
And there was much need to “educate” the attendees in light of Beinart’s cavalier attitude toward the truth – with regard to both what he said and what he didn’t.
For it was not only the cultural center in Kiryat Arba that irked him. He also berated “this government” for supporting the cultural center in Ariel – a city of almost 20,000 residents and a University Center with a student population of 13,000.
For some reason, Beinart avoided mentioning (perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps not) that the establishment of Ariel was approved by none other than Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres while serving as defense minister under Nobel Peace Prize laureate Yitzhak Rabin, who never dreamed it would not remain under Israeli control in any future agreement.
Settlements: Sources and sponsors
Listening to Beinart one would never guess that settlements were a mainstream initiative, launched long before any “insidious” Likud government could hijack Zionism and distort its noble liberal principles, enshrined in Israel’s declaration of Independence that he is so wont to refer to (more on that later).
I am certain that many in the Columbia crowd would have been astounded to learn that the real sponsor of the settlement project was not some wild-eyed, bearded rabbi or a shrill settler extremist, but none other than Shimon Peres himself. I am sure they would be astonished (as Beinart himself might be) to discover that Peres authored a book in which he prescribed the need to “create a continuous stretch of new settlements; to bolster Jerusalem and the surrounding hills, from the north, from the east, and from the south and from the west, by means of the establishment of townships, suburbs and villages – Ma’aleh Adumin, Ofra, Gilo, Beit El, Givon, to ensure that the capital and its flanks are secured, and underpinned by urban and rural settlements.”
Peres elaborated: “These settlements will be connected to the Coastal Plain and Jordan Valley by new lateral axis roads; the settlements along the Jordan River are intended to establish the Jordan River as [Israel’s] de facto security border; however it is the settlements on the western slopes of the hills of Samaria and Judea which will deliver us from the curse of Israel’s ‘narrow waist.’” (Compare and contrast Peres’s use of the term “Judea and Samaria” with Beinart’s recently proposed “undemocratic Israel.”)
‘Zionism’ devoid of Zionist antecedents
Note that this policy prescription was articulated a decade before the “ominous specter” of Avigdor Liberman, the “illiberal” Russian immigrants or messianic Orthodox zealots – Beinart’s pet villains – appeared on the political scene as a force of any significance, to sully the theory and practice of Zionism.
One can only wonder what real antecedents Beinart can invoke for the brand of cuddly Kumbaya Zionism he professes to embrace, and whose alleged abandonment has led to the growing alienation of young American Jewry. Certainly up until the end of the previous century, no Israeli leader of significance embraced it.
It would have been an anathema even to post-Oslo Yitzhak Rabin, who in his last address to the Knesset, in October 1995, advocated a permanent settlement with the Palestinians in which Israel’s frontiers “will include the addition of Gush Etzion, Efrat, Betar and other communities east of what was the “Green Line... and [t]he establishment of blocs of settlements in Judea and Samaria like the one in Gush Katif.” (Again, note the terminology.)
Is Beinart lamenting the loss of a long-loved ideology or inventing (read “fabricating”) a new, antithetical and unattainable ideal, which never existed in the past and can never exist in the future? Again, sadly, the contextual history of the settlement enterprise was not conveyed to the audience who were left largely uneducated on this score.
Misinformed or misleading?
As in Beinart’s previous writings and appearances, so his address on this occasion was replete with distortions, half-truths and blatant untruths too numerous to refute in a single opinion column – even a lengthy one. But here are some of the more blatant.
In an attempt to portray the settlers as avaricious and self-seeking, Beinart alleges that “this government is essentially paying Israelis to move across the Green Line,” claiming it “has reversed its predecessor and made significant chunks of the West Bank a national priority zone eligible for a host of subsidies.”
I guess he must have missed the headlines earlier this year proclaiming that the settlements had been removed from the “national priority” category.
Thus under the heading, “Gov’t to withhold aid from settlements” (February 2), Attila Somfalvi, political correspondent of Ynet, wrote: “The government has decided to exclude 70 West Bank settlements from the list of national priority areas,” adding: “Government sources estimate that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was concerned that including the settlements in the list will hurt the latest efforts to restart the peace talks with the Palestinians.”
That certainly puts a different spin on things, and suggests that care should be exercised before taking Beinart’s words at face value.
While it is true that some questions regarding government aid for settlements in Judea and Samaria remain, the picture that emerged from the research I conducted for this article is that – in practice – virtually no government incentives are available to anyone wishing to “move across the Green Line.” (I use the term “virtually” so as to err on the side of caution, as I am not aware on any such incentives. Perhaps Beinart could enlighten me.)
