Zionist critic runs for Zionist Congress
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Zionist critic runs for Zionist Congress

Author and professor Peter Beinart will speak at Davar Institute

Peter Beinart (Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons)
Peter Beinart (Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Beinart entered the American Jewish communal conversation in 2010 with an article in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”

There, the already former editor of the New Republic argued that by ignoring Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank, Jewish leadership was alienating a generation of young American Jews. He expanded his argument in his 2012 book, “The Crisis of Zionism.”

Mr. Beinart, who now is a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York and a member of an Orthodox partnership minyan in Manhattan, wrote from the position of the Zionist left, advocating for a Palestinian state while supporting a strong Israel. Now he has made his Zionism official; he is number 14 on the Hatikvah slate for the Zionist Congress elections being held later this month. (He also is speaking in Teaneck this weekend; see box.) The Zionist Congress, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1898, guides policy for the World Zionist Organization and other Jewish institutions, including the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

The Hatikvah slate represents the Zionist left, including such organizations as T’ruah, Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, and the National Council of Jewish Women. It has placed opposition to settlement expansion at the top of its priorities. (The Israeli government has long funded West Bank settlement expansion through the World Zionist Organization, making the topic relevant.)

How popular is Hatikvah’s position? In the 2015 elections, Hatikvah received eight delegates. In contrast, parties fielded by the Reform movement won 56 delegates, the Conservative movement earned 25 delegates and the Orthodox alliance got 24. The elections are held every five years; votes are cast by self-declared Zionists who live outside Israel and are willing to pay the $7.50 registration fee. (Voting begins January 21 at azm.org/elections.) If Hatikvah does better this year, it will be a sign of growing support for Mr. Beinart’s argument that the Jewish community should not continue to sweep Palestinian rights under the carpet.

By running for the Zionist Congress, he said, “I’m trying to offer a different vision, one that reconciles Jewish national aspirations with Palestinian dignity.”

The crisis of Zionism, in 2010 and now, is the situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank, he said. “I think it’s worse than it was in the Jim Crow South. The legal reality for black Americans in the Jim Crow South is that they were legally citizens of the United States but couldn’t in practice vote. They couldn’t access the rights they were theoretically entitled to.

“For Palestinians in the West Bank who live under the control of the Israeli state, they’re not even theoretically citizens of the state in which they live. They don’t have the right to due process — they’re under military rule. They don’t have freedom of movement. If this were not happening in Israel, a country we want to see the best of, it would not be controversial to see it as a profound violation of human rights,” he said.

Isn’t the occupation over?

“That’s part of why it’s so important for people to visit and see for themselves,” he said. “A few hours there makes it much clearer where we stand. The Palestinian Authority is best understood as a kind of subcontractor for the Israeli government. The leaders of the Palestinian Authority need permission from the Israeli state to travel around the West Bank. They can be arrested by Israel. The Palestinian Authority handles functions Israel doesn’t want to do itself, but the ultimate force at the end of the day is Israel. The Israeli army can enter the West Bank — areas A, B, or C — any time it wants.

“I don’t think American Jews really understand at a gut level what it’s like for people to live their entire lives without the most basic rights we take for granted. No right to move from town to town. To lack the right not to have your land taken. To lack a legal system where you have due process. The fact that your children can be taken in the middle of the night and can be held for days without you knowing where they are.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with Israeli soldiers being bad people. But any time you create a legal reality where people have no rights vis a vis the state that controls their lives, it has terrible consequences. If more American Jews were to see this for themselves, I think they would understand. In my experience, it’s true for right-wing American Jews too. A lot of things we say to each other can’t survive contact with reality, with actual experience with Palestinians.”

Mr. Beinart said that his 2010 predictions about trends in the United States largely have come true.

“There’s mounting alienation toward Israel by younger non-Orthodox Jews and younger progressives in general,” he said. “That’s changing the Democratic Party’s relationship to Israel. We’re seeing more challenges to the nature of Zionism itself than we have seen in the past.”

In his book, Mr. Beinart had called on American Jews to join him in boycotting Israeli settlements in the West Bank and their products. He was echoing a call issued decades ago by Israeli anti-occupation activists such as the author Amos Oz. But since the book was published, Israel has gone on the warpath against all boycotts — including not only those of Israel proper, but of “territories under its control,” in the language of the Israeli law that has been replicated in anti-boycott legislation supported by mainstream American Jewish groups and passed into law in several states.

Does that mean Mr. Beinart wouldn’t be allowed in Israel?

“It’s a little more complicated,” he said. “It applies more if you’re the leader of an organization. But it’s an example of what I’ve been worried about: the toxic way the fundamentally undemocratic and unjust control of people who lack basic rights spills across the Green Line of 1967 and threatens Israeli democracy.”

On the other hand, Mr. Beinart said that his predictions that Israel’s policies in the West Bank would lead to the country’s international isolation have proved wrong.

“I did not foresee the degree to which rising authoritarianism and nationalism in other parts of the world would make Israel’s international position stronger,” he said, citing the strengthening of Israel’s connection to India and China.

With both China and India now trying to suppress their Muslims, isn’t Israel now in good company? Why worry so much about Israel?

“The fact that there are other countries around the world that are acting in ways we abhor does not seem like a very good reason to act in a way we abhor,” Mr. Beinart said. “If my neighbor is stealing and murdering, I should do it too? I thought Jews were supposed to have some kind of ethical mission in the world.”

Still, why should Israel’s actions register in the face of what’s going on elsewhere?

“One answer is that the horrors that are being done by China in Xinjiang and India in Kashmir are not being paid for by the American taxpayer,” he said. “The U.S. is complicit in what Israel is doing in a way it’s not in other human rights abuses. Israel is by far the largest beneficiary of U.S. military aid.”

Mr. Beinart disputes the view, put forward by the current Israeli and American administrations, that Israel’s relations with the Palestinians aren’t relevant to Arab states that are growing closer to Israel politically.

“There’s a sleight of hand there,” Mr. Beinart said. “They’re talking about a number of corrupt tyrannical regimes that don’t represent their people at all. Are there a number of regimes that don’t really care what Israel does to the Palestinians? Sure. That’s not new. Arab government have been screwing the Palestinians since before Israel was created. But in terms of popular opinion, it’s wrong. Look at polling in the Arab world and you’ll find that one of the biggest drivers of hostility to the U.S. is American policy toward Israel. Part of why it’s hard for the U.S. to support democracy in the Middle East is because, davka, a more democratic government that reflects the popular will more would take a tougher stand on Israel.”

Mr. Beinart wrote “The Crisis of Zionism” as a call to the American Jewish center; that center, he said, is much weaker than it was a decade ago. “That’s part of the general trend in American politics these days,” he said.

“J Street is a lot stronger. It’s close to as influential in the Democratic Party as AIPAC. That was not the case when I wrote the book. Groups to the left of me, Jewish Voices for Peace and the BDS world has grown stronger. The far right has also grown stronger; ZOA has benefited from sharing an ideology with the Trump administration.”

And for the future? What does he see from his perch as a 49-year-old college professor?

“There is a broad generational difference,” he said. “Young people are further to the left than older people. It has to do with the long-term impact of the Great Recession on their prospects, on their ability to get economic security. And because so much of the gain from American economic activity is going to the very rich. And we have a welfare system that provides most of its benefits to the elderly rather than the young. It’s taking young people who might be liberal and making them more radical.”

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