Crisis in Zion Square: Can Peter Beinart Shake Up American Zionism?

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The writer proposed a boycott on Israeli settlements. There are better policy ideas, but the point is that we need to rethink the American Jewish leadership's relationship to Israel, its democracy, and its occupation.

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Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to AIPAC in Washington, D.C. Reuters

Israel, settlements, and boycotts, have been attracting something of a wave of attention recently. A small co-op in Brooklyn's Park Slope has voted against implementing a ban on stocking any Israeli products. The ban would have had miniscule economic significance, but it hit the national mainstream press nonetheless. Meanwhile, Peter Beinart called for a boycott on any good produced in Israeli settlements, to be matched by re-investing in "Israel proper." His column stirred up an even more intense debate, some of it quite vitriolic. Perhaps Beinart will trigger some soul-searching in Jewish communities in and outside of Israel. He should: the choices are not as simple and the prospects for progress not as bleak as is often assumed.

Most of Israel's most domestically prominent and globally renowned cultural icons have issued similar declarations in their own fields. A group of actors and playwrights, refused to perform at the only theater in an Israeli settlement (in Ariel), a boycott supported by other artists. Hundreds of Israeli teachers refused to join a new (and highly settler-sympathetic) school tour program to Hebron, sponsored by the education ministry, asserting, "if we are called to accompany such tours, we will not do so." When Israel's Knesset, (the most right-wing in the country's history) passed legislation making it illegal to call for a boycott of "any area under the state of Israel's control" (read: settlements), Israeli liberals  called for an immediate settlement boycott. Israel's longest established, least-controversial and most Zionist of peace movements -- Peace Now -- led this campaign, including its most successful Facebook campaign to date.

Thousands of miles away, Americans who identify with Israel and its debates about settlements still don't have quite the same dilemma. Americans don't have to make daily choices about, for instance, which road to take to Jerusalem (use Route 443 through the territories or not?), or whether to move to cheaper and more spacious settler housing, where roads and services are better subsidized. It might seem like a no-brainer to make the principled and relatively hassle-free decision to avoid settlement products. Settlement growth, after all, is bad for Israel's security, its long-term feasibility as a democracy, and its prospects for a two-state outcome. Peter Beinart makes this a particularly user-friendly gesture for any Zionist-of-conscience, calling it "Zionist BDS." (BDS is short for boycott, divestment, and sanctions.) He excludes East Jerusalem from the boycott (on unconvincing grounds), and rallies the settlement boycotters to pursue "an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel," taking every cent that doesn't go to the settlements and investing it in non-settlement Israel.

It's not exactly a radical proposal. So why have not only the Jewish right, but also so many self-defining mainstream Zionists, responded with such condemnation and vilification? Jewish establishment organizations, all of whom claim to support a two-state solution -- the Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee -- have all come out against Beinart and his proposal.

There is no Green Line when it comes to the Israeli economy.

It's a point of consensus among pragmatists that settlements are a (even if not the) major obstacle to a two-state outcome, and one that Israel has total control over. One in ten Jewish Israelis resides in a settlement; one in five residents of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are Israeli settlers. It shouldn't be controversial to say that these settlements make a two-state outcome more difficult and less likely.

A settlement boycott as Beinart proposed could do two things: stake out a principled position that says we don't support settlements, and further a larger political effort to change policy in the U.S. and Israel. Beinart is trying to plant a liberal Zionist flag, asserting that democratic Israel is worth saving, and that it can be saved. Yet the supposedly liberal Zionist, pro-democracy establishment seems determined to prove that no such flag can be planted, and that their liberal Zionism rests on quicksand. Israeli policies are constantly blurring the green line (the old armistice line now separating Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories) and eroding Israeli democracy in increasingly profound ways. Beinart has challenged American Jews to take a stand against this self-destruction -- but their institutional establishment leadership (groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Federations) have impolitely declined. J Street also did not support the boycott call. But J Street has a theory of change that is all about taking Washington DC and Congressional politics out of its own comfort zone -- an approach distinctly unpopular with these American Jewish groups.

One of the first political conferences that I attended as a recently naturalized Israeli citizen was a Labor Party gathering at which Israel's then-health minister, Haim Ramon, compared his fellow party members to beached whales, refusing to be assisted back out to sea. He was talking about trade union reform, but I was reminded of his speech when watching how American Zionists received the idea of taking a firmer stand against settlements. Beinart tries (himself kicking and screaming: "as I write this, I cringe") to convince Israel's supporters to help drag the country to safety. "Leviathanim sh'mitabdim," suicidal whales, to use Ramon's phrase.

