Sunday, July 3rd | 4 Tammuz 5782

October 15, 2020 4:17 am

Peter Beinart’s Grotesque Utopia (Part Three)

avatar by Shany Mor


The Western Wall and Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This article is published as a series of three posts, which appear on consecutive days. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 is below:

Future: End of the Jewish State

As the recent aborted annexation debacle showed, Israel cannot incorporate the West Bank into its sovereign territory and remain both a Jewish state and a democracy. To restate that in the affirmative: Israel can exist as a both a Jewish state and a democracy on something roughly resembling the provisional borders created by the 1949 armistice agreements. The final disposition of those borders will need to be determined, as final borders eventually are in all international conflicts, by peace treaties negotiated between the warring sides when both are genuinely ready for peace, or at least too exhausted for more conflict.

Peter Beinart, however, does not see this future as possible. Instead he imagines an alternative future based not on the boundaries of any armistice or proposed partition or natural boundary or even any Ottoman administrative division, but rather based on the very short-lived lines of the British Mandate, creating one country where two distinct nations with two distinct histories and two vastly different economies and cultures and international commitments would share the institutions of state power under the principle of what he calls “equality.”

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Why should “equality” stop there, though?

Whatever argument can be summoned to deny a border between a State of Israel and a State of Palestine can just as easily be marshalled against a border between a Beinartian State of Equality and its neighbor Jordan or its neighbor Lebanon. In both cases, the existing international boundary does not follow any historic Ottoman or Arab internal boundary. In both cases, the lines are drawn by imperial powers and with specific concern, ironically enough, for the Zionist project. For that matter, what is the deal with Lebanese independence anyway? So gauche and anachronistic. For decades Lebanon and Syria have functioned under the direction of one state’s prerogatives anyway. Put a ring on it and call it one state already.

The principle needn’t be limited to the Middle East. It’s not just Zionists, after all, who fell for the siren song of statehood rather than just “home.” So too did, among other peoples, the Irish. Beinart makes much of a stylized and tendentious reading of the Northern Ireland peace process (this isn’t the place to refute it), but it’s not clear why there needs to be a separate sovereign on even part of the island. The whole Northern Ireland dispute would mean so much less if Britain and Ireland were one state based on equality. Sure, that might mean that the hard-fought freedom of the Irish people would be undone, but “evidence” shows that they would probably be better off living under “equality” anyway. The Baltic states, with their complicated ethnic compositions and obstreperously nationalist politics don’t really need independent sovereign institutions either, if you stop and think about it. Sure, citizens with a European standard of material and political life might not jump at the idea of being in a Russian-majority state, but that’s only because they are imagining the Russia of today and not realizing that so much of what seems to ail Russia is justified bitterness at the way it has been treated. “Evidence” certainly suggests that a State of Equality would temper some of the negative Russian behavior to minorities, which is anyway an overblown projection of fears from the last century. And before you go insisting that Latvians want “sovereignty” and not just a “home,” make sure you ask the 25% of Latvians who are Russian (to use the preening formulation beloved by Beinart).

But Beinart is not seeking to reverse Latvian independence or Irish independence or Lebanese or Jordanian independence. He only seeks to undo Israeli independence, and he’s frankly miffed that the benighted Israelis together with the bogeyman of his first forays into the topic, the “American Jewish establishment,” resist his designs “despite the evidence that in an equal country Jews could not merely survive, but prosper.”

This casual use of “evidence” is worth pausing on for a second. Beinart sees “evidence” in unrelated and entirely incomparable cases (Belgium, for example) that Jews would be safe in an Arab-majority state, but doesn’t count the overwhelming evidence that they would not (for example, the uncomfortable question of why Jews don’t even feel safe in Belgium right now). He sees evidence that the two-state solution is dead thanks to Israeli actions, even though on his own terms such a solution was equally plausible back when he was still claiming to support it. Most outrageously of all, he sees evidence, backed only by his febrile imaginings, that Israel is plotting to carry out a massive expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank and maybe even Israel itself, and urges an unrealistic and unworkable solution to a threat he has invented as the only way to stop it.

For Jews to be concerned about their fate under Arab rule is nothing more than neurotic Holocaust transference according to Beinart, an odd misreading of Arab rhetoric in the lead up to both the 1948 and the 1967 war. In contrast to that, Beinart detects a genuine Israeli plan to effect mass expulsion. The juxtaposition of Beinart’s two fantastical prophecies is remarkable, both for his gullibility and for how revealing they are about his prejudices about peoples he knows so little about except for his own vain projections. The Arabs will treat the Jews in what was Israel just fine when they get power, but the Jews are secretly planning a mass expulsion when they get the chance. Can anyone who has looked at the lot of historic Jewish communities in Arab countries in the past century on even the best days or the behavior of Israel in the occupied territories on even the worst ones take either claim seriously?

