Peter Beinart is a committed Jew in many ways. In practice, he is Orthodox and sends his two children to day school. Politically, he is liberal and proud of it. His understanding of Judaism drives that liberalism, and he proudly makes that clear, as well.
He also is a Zionist. He cares deeply about the State of Israel, the state of its democracy, and the state of war that exists between it and the Palestinians.
His sincerity and commitment to Judaism, to the Jewish people, and to the Jewish homeland cannot be taken from him, yet, in recent days, some have tried to do just that, and not for the first time. Terrible things are being said about him because of things he says that some people do not want to hear.
We need to hear what Beinart says, and not just because of who he is. We cannot form opinions without free and open debate of the factors that necessarily must shape those opinions.
We do not have to agree with him, however. Indeed, we cannot agree with him in his latest foray into Israeli-Palestinian affairs.
In an opinion piece written for The New York Times last week, Beinart set out his case for a partial boycott of Israeli goods. He is not the first serious-minded, committed Jew to do so, but he is among the most prominent.
Beinart should know better. In one form or another, there has been an “Arab boycott of Israel” from the earliest days of the state. To call for a “Jewish boycott of Israel” – no matter what the motivation – is almost unbelievable.
We say “almost” because, in truth, a Jewish boycott of goods and services produced “over the Green Line” has existed for almost as long as there has been a “Green Line.” There also has been a boycott, of sorts, by Jewish philanthropies of all stripes because they will not fund “over the Green Line” projects. The “boycotters” include Israelis living in Israel and serving in its military.
For Beinart and others of similar mind, also including loyal Israelis, that long-existing below-the-radar boycott is not enough. They want a boycott that is out in the open for all the world to see. They want the government of the State of Israel to see and feel its heat. That, they believe, is the only way Israel will ever make peace with the Palestinians.
There are so many things wrong with this thinking that one hardly knows where to begin.
For one thing, the plan assumes that Israel’s government can be moved by such efforts. The nature of Israel’s electoral system, with no single party or ideological grouping of parties likely to gain a majority in the
Knesset, almost guarantees that the government cannot be so moved – and it does not matter who is technically in charge. At times, it is a wonder that Israel’s government can move one way or the other on almost any issue.
A majority of Israelis, for example, favor a civil marriage law; different surveys range from 51 percent to 65 percent. Governments on the right, left, and center all have failed to approve such a law. When such a bill came before the Knesset in 2011, it received a mere 17 votes – and at least half the Knesset members managed to be absent when the vote was held. The electoral system, which invests the smallest parties with an inordinate amount of power, stands in the way.
If Israelis cannot move their own government on an issue such as this one, how do Beinart and company expect to move the government on an issue with excessively loud existential overtones?
Then there is the matter of who leads the government. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, by the measure of every poll, from right to left, remains very popular. Netanyahu talks about two-state solutions and Palestinian self-determination, but his gut tells him that the Palestinians cannot be trusted and that the more land Israel holds on to, the better able it will be to defend itself the next time.
That brings up another point: Netanyahu is correct. The Palestinians cannot be trusted. Israel has made concession after concession over the years, and yet it is not enough for the Palestinians. In Arabic, Palestinian leaders talk about a one-state solution to be achieved incrementally. First, take control of the west bank and Gaza. Second, use the territory to push the Jews into the sea. It may just be so much political bluster, but it is what they say in Arabic.
Netanyahu understands Arabic. So do many Israelis, in government and out. As the late Moshe Dayan said, however, “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” Netanyahu understands this, too, but he will act accordingly only when he is certain that Israel will come out the better for it. Boycotts by Jews (or anyone else) will not sway him away from that position.
Beinart is terribly wrong in thinking otherwise. We will be terribly wrong, however, if we demonize him for thinking as he does.
Let us never be afraid to debate among ourselves. And let us never forget to respect each other, whichever side we are on.