Four themes of argumentation are wielded against a settlement boycott. Let's call them the four H's: Holocaust, Happy Arabs, Hamas, and Hunker-down effect. The first three fall at the merest whiff of intellectual scrutiny. The first H was deployed, for example, by The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg on twitter: "anti-Jewish boycotts? I know where this ends.". But, as Goldberg himself asked President Obama in his recent interview, "Is it possible that the prime minister of Israel has over-learned the lessons of the Holocaust?"

When Amos Oz and David Grossman, Israeli teachers, Peace Now, and Peter Beinart call for variations on a settlement boycott, they are not laying the next rail tracks to Auschwitz. To accuse them of doing so is a deeply insulting and inappropriate accusation. In any case, boycotts, as Raphael Magarik notes, are "the best tactic Jews have for censuring other Jews, a tactic that dates at least to the Talmud."

The Happy Arab argument, made for example by Daniel Freedman in his WSJ review of Beinart's book, goes something like this: Israel is a democracy, other Middle Eastern states are not; Israel's Arabs are thus better off than other Arabs; and, therefore, leave Israel alone. No Arab regime that denies its citizens basic rights should get a free pass -- neither should Israel's occupation or undemocratic practices. Even if this logic were sound, the facts are not: Israel's occupation violates international law and human rights, while Israel's Palestinian Arab citizens face such structural inequalities and discrimination that Israeli democracy is only partial for them. Beinart himself calls for "a new commitment to full citizenship for those Palestinians who live within the green line."

The third H, Hamas, (best screamed at full volume, using a choking "ch" sound to mispronounce the opening syllable) is shorthand for the myriad claims about how this is all the fault of the Palestinians, best exemplified by Hamas, but depending on who you ask, equally applicable to the Palestinian education system, Palestinian non-violent BDS activists, or any/every Palestinian leader to have ever drawn breath, up to and including Mahmoud Abbas (see Bret Stephens in Tablet, Gary Rosenblatt in the Jewish Week, and Ambassador Michael Oren's Facebook posts).

The Palestinians are not free of fault when it comes to their own predicament -- virtually every Palestinian intellectual or civil-society activist says as much. (Their critiques tend to focus on the redundancy of prevailing Palestinian leadership strategies - whether armed struggle or the Oslo peace process.) But Palestinian shortcomings can only justify ignoring settlements if Israel itself were faultless or if we blind ourselves to any possible Israeli transgressions or mistakes. And, in any case, past Palestinian faults don't somehow forgive current or future Israeli faults. This is the 'H' most actively deployed against Beinart's call -- rounded off by a declaration of loyalty to the two-state solution and scolding of the Palestinians for not negotiating more. But the anti-Beinart chorus, if it indeed supports a two-state outcome, does so too timidly to make much practical difference. Why, for example, do they so rarely criticize Israel for undermining two-state prospects? They are de facto enablers of permanent occupation.

The Israel Action Network, a joint project of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, offers ten tips for "countering the de-legitimization of Israel." Tip number 2 directs readers to ask, Is this criticism or de-legitimization? They say their mission is to only "counter" the latter. In attacking Beinart, they seem to have failed to read their own tip sheet. I can imagine no credible case for considering Beinart's Zionist BDS to be de-legitimization of Israel: his stated purpose, after all, is Israel's long-term survival. Israel's undemocratic practices and occupation, including settlements -- not constructive criticism from people like Beinart -- are the proximate cause for Israel's increasing loss of legitimacy. These are the very things that the entire "anti-de-legitimization industry" refuses to address.

The final counter-claim to the settlement boycott call is the Hunker down: the idea that a settlement boycott would lead Israeli society as a whole to hunker down, to isolate itself from the perceived hostility from the outside world, and thus become even more likely to ignore Western guidance against settlement expansion. This is an argument about efficacy. Even if it were true, it wouldn't make a settlement boycott any less the right, principled thing to do. But it's not. After decades of experience,  the current incentive structure clearly does not work. Western policies and consumer choices make the occupation nearly cost-free for Israel in daily material terms.

If Israelis are to make hard choices, re-think their policies, acknowledge that the occupation carries costs, and even just remember that a Green Line exists, then disincentives may need to come into play. Is that not a pro-Israel position? That it is better for the country's long-term survival to hold it to certain standards of international law than to maintain the status quo of impunity.

