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."

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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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