This week I had the pleasure of attending an event at the Center for Israel Studies at American University, always interesting and well run, but this time with some controversy as Peter Beinart was the main speaker. Whether you agree or not with Peter Beinart’s views and ways of expressing them, he is an important voice in the American Jewish community, and his criticism and vision needs to be addressed publicly. There was clearly some ill-feeling in the audience that the Center had decided to host Beinart, this was misdirected, as thought had been given to the event and Beinart shared the stage with Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat and Woodrow Wilson scholar, who more than tempered the content and tone. We must applaud Jewish/Israel focused institutions who relish complexity and have the ability to create a big tent for civil discourse about Israel.
That being said, I am somewhat perplexed about the celebrity status surrounding Beinart’s Israel thinking. His thinking is touted as cutting edge but much is lifted from the pages of the Israeli Left and presented as innovation. His claims that the Occupation is harming Israel’s democratic character; that there are two manifestations of Israel either side of the Green Line and that one can boycott produce from the Settlements are clichés in Israel. They have been said so many times and so little has been achieved that they now mean very little. The audience audibly gasped when Beinart suggested that the former Tanzim leader, Marwan Barghouti, is the best candidate to lead the Palestinians to Peace. Prominent figures from the Israeli Left have been visiting Barghouti in jail for the past ten years and expressing this very thought. What did deserve a gasp was Beinart’s qualifier: “I know that he’s got blood on his hands, so did Arafat, so did Ariel Sharon”. That statement does put Beinart outside of the pale in Israel. We don’t like our military heroes to be compared to terrorists who aimed and celebrated when they killed women and children. I increasingly encounter this worrying phenomenon among Beinart supporting American Jews: that the two sides in the conflict are comparable. This intellectual dishonesty, a warping of reality to overcompensate for past injustices, is often accompanied by a projection of American values onto both sides.
Our conflict is within our borders, with our neighbors and integrated into the lives of every citizen. It would be similar to an America that was bordered by Afghanistan and Iraq, had national conscription and the soldiers returned home every other weekend to share with the family what they have been up to. Our conflict is a reality TV show, recorded and uploaded onto YouTube. Last week an Israeli officer hit a Danish protestor in the face with his rifle. He was dishonorably discharged, but the event remains in the headlines, with sweeping lessons being “learned” about Israeli society. Unlike the American Staff-Sergeant who massacred 16 civilians in Afghanistan, which was treated as an aberration. Beinart feels that Israel’s democratic character is being threatened by the conflict, I agree, but we don’t have the luxury of outsourcing and staging our conflicts in areas we can’t even find on a map. It is this luxury which also emboldens Beinart to simplify the situation and the solutions to it, as Aaron David Miller pointed out it is very easy to offer risky solutions from afar, the effects of which will not directly effect you.
Miller made another strong point, when he shared his frustration with American Jews who make statements such as “We will never give up the Golan”. Who is this “we”? Miller asked, explaining that he takes Israelis and Palestinians’ opinions more seriously as it is they who will shape the future. A pastiche of this frustration followed almost immediately as a student asked Beinart if Jews should be allowed to live in a future Palestinian State. Absolutely, replied Beinart, they should have the right to live in places of historical Jewish significance if they choose to. The audience applauded and the student sat down smiling and vindicated.
It’s not that Peter Beinart isn’t smart, or that he doesn’t have an insight into the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, or that he has an important message for American Jews. Much of what he says makes sense, possibly as he has lifted it from the Israeli Left, but more as an overheard conversation that he hasn’t fully understood. Because what Beinart lacks are the emotional scars and frustrations that Israelis who are true believers in Peace carry. He has no sense of the hopelessness of it all, of the vicious circles, the damage we are doing ourselves and each other, that the wind changed and our face stayed like that… Beinart oozes confidence in the simplicity of it all. In Israel, Beinart would join politics, his fresh-faced idealism would be corrupted, his hopes dashed into cynicism and his truth twisted until he no longer knows who he is. Now that’s the kind of guy we take seriously.
Even though, at a guess, less than 5% of Israeli know who Peter Beinart is, there is a growing understanding in Israel that American Jews have a right to critique Israeli policy. Coupled with this is a growing uneasiness with American Jews who aim to manifest their criticism by directly impacting on American foreign policy. It seems counterintuitive to claim that the conflict is a global Jewish challenge and then aim to address it, not through our own channels, which do exist, but through international governments.
Peter Beinart’s analysis has much to offer, it is just his “solutions” and style that agitate. Loving criticism, shared frustrations, even angry tirades we can handle. Just please, don’t tell us you know better.
If Japan has Godzilla, Israel has flotillas and flytillas – mythical creatures that come to wreak havoc on our fragile society. Last week saw another failed attempt at a mass flytilla – a projected 1,500 people flying to Israel to protest Palestinian rights. In the end only about 100 arrived, and were again welcomed by a mass security presence at Ben Gurion airport. There has been mixed reaction in Israel at our policy of halting these flytillas, with former Foreign Ministry D-G Alon Liel asking “"I don't understand what the big deal is. Why are we so afraid of… a bunch of students and elderly ladies from Europe, who only wanted to hoist a sign in favor of a Palestinian state?”
Those protestors that did make it into Israel were handed a mock thank you letter from the Prime Minister’s office – see below:
While the letter does make some important points about the disproportionate interest among political activists in Israel, it has not won hearts and minds with anyone outside of the Hasbaristas.
Last Sunday I was invited to speak to a group of students from Bard College who are taking part in the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative (BPYI), a summer program which takes American college students and embeds them in the Palestinian village of Mas’ha. I agreed, but was apprehensive that the encounter would be confrontational. What I found was quite the opposite: a group of serious, sensitive and thoughtful students who had varied opinions but seemed unanimous on the State of Israel’s right to exist and to exist with security. There was no demagogic anti-Israel rhetoric, no talk of apartheid or fascism, rather legitimate criticism moderated by a willingness to understand the complex Israeli reality. The softly spoken Palestinian coordinator voiced his support for a Jewish State to exist, others shared that they felt that a secure State of Israel would be positive for the potential of a future Palestinian State. This level-headedness manifests itself in the program they take part in, as this summer (as in previous years) they will be accompanying 20 Palestinians of their own age on a tour of Yad VaShem in Jerusalem.
The notion that any criticism of the conflict that exists in Israel is a direct attack on our right to exist is incorrect. We cannot preach to social activists which cause to take-up, or deflect them to Save the Whale instead. The global interest in our problems is to be expected, and maybe the letter from the Prime Minister’s Office should have thanked the activists (sincerely) for their interest, explained why we feel their actions are counterproductive and direct them to projects which build civil society, engender positive conversation and plant the seeds of Peace. I would put the BPYI on that list.
Anton Goodman is the Jewish Agency Israel Engager Shaliach to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Anton is an English-born Israeli, with an interest in implementing social initiatives in Israeli society, cutting-edge culture, and studies towards an MA in Public Policy. In addition to enjoying a heady mix of local politics and soul-lifting Americana, Anton aims to spark debate concerning the State of Israel’s role in American Jewish life. This weekly blog is one platform for that goal.