On Israel’s supposed plans for expulsion, Beinart intones, “that prospect is not as remote as it seems,” and then in typical fashion produces only the flimsiest of evidence. First, as in 2013, there is a willful misinterpretation of an opinion poll used to cast Israelis as monsters. The option to “physically remove” Palestinians from Area C is “the most popular answer” among Israeli Jews, he writes, referring to a public opinion survey. But this is misleading for a number of reasons. The most popular answer is a small minority, as there were five responses. The question asks not what respondents want, but rather what they think should happen if Area C is annexed (including among the larger number who opposed the idea). And the verb used to describe this option doesn’t make clear whether it refers to moving people or transferring authority over the villages in question. Even under the least charitable interpretation, it doesn’t call for expelling anyone out of the country anyway.

That’s not all. Beinart then slips into the same paragraph the recurring proposal by some fringe Israelis (and not always on the fringes you might expect) to cede land on the Israeli side of the Green Line that is mostly populated by Arabs to a future Palestinian state in exchange for land east of the Line that is populated by Jewish settlers as further evidence for the budding acceptance of mass expulsion. While careful to first describe it accurately as a “redrawing of borders,” he states its purpose is “to deposit roughly 300,000” Arab citizens outside of Israel, and sandwiches the whole sentence in between claims that Israel is inexorably headed toward expulsion.

This is not the place to discuss the idea of such border adjustments. The idea is a bad and impractical one for myriad reasons and has never had any real traction in Israel. But there is something odd about the way it is framed here as portending an impulse to ethnic cleansing. If India today announced that it was willing to cede Muslim areas of Kashmir to Pakistan, would that be seen as a new form of intransigence or a new openness to compromise and concession? When an Israeli desire to hold on to certain land is your evidence of Israeli malevolence and an Israeli desire to withdraw from certain other land is your evidence of Israeli malevolence, maybe the problem has less to do with Israel and more to do with you.

It’s a remarkably disingenuous claim, made even more disingenuous by Beinart’s insistence on the façon de parler of Israel rejectionists in calling Arab citizens of Israel “Palestinian.” If a chunk of land on the border is populated by Palestinians, why is a willingness to cede that land to a Palestinian state in a future peace agreement a “mass expulsion”?

It’s not a slip or an editing error. Like a tedious Ivy League sophomore explaining to the college staff that they should refer to themselves as Latinx (before asking to speak to a manager), Beinart insists on referring to Arab Israelis as “Palestinian” though public opinion surveys consistently show that most reject this label (only 7% prefer it, in fact, according to a recent poll, and the trend is downward).

He cites, for example, two surveys from the Israel Democracy Institute (full disclosure: I am a researcher there, but have nothing to do with public opinion polling) purporting to show more liberal attitudes in general among “Palestinian citizens,” though when you click on both links, you discover that the word nowhere appears. The survey of Israelis distinguishes between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, and Beinart’s sentence about the surveys, like the sentence before about a different set of surveys, would be clearer if he kept the same distinction, but it is obvious that for him introducing the word “Palestinian” is a crucial part of the larger narrative he seeks to push of a fully formed Palestinian nation on clearly marked historical boundaries that was robbed of its rightful inheritance by Zionist usurpers.

The word crops up in other dissonant contexts. He gives backhanded praise to the “honorable exceptions” among early Zionists who were “concerned with Palestinian rights,” naming Ahad Ha-Am, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Judah Magnes, and Henrietta Szold, though none of them would have used that term because it was not then used to describe an Arab nation. He states that “Zionists employed violence against Palestinians,” though when you follow the link he provides, you discover again that he is changing the terminology. (And the sentence construction is notable too: “Zionists employed violence against Palestinians” to describe an attack in 1939 after three years of violence against Jews in Palestine, though if you were expecting him to refer to that by describing Arabs employing violence against Jews you clearly don’t know Peter Beinart: “increased Jewish immigration provoked increased violence between Palestinians and Jews” he says of that episode; also, “in 1929 and 1936, Palestinian uprisings turned violent.” Turned? From what?)