Enmity not ethnicity
Much of Beinart’s chagrin is directed toward Israel’s policy in Judea and Samaria which applies different administrative/legal systems to Israeli citizens and to non-Israeli Palestinian residents. For Beinart, this constitutes a “flagrant violation” of the pledge enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights... irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
One wonders if it is really necessary to explain to a professor of political science (as Beinart is) that the Declaration of Independence applies to a limited segment of humanity – Israeli citizens – not to the entire population of the world.
It is certainly not applicable to hostile aliens – at least potentially – of whom well over 90 percent support organizations (either Fatah or Hamas) whose founding documents call for the eradication of Israel.
To suggest, as does Beinart, that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is based on considerations of ethnic identity reflects either ignorance or ill-will, and is robustly refuted by Israel’s treatment of its citizens of other non-Jewish ethnic origin, who indeed enjoy “social and political rights... irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Any fair-minded assessment clearly shows that it is not Palestinian ethnicity but Palestinian enmity that lies at the root of the application of different administrative systems. Moreover, it is not this policy of differentiation that reflects racism but the demands for its abolition.
For these demands embody an inherent – but unequivocal – negation of the Jews’ right to self-defense, an assumption that Jews can be assailed with impunity – and the expectation that Jews should die meekly. That is the real racism – a racism with which Beinart appears inextricably complicit.
Not a suicide pact
Since Beinart appears far more concerned with Palestinian suffrage than Israeli security he should remember that “West Bank” Palestinians are stateless not because of Israel, but because they were unilaterally – and apparently illegally – stripped of their Jordanian citizenship.
As one prominent Palestinian legal expert put it: “More than 1.5 million Palestinians went to bed on 31 July 1988 as Jordanian citizens, and woke up on 1 August 1988 as stateless persons.”
Perhaps before recommending reckless abandon as a template for Israeli policy, Beinart would do well to refer to the wisdom expounded by some of the Supreme Court justices in his own country. For example, he might heed the words of the chief US prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, justice Robert Jackson, who cautioned that if one “does not temper [one’s] doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, [one] will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”
He might do well to peruse the opinion of justice Arthur Goldberg, who observed that “while the Constitution protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact.”
Finally, Beinart might refer to the prudent sentiments of Thomas Jefferson, who pointed out that “strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest.... To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to the written law, would be to lose the law itself, thus absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means.”
Beinart should apply all this to the situation in which Israel finds itself. Perhaps this will generate the realization that just as the US Constitution is not a suicide pact, neither is the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
Brandishing bulldozers
I could go on disputing and refuting virtually every one of the points raised by Beinart in his debate with Gordis. Almost without exception they were demonstrably based on false assumptions or misrepresentations, omissions or exaggerations, half-truths or even untruths.
His sources were almost invariably some failed politician clinging forlornly to a discredited doctrine, embittered ex-civil servants or blatantly biased political organizations.
Yet for some reason, Gordis, who recently penned a rather telling riposte of Beinart’s book in this paper, chose to be largely non-confrontational and to avoid assertively challenging either the credibility of Beinart’s sources or the cogency of his arguments.
Although he began making an excellent opening point – that essentially there is “nothing Israel can do to end the conflict – not even land for peace” – he ended up severely undermining his case, declaring that he had no real disagreement with Beinart on most issues and that basically they shared the same vision for Israel – even if they differed on how to attain it. Acknowledging a priori that your adversary’s case is essentially valid is not a recommended strategy for winning arguments.
Perhaps most disturbing was his reassuring Beinart he too had many reservations about the settlements and that “many are going to have to get bulldozed.”
“We have shown in Gaza,” continued Gordis, trying to convince Beinart that settlements are not a real obstacle to a viable Palestinian state, “that we know how bulldoze when we need to bulldoze.”
That is not the lesson of the 2005 Gaza disengagement. The real lesson is that even if we do bulldoze, it is of no avail.
It is pity that Gordis chose not drive this home.
Idiot or enemy?
Whichever way you slice it, Peter Beinart is complicit in promoting the dangerous hoax of Palestinian statehood, and in a manner highly detrimental to Israel.
There are only two possible explanations for his actions: He is either sincere or he is not.
If he is sincere, he is merely a “useful idiot,” and he should be treated as such. If he is not, then he is engaging in activities that are intentionally detrimental to Israel. He is, therefore, an enemy – and should be treated as such.