Beinart's two specific policy suggestions -- to exclude settlement goods from the Israel-U.S. free trade agreement, and to end the tax-deductible status of gifts to settler charities -- would be reasonable, good starting points. The EU-Israel Association Agreement already denies free trade benefits to settlement products.

Still, Zionist BDS alone is unlikely to change Israeli policy. Boycotting settlement products and donations would probably have a negligible impact on Israel's economy. And there's a problem with the Zionist component of his boycott (re-investing the money that would have to gone to settlements inside of Israel proper): the sad reality is that there is no Green Line when it comes to the Israeli economy. Every major bank and supermarket chain, for instance, has branches in the settlements. Little of the Israeli economy is not tainted by some involvement in the occupation. So, what to do?

Maybe the answer is to work with Israelis on something like a "fair trade Israel" brand, with certification that products did not benefit from or promote anything occupation-related and  adhered to standards of equal opportunity and non-discrimination within Israel. Small initiatives along these lines already exist. This would encourage both Israelis and outside consumers to do something a little more proactive, compelling, and economically meaningful than just boycotting pure settlement products.

This is where it gets even more complicated. The formal BDS movement, launched by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005 to comprehensively boycott Israel, lists three goals: ending the occupation that began in 1967, full rights for Israel's Arab Palestinian citizens, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties. There are some real problems with this campaign. I'm not convinced that comprehensive sanctions regimes are a good idea anywhere, and even then should only be a last resort. Comprehensive BDS is such a blunt instrument; the effectiveness of avoiding more focused efforts is highly questionable.

I can understand, in Palestinian terms, the argument for uniting the causes most prescient to each of the three Palestinian communal realities: freedom from occupation for those in the territories, equality for those inside Israel, and return for those in the refugee camps and beyond. It is easier and less divisive to avoid providing an overall political framework in which those goals are to be realized (for instance, support for a one-state or two-state outcome). Yet I cannot support or accept the call of the BDS movement. It has nothing to say about Jewish rights or collective, communal, or national Jewish interests. And, the refusal to proscribe a political result -- to explain the end goal of BDS -- is not a minor thing.

The BDS movement cannot offer a democratic and mutually acceptable two state solution, which would require a more flexible approach on refugee rights, for instance. The movement also fails to answer how, if the territory is considered indivisible, the two sets of collective rights (Jewish and Palestinian) would be respected and somehow catered for in one state.

Palestinian rights and Palestinian self-determination are the natural terrain for a Palestinian movement, and there are limits to what can be asked of the occupied side in this asymmetrical relationship, but the BDS movement is predicated solely on Palestinian rights. Jewish rights matter. I know Palestinian BDS activists and supporters whose good-will I do not question. But when it comes to the issue of full democratic and collective rights for Jews, individual goodwill does not always extrapolate to an entire movement, especially when that movement avoids commenting on, let alone clarifying, these very issues.

Unsurprisingly, Zionist BDS and Palestinian BDS do not appear to share a meeting point. Jewish nationalists and Palestinian nationalists have yet to produce a shared vision. It is not all so bleak, though. Peter Beinart is encouraging the right debate within the Jewish community: how can we responsibly and actively encourage better Israeli policies? And many Palestinian civil society activists are doing the same in their community.

Recently, a group of Palestinian organizers and activists (many BDS movement-aligned) issued a letter disavowing Israeli "pro-Palestinian activist" Gilad Atzmon, who has taken harshly anti-Israeli views in purported support of Palestinians. The letter-writers reasserted their opposition to any form of anti-Semitism dressed up as pro-Palestinian-ism. J Street and the Arab American Institute continue to build cross-communal alliances in the U.S. and to debate, as well as sometimes agree on, the future of the Middle East. Palestinian nonviolent freedom protesters and Israeli pro-democracy activists (from, for example, the Solidarity movement and Yesh Din) develop shared strategies and hopes. Peter Beinart's new blog, Open Zion, is also furthering debate about the ideas behind and future of Israel and Palestine.

It often takes someone steeped in the polemics, prejudices, and promises of a given community to shake that community up. Peter Beinart is such a person, and he is beginning to ask the right questions of American Jews.

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Daniel Levy is co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and an editor of the Middle East Channel at ForeignPolicy.com. He served on the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001.

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