Whenever he needs a dyad for the parties to the conflict, he consistently reaches for the mismatched “Jews and Palestinians.” It’s an odd pairing. If you are going to talk about the conflict as a whole, you might talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict. If you are going to talk about the two peoples fighting over the same land as ethno-religious communities — particularly if you are talking about the Mandate period — you might talk about “Jews and Arabs” and the proposed Jewish and Arab states of the various partition plans from 1937 to 1947. If you are talking about national-political communities, you might call them “Israelis and Palestinians.” But for Beinart it is always Jews and Palestinians. On the first or fourth or even fifth time he pairs these terms, you might not notice what’s happening.

But after about a dozen the agenda is unmistakable. Just as Beinart can’t describe a set of events, especially a lamentable one, as anything other than something with a Jewish or Israeli subject and a passive Palestinian object, so his relation to the two competing national movements evinces two opposite pressures. The yearning for Jewish sovereignty in a historic homeland is something new, transient, and artificial; it’s not a longstanding goal but a perversion of an earlier desire for an amorphous “home” that has been distorted by displaced Holocaust trauma. But the national movement of the Arab Palestinian people — that is eternal. Beinart sees Palestinians in history even where no one was claiming that title, and if he doesn’t see them in the text, he writes them in. Beinart sees Palestinians in the Arab community in Israel, and if they don’t see themselves there, he will call them that until they accept it.

This is more than just an awkward Starbucks cup making it into a shot of Game of Thrones. It’s a tendentious ransacking of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict so thorough that by the end the whole thing reeks of pumpkin spice.

And it’s at the core of Beinart’s territorial argument too. Palestinians, in his telling, had “already settled for a country in 22% of the land” and would settle for no less. Let’s leave aside that this is empirically false, and that subsequent peace talks broke down on demands for the “return” of refugees into Israel and a refusal to accept a Jewish state as a neighbor — in other words, demands far outside the supposed 22%.

Let’s consider instead how odd this argument would sound in any other context. Accepting Israel’s existence in 78% of the land of the Mandate isn’t a concession to Israel. Israel is there; it already exists. It’s a concession to reality. Not even 1% of that 78% was ever a Palestinian state of any kind. Zionists too once claimed both halves of the British Mandate, including what is today Jordan. But the British exercised the option granted them by the League of Nations to exclude Transjordan from the Jewish National Home in 1922, cutting off 77% of the territory from Jewish land purchases and settlement.

So is a Jewish state on everything on the west side a “concession” that whittled down the state to 23% of its historic claim? Some right-wing Zionists did make this argument, by the way, but it has never been taken seriously outside those rarified circles. In fact, in no negotiation situation is acknowledging what your rival already has that was never yours considered a concession, much less a final concession that one side gets to stipulate for itself peremptorily.

Lots of national liberation movements, in fact, have historical claims on lands they don’t control anymore and can’t obtain through force or negotiation. Accepting such unmet claims has often been a painful stage of liberation for many post-imperial states, such as Poland, Greece, Armenia, Ireland, and, for that matter, Israel. In none of those cases is there a bogus argument made involving an exact percentage, because each of those cases involves long, complicated histories on ambiguously delimited territories over different times and conflicting memories leading to liberation, rather than just a very recent negation of someone else’s liberation.

The Irish case is actually exceptional here, because there is an actual island that exists as a geographical fact prior to any political division. But even here, one doesn’t often encounter exact percentages of land supposedly lost or conceded (though one does encounter lots of bitterness about partition, but that is hardly unique).

But while Ireland north and south could be conceived of as a discreet territorial unit, the land that together comprises Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip can only be conceived as a similarly discreet unit by ignoring all the various borders that have existed there in the past and might exist in the present and insisting on only one set that existed very briefly from about 1922 to 1948 — that is, of the British Mandate, not any Arab state but rather a League of Nations mandate for the establishment of a Jewish National Home. (Pause on all that irony if you need to.)

For Beinart, though, it is essential to conceive of it as one geographical entity, otherwise there is no explanation for why “equality” can’t apply across the West Bank-Jordan border, or the Syria-Lebanon border, or the Gaza-Egypt one. He concedes there is no acceptably neutral name for the country as a whole that he wants to impose his “equality” vision onto, so whenever he wants to refer to it he uses some variation of “between the river and the sea,” with reference to the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, but this too only reveals the artificiality of the whole claim.

From north to south, Israel is about 425 kilometers long. Only about 125 kilometers of that has a river to the east and a sea to the west. This is the part that has all the historically heavy places that were often labelled on historical maps as Judea or the Holy Land or Palestine. And this is part of the country where, if a two-state solution ever does come into being, the overwhelming majority of the land will be part of the Arab, not the Jewish state.

