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April 4, 2012 10:11 am

A modest question for Peter Beinart and the American Jewish Left

avatar by Adam Levick

Email a copy of "A modest question for Peter Beinart and the American Jewish Left" to a friend

Peter Beinart speaking for J Street. Photo: J Street.

Jane Eisner’s March 28th Comment is Free essay, Peter Beinart’s problematic Zionist BDS proposal, was interesting in several respects.

First Eisner praised  Beinart’s “new and controversial proposal for a targeted boycott of products from Israeli settlements” (meant to pressure Israel to withdrawal completely from the West Bank) as representing a valiant effort to test “how big the Jewish tent really is.”

Eisner characterized Beinart’s proposal for “BDS” as a “movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel (BDS)…targeting only the territories beyond the Green Line – the area captured by Israel in 1967 that should make up a new Palestinian state or, in Beinart’s words, non-democratic Israel”

Eisner criticizes the proposal as impractical, arguing that the vast majority of Israeli products are manufactured in Israel proper, and that such a targeted boycott would have little if any effect on Israel’s economy.

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Then, while Eisner also raises a slight moral objection to Beinart’s embrace of the BDS movement, she nevertheless concludes:

What Beinart has accomplished, though, is to pinpoint a deep frustration and confusion on the part of many Jews who want to stop the peace process from unraveling and who wish to see an end to the occupation that leaves Israel’s security intact. This is the constituency of Jewish opinion that wants to reclaim the high moral ground in the struggle for Israel’s democratic soul.

For that reason, he and his ideas – no matter how outrageous, no matter how self-serving – deserve a place inside the tent. He asks an uncomfortable, difficult, yet essential question: if well-meaning American Jews who love Israel believe that the occupation of Palestinian land and people is detrimental and wrong, what are those Jews to do?

However, the most gnawing omission in Beinart’s original essay on “the crisis of American Zionism” published at The New York Review of Books, under the title “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment“, is that it doesn’t mention what he expects of Palestinians – and indeed Beinart only refers to Palestinians a few times, and always as passive actors.

He writes of the urgent need to promote a “Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace”, commends Jews (like himself) deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included” and challenges “Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

In addition, he fails to even reflect, in an over 4500 word essay, on the security implications of withdrawing from the disputed territories, and never once acknowledges the injurious results of Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and S. Lebanon.

So, to liberal American Jews like Beinart, I’d like to ask a simple question in relation to what you demand of Israel and American Zionists:

What do you demand of the Palestinians?

  • Do you expect Palestinians to cease endemic antisemitic incitement in their mosques, state-controlled media, and culture?
  • Do you expect Palestinians to stop honoring terrorists, and finally promote the values peace and co-existence, and finally endorse the Jewish state’s right to exist?
  • Do you expect Palestinians to create genuinely democratic institutions?
  • Do you expect Palestinians to take steps to end codified misogyny, such as their judicial system which rarely punishes men found guilty of honor killings?
  • Do you expect them to decriminalize homosexuality?
  • Do you expect Palestinians to adopt genuinely liberal norms regarding a free press and freedom of speech?
  • What steps do you expect Palestinians to take to inspire confidence that a nascent Palestinian state will be peaceful, and won’t devolve into an Islamist controlled polity, as in Gaza, or a terrorist dominated country like Lebanon?
  • And, more broadly, do you expect the same moral performance from Palestinians as you do of Israeli Jews?

For Beinart, and many of his allies on the American Jewish left, the only actors who possess moral agency in his tale of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict are Jews – and seems supremely concerned with the necessity of such Jews maintaining the “moral high ground” at seemingly any cost.

Such liberal American Jews seem remarkably nonchalant about the real life consequences of their proposals – advancing opinions not based on a rigorous examination of Israel’s complicated regional security threats, which include Islamist terrorist movements committed to the Jewish state’s destruction on two borders, but a desire to maintain their own “progressive” standing.

This dynamic – supreme moral vanity and a seeming disregard for the often unpleasant consequences which accompany even the most responsible use of political and military power – has been aptly characterized by Ruth Wisse as moral solipsism.

Until liberal American Jews show a genuine willingness to reflect on such questions about Palestinian responsibility, the vital issue of precisely what kind of Palestinian state Israelis can expect to arise and, more broadly, to what degree they’re willing to hold Palestinians (and the larger Arab world) to the same moral standards they hold Zionists, its hard not to conclude that their polemical assaults on the “Zionist establishment” is informed by both narcissism and quintessentially liberal racism.

I remember a conversation with a friend just before Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, in which he assured me that such a move would give Israel the “moral high ground”, and garner political support for the Jewish state in the event that the newly independent Palestinian state in Gaza devolved into a terrorist enclave, and the IDF was forced to engage in military actions in response.

As Hamas’s ascendancy and the obsessive international criticism, and delegitimization, as the result of the Gaza War indicated however, both assumptions, widely held by many on the Jewish left, were proven wildly inaccurate.

If the price of preventing a similar or even more dangerous political and military dynamic on our state’s eastern border is the loss of support from Peter Beinart and his political allies, it is a cost that Israelis (and those Zionist allies unburdened by the desire to remain popular within progressive political circles) must be willing to pay.

There’s nothing noble, admirable, moral (or “liberal) about promoting policies which will likely result in greater Jewish victimhood.

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