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.