Even if you take into account the two lakes as part of a natural eastern border and add into the river-and-sea portion, you still only get about 210 kilometers — just under half the entire length of the country. Why is that? Well, the entire southern half of the country is the Negev desert, where the eastern and western borders are lines in the sand drawn over the course of history as a result of wars, peace talks, imperial interventions, and international resolutions, where things like battle outcomes, strategic interests (for example, access to seaports), and ethnic makeup are considerations in the outcome. Each is a border just like any other in the world — an outcome of history. The Arab population that lived in the Negev before 1948 had very little to do in terms of dialect, dress, customs, religious practices, and even physical appearance with the Arab population in the rest of the country that would come to be called Palestinian.

In the north something similar — history — happened, but with very different results. The border that today separates Lebanon and Israel was agreed upon by the French and British as a border separating the French Mandate for what was designed to become a future Arab Christian state from the British Mandate for a Jewish National Home. It is a jagged line drawn right through the middle of what was an Ottoman province, jagged because contrary to the stereotype of how colonial borders were drawn, this one was effected with attention to the property claims of villagers on either side of the line. Equally notable, every effort was made to respect the ethnic purposes of the two mandates — wherever possible Christians and Shiites are north of the line and Jews are south of it. This is how you get the so-called Galilee Panhandle, where the western border is not a sea but rather a mountain ridge separating an area of Jewish settlement on the east from one of predominantly Shiite settlement to the west.

It’s a transparently bad basis for any historical claim, but Beinart finds it compelling because it coheres with his selective and rather curious sense of history.

There is also a curious ethical sense of national responsibility. Remember, Beinart believes that the blame for the eclipsing of the two-state option is entirely Israel’s to bear — never mind that he is, as demonstrated above, both wrong about two states not being an option and wrong about Israel bearing responsibility for the failure to realize that option. Jews were entitled to an independent state in part of their historic homeland, in Beinart’s telling, but by their own misguided actions they forfeited that right, now and for future generations (and American Jews — but not Beinart! — are “complicit”).

Interestingly, this ethical sensibility simply doesn’t apply to the Palestinians. Support for Hitler, which Beinart dismisses as “tragic,” may have had consequences for other nations (with much more difficult circumstances and dilemmas, such as Finland among others), but it is impolite to even mention it in this case. The rejection of the Partition in 1947 shouldn’t have consequences. The Arab defeat in 1967 shouldn’t have consequences (22% is the last concession, recall). And the abuse of the Oslo process for a campaign of suicide bombing which only accelerated after the rejection of serious peace offerings from Israeli and American leaders should absolutely not have any consequences for Palestinian claims for territory or anything else from Israel. Israel’s guilt is (excuse the obvious theological precedents) passed on down the generations; but the Palestinians operate on a moral tabula rasa where only eternal victimhood is preserved. This is an ethical program without parallel or precedent anywhere in international relations.

There is so much more dishonest revision and pious posturing in Beinart’s article that one doesn’t know what to leave out: the ahistorical claims about Arab political goals in pre-1948 Palestine, the shallow psychoanalysis that projects Jewish Holocaust trauma onto Palestinians rather than taking seriously the violent Arab rejection of Israel, the selective and dishonest retelling of the PLO’s “recognition” of Israel and the even more dishonest claim about Hamas’ “repeated embrace” of a state next to rather than instead of Israel, the cloying quotes from Arab leaders that they would “safeguard the rights of vulnerable Jews” under the utopian future Beinart dreams of (thanks but no thanks). Most nauseating of all is the passage at the end where Beinart conjures a rabbi reciting El Maleh Rachamim at a Nakba memorial as a complement to a Holocaust memorial service. I know this is supposed to be utopian, but I had no idea utopia could be so grotesque.

And Beinart is supposed to be a serious Jewish intellectual, or even a modern-day Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai only asking for Yavneh and its sages. But no one who wallows in such moralizing cosplay while intimating such an appalling analogy between, on the one hand, the Arab experience of defeat in an attempt to commit ethnic cleansing and genocide of Jews and, on the other hand, the Jewish experience of actual genocide which had only just finished three years prior, deserves to be taken seriously.

Shany Mor is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism and a research fellow at the Chaikin Institute for Geostrategy, both at the University of Haifa. He is also an associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter at @ShMMor. This series was originally published as one article at Medium.

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