Beinart’s Tiny World

I’m still planning to get something out on the subject of the bullying behavior that has become the signature feature of the BDS “movement” over the last year or so.  But before getting to that, there are two BDS-related articles that have been published lately, one I want to point out and the other I want to tackle.

First off, I made the press!  And while this is mostly spillover publicity from the media circus that has descended on the Park Slope Food Coop in light of their upcoming boycott referendum vote next week (more on that later), this Jewish Week piece brought up a far more prominent story that was published earlier in the week in the New York Times: Peter Beinart’s call to create a Jewish version of BDS directed not at those who want to boycott Israel but at fellow Jews who choose to live on the other side of the Green Line (i.e., the dreaded “settlers”).

Needless to say, Beinart’s call has been harshly criticized (and just as needless to say, Beinart has claimed that the very existence of such criticism simply proves he is correct).  But even this criticism misses a key point which becomes clear if you look at Beinart’s call for Jews to boycott fellow Jews after reading his previous provocative article on what he claims to be the failure of the Jewish establishmentpublished a couple of years ago in the New York Jewish Review of Books.

Beinart, a CUNY Professor and Fellow at the New America Foundation, is best known for his role as Managing Editor of The New Republic, which tends to mean he is taken seriously as a progressive thinker, especially in New York media circles.

But in his article on the Jewish establishment (which I recently re-read as part of a class I’m taking at my synagogue), the author makes a move that helps explain much of his political thinking, including his recent call for his own brand of BDS.

For Beinart does not simply believe that current Israeli policy (including the choice to continue to let Jews live on the other side of the so-called “Green Line”) is simply wrong.  Rather, he takes his opinion on the matter and defines it as not just an unquestionable truth but as the point around which all progressive opinion must pivot.

With his own opinions of what constitutes “genuine” progressive thought placed squarely at the center of his world, all other facts are selected and arranged neatly around this obsession masquerading as gospel truth, much like the epicycles that kept the earth-centered theory of the universe afloat for centuries.

In some cases, facts and quotes (from various Israeli politicians or Benjamin Netanyahu’s biography) are carefully selected to “prove” the illiberal nature of anyone who disagrees with the Beinart thesis.  Other cases (including his self-serving analysis of why students seem alienated from Israel, or the role of mainstream Jewish organizations in shaping public opinion) also serve to prove a foregone conclusion: that Beinart is right and thus anyone who disagrees with him (and acts accordingly) are betraying their principles, alienating the young (by preventing them from following their “true” calling and embracing Beinart’s political point of view) and thus putting Israel at risk (making the author and anyone who agrees with him the only “true” friends of Israel).

I could dwell on the level of dishonest discourse that can be found from the beginning to the end of Beinart’s Jewish establishment piece (the cherry picking of quotes, selective choice of evidence, self-serving analysis of statistics, etc.), but for now I want to highlight how the opinions presented in this previous piece made his recent attempt to create his own brand of BDS inevitable.

For the Beinart world is not only Beinart centered.  It is also exceedingly small, containing only himself, his supporters and the Jewish “settlers” and their alleged supporters in the Jewish establishment that stand in his way and thus stand in the way of others learning “the truth.”  Under such circumstances, it makes perfect sense for the author to propose his “too-clever-by-half” idea of creating a form of BDS that he feels has the added benefit of undercutting the original BDS project (by embracing their vocabulary, but using it as a call for the good Jews to attack the bad ones).

Such a strategy implies near perfect obliviousness to the true nature of the mainstream BDS project which simply looks at Beinart’s behavior and draws up the appropriate short-hand headline: “prominent Jewish progressive supports BDS.”

It also misses the point that the world contains more than the good Jews who agree with Beinart and the bad Jews who do not.  It contains Palestinians and their allies in the Arab world and beyond who are not simply props in an inter-Jewish drama, but actors and contributors to their own situation and fate.  And it also contains the often-overlooked civic organizations whose victimization is at the heart of any BDS debate.

As I’ve noted over and over on this blog, the whole point of BDS is to get the propaganda message of “Israel = Apartheid” to come out of the mouth of a prominent, respected (and usually progressive) organization, be it a college, church, city or food coop.  And to get that to happen, all options are open, such as passing a boycott behind the backs of coop members on one side of the country (Olympia Washington) while demanding a “democratic” vote on the same subject on the other side of the country (Park Slope).

These organizations have already been offered the choice of so-called “Targeted BDS” which allegedly zeroes in on just the bad Jews vs. all Jews.  But only as a bait-and-switch option used to lure an institution into the clutches of the boycotters who will use any “Yes” vote they manage to achieve on any form of BDS (no matter how limited) to propagate the propaganda message that “this school, this city, this co-op agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid state and is ready to boycott it– and so should you!”

Like other prominent thinkers who have rearranged the world to fit their opinions (Mearsheimer and Walt come to mind), Beinart has created an immoral universe and defined his own morality around it while simultaneously providing considerable ammunition to a BDS movement he claims to loath.

Others take issue with the author’s posing as the only true friend of Israel (one of many such “friends” who attack the Jewish state only to save it).  But my bigger problem is that Beinart’s complete political self-centeredness inevitably means he will be hurting people he doesn’t even know exist.

12 thoughts on “Beinart’s Tiny World”

  1. if Beinart is, as he claims, proposing this to save Zionism from itself, then why is he speaking under the auspices of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization whose only interest in Zionism is its elimination?

    (please note that the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay is NO LONGER a co-sponsor of this event; they withdrew their involvement once they became aware that JVP was co-sponsoring and that the event was to be run by an activist with the virulent “Middle East Children's Alliance”– a group which promotes the Hamas agenda in the Bay Area. KPFA has not yet updated their website to indicate that).

  2. There's a lot missing from this analysis, and a lot of assumptions that I don't think hold up (and I say this as someone who does not support Beinart's vision or any other BDS one). It seems like you're just plugging Beinart into a preset narrative without actually checking to see how it fits. The fact that you make a lot of these claims without supporting links is worrisome.

    (1) Beinart's argument that to be pro-Israel is to be in favor of a two-state solution is the consensus position — the ADL and AJC, for instance, have both harshly criticized one-stateism as inherently anti-Israel. To the extent that the settlements are incompatible with two-stateism, to be pro-settlement is to be anti-Israel per se. I don't find that logic remotely problematic (of course, there are at least some one-staters who don't have a problem with Jews being free to live on either side of the Green Line … so long as Palestinians are granted the same liberty. And there again, we have the end of Israel). It is true that right-wing forces are attempting to undermine this two-state consensus — but they haven't articulated an alternative that preserves Israel as a Jewish, democratic state (much less protects the human rights of Palestinians); given that, it's perfectly fair for Beinart to take seriously the overwhelming majority of Jews for whom one-stateism is automatically anti-Israel.

    (2) Beinart has not, to my knowledge, made the argument that disagreement with him proves he's right (and you don't link to any examples). Likewise, it would surprise me if the “mainstream” BDSers are embracing Beinart as a victory, given that (a) he attacks those BDSers explicitly and at length in his column as seeking the destruction of Israel and (b) the BDSers I've read have in turn assailed Beinart for even drawing a distinction between the settlements and Israel proper.

    I think it is true that Beinart's view doesn't take account of Arab players — though it's unclear why, to the extent one thinks the settlements are bad for Israel, before one opposes them one needs to wait for Arab … permission? Disagreement? It's kind of unclear what Arabs need to do before Jews act to protect Israel and it's long-term security. That is to say, I'm not sure what Arabs would have to do that would change the fundamental (in)advisability of the settlement enterprise; it's bad for Israel either way. As Jeffrey Goldberg puts it, we should oppose the settlements as if there was no anti-Zionism, and oppose anti-Zionism as if there were no settlements. As it happens, I don't think a boycott is a good way of doing that. But that — a tactical error — is Beinart's flaw; not his (accurate) belief that the settlers are bad for Israel, nor his (accurate) belief that pro-Israel forces of all stripes have an obligation to protect the viability of the two-state solution and with it Israel's continued durability as a Jewish, democratic state.

  3. David – Excellent questions and challenges. I see you’ve written on the subject yourself at your own blog, which I’ll want to read through before replying.

    Unfortunately, both those activities will have to wait until later in the weekend at the earliest, for later this morning is my older boy’s Bar Mitzvah – hurray and yipes! – which means a day full of joy, but the next few hours filled with writing blessings, printing tent cards and trying to keep everyone calm.

    By coincidence, the last family Bar Mitzvah I attended was in your home state of Illinois when my brother in law ascended at the age of 29 while he was in graduate school in Southern Illinois and my wife was pregnant with the kid who’s getting Bar Mitzvahed today. But I digress (or, more accurately, procrastinate…).

    Cheers, all!


  4. Jon: Mazel Tov!
    David: Your own piece is thoughtful and well written. However, I think you glossed over the point about the Israeli left being moribund since Arafat's terror war– it's of course true, and we all know why. Fatah under both Arafat and now under Abbas is not a partner for peace, because its leadership was unwilling (Arafat) or unable (Abbas) to make any deal that would result in a two state solution with one of them being a Jewish state. I agree that ongoing expansion of settlements outside the boundaries of what Israel intends to keep permanently (Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, the Etzion bloc, Ariel) is ludicrous at this point. But until anyone can make a compelling case that cessation of such activity will lead to progress on peace (or derail the Iranian nuclear drive, as some idealists assert without any evidence), that argument will have very little traction with both the Israeli and American Jewish mainstream. Especially given the fact of Abbas' non-response to the settlement freeze last time (except to demand that it continue, without any concessions in return such as cessation of incitement.)

  5. Thanks Mike – And to both Mike and David, I know I owe you a promised piece on BDS bullying and a response on those Beinart questions, respectively.

    Given the comings and goings this week, I've only been able to get something regarding Park Slope up today but will try to get to everything else this week (keeping in mind that party clean-up and the Park Slope fight will have to take priority).


    PS – Anyone need an inflatable guitar?

  6. Jon: Mazel Tov indeed!

    DrMike — I'm actually somewhat of a cynic on whether ceasing settlement activity (or any other mensch-like Israeli behavior) will bring about peace. But I also effectively don't think it matters. On the security side, I think Israel's defense position is stronger without being stretched to protect various far-flung settlements, and on the macro-level Israel is secured by keeping a military badass enough to blow the ever-living shit out of anyone dumb enough to cross them — which isn't dependent on possessing this or that kilometer. Even if a two-state solution didn't bring any peace at all I'd still prefer it because I don't think it would significantly impact Israel's security posture, while it would clarify the laws of armed conflict, and would grant Palestinians self-determination.

    But the bigger point is that the settlement enterprise plays into Palestinian hands, not because it hurts Israel's image (it does, but I'm unconvinced that dislike for Israel is truly tied to its actions), but because it makes a one-state solution harder and harder to avoid. If I'm a Palestinian maximalist, why shouldn't I let Israel do my work for me — let them keep building settlements, wait until you have a demographic majority, and then just demand voting rights. No settlement withdrawal, no border-drawing, no “who can live where” — wham, bam, thanks for playing. And various Palestinian advisers have already recognized this, and are gleefully rubbing their hands at each new settlement household.

    It's no answer to say that Palestinians aren't offering up a “partner” — they're not in a position to, nor do they have a huge incentive to, stop Israel from engaging in self-inflicted wounds. That's our job, whether Palestinians are cooperative or not. One of the downsides of being a relatively small, relatively vulnerable country is that you can't let emotions get the best of you. You have to be smart, and that means sometimes making tough decisions even if you're not playing with a friendly partner.

  7. I think I've said this before and have no doubt that I'll say it again, but I wanted to throw a few coints into the 1-state “fountain”:
    First off, I wanted to thank David for his smart and multi-faceted analysis. I do not agree with some of his points (see 2 paragraphs on) but it's just awesome to read material on this subject that is truly measured and reasonable. Kind of reminds me of what Jon does all the time and why this is a great blog.
    Second, I don't hate Peter Beinart per se, but completely disagree with his furious positioning, because it feels like he lost his mind to some extent when the Israeli Left collapsed and the American Jewish Left didn't swing far enough to the ultra-Left to satisfy him. He isn't really facing reality, and that's why I don't think he is ultimately that important in this debate (yes, he's going to be either used or willingly jumping into the pro-BDS and generally anti-Israel crowd, but that doesn't make him unique or powerful or dangerous–he's kind of Max Blumenthal or Philip Weiss except much less mentally ill).
    Last, the settlement issue when combined with a 1-2 state question is a red herring. The % of both land and people in the West Bank who aren't Palestinians is extremely small, and most of that land would revert to a Palestinian state under a fair peace deal (some of it won't, and that's the price of starting several wars and losing them). The problem I have is with the idea that there's a trigger on settlements as much as the one David talked about on demographics: that a population shift would lead to the Palestinians demanding voting rights. I assume he means in Israel, which will A) not happen and B) more likely lead to a unilateral permanent takeover of major settlement blocs and an end of this state of the conflict which will not end the overall I/P divide now or ever (since the new Palestinian state would demand all of the West Bank as well as refugee returns to Israel). If this is a zero-sum situation then settlements are an excuse instead of a real matter for solving, and this is going to end with millions dead instead of thousands delocated. And I have no interest in supporting any kind of mass conflict in lieu of a mutual settlement, or making excuses for the parties who do support the former scenario.

  8. Dave – Appreciate the Mazel Tov and the patience. Because I know what it’s like to receive critiques from multiple people when you enter a blog to post a disagreements with the author, I’m going to answer just the first of your questions/challenges and get to the others later so we’re not debating too many different points at once.

    Ben’s provided one response to your take on Beinart’s argument, but I’d like to focus specifically on the logic of Beinart’s argument that can be restated as the following premises and conclusion:

    1. There is a consensus, both in Israel and within most Diaspora communities of support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue.

    2. The One-State solution proposed by many of Israel’s foes is not just a break from this two-state consensus, but also a backdoor means of eliminating Israel as a Jewish state and should