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Goldblog vs. Peter Beinart, Part I

What I mean is "Goldblog, Featuring Peter Beinart." I actually agree with much of Peter's essay on the demise of liberal Zionism and the abdication (his characterization, not mine, necessarily) of responsibility by the American Jewish leadership. But I also think he gets the emphasis wrong (more on that later). I think his message, flawed and somewhat ahistorical though it is, deserves a hearing. This is the first part of a long exchange; I'll post more later, and then we'll probably continue after Shavuot, i.e., The Most Important Jewish Holiday No One Has Ever Heard Of, which begins at sundown today (it commemorates the receiving of the Torah on Sinai, which was a very big deal). Peter is more rigorous about observance than I am, but I'm still hoping to go to an all-night study session at which the crisis of liberal Zionism is not discussed.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You write about the shift away from Israel by young American Jewish liberals, and you attribute their discomfort with Israel to unhappiness about settlements, the occupation and their perception that Israel does not want to make peace with the Palestinians, or grant them dignity.  I, too, sense this discomfort, but with a caveat: I'm not sure they are completely, empirically right. Which is to say: Settlements are wrong, and various Israeli policies are discriminatory, but aren't liberal-minded American Jews being naive when they think that the Palestinians are blameless in this morass? Why should their Israeli cousins believe in the possibility of peace, after the debacle at Camp David in 2000, and after the Gaza settlement withdrawal was met not by the rise of moderation on the Palestinian side, but by the rise of Hamas?

Peter Beinart: I never said the Palestinians were blameless. They're obviously not. But Abbas and Fayyad (especially the latter) are the Palestinian leaders most reconciled to Israeli statehood we've ever had. Yes, they're weak, but has Israel done all it could to strengthen them--to show that it's possible to halt settlement growth without an intifada? Hamas killed a friend of mine, so i'm not a fan. But Israel decided to let it run in the election, and I think after it won the best response would have to been to support a Palestinian unity government, perhaps with the proviso that we deal with the non-Hamas ministers, as we do with the government in Lebanon in Hezbollah. Instead we stupidly pushed Fatah to try to take power violently in Gaza, which backfired because they lost the contest of arms (and made us look incredibly hypocritical after Bush's democracy rhetoric). I'd have insisted that Hamas stop rocket fire but allowed them to fudge recognition of Israel for now and not to demand they abide by past peace agreements (that was the stupidest condition, I think, because various Israeli governments have failed it). Yes, Hamas' victory was tragic, but I don't think it was inevitable that we had to get to where we were in December 2008. I understand that wars like the one in Gaza always inflict a terrible human toll, but it's important that you've exhausted other options first, and I don't think the US, or Israel, did.

JG: Let's step back for a minute. Do you consider yourself a Zionist? What is your goal with this essay?

PB: I do. I think it's partly because my parents aren't American, actually. My grandmother was born in Alexandria, Egypt, then moved as a girl to Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) Congo, now she lives in a third dying Jewish community (albeit the most beautiful in the world) in Cape Town, South Africa. So I really believe that Jews--if not perhaps American Jews---need a Jewish state to go to in time of need. Whenever I waxed too patriotic about America, my grandmother used to say, "the Jews are like rats," we leave the sinking ship. So yes, I'm a Zionist. I'm close enough to people who still have their bags packed.

But I'm also a liberal. My hero growing up was Joe Slovo, who spoke only Yiddish until he was nine and upon moving to South Africa as a boy from Lithuania (we South Africans are almost all Litvaks, except my mom's side, who are Sephardi) became the head of the military wing of the African National Congress. There are Slovos in every place Jews have gone, people who have devoted themselves as Jews (though i'll admit Slovo was not as good a Jew as say, Abraham Joshua Heschel) to the fate of non-Jews. There's a tension, but for me the value is in the tension, in loving Zionism and Judaism and also feeling that one's love of who one is impels one towards moral universalism. I see that spirit powerfully in the Israeli left--which is why I quoted Lapid in my piece. It's the use of Jewish suffering as a moral imperative not only to act on behalf of imperiled Jews, but of imperiled non-Jews that really touches me. I see that spirit in Zeev Sternhell and the students at Sheikh Jarrah--and feel they could be the guide for a different Zionism in the US. But I don't see one whit of it in Netanyahu, Lieberman or Ovadiah Yosef. And I don't see much of it at AIPAC or the Presidents' Conference. For me, that's the tragedy.

Read Part II of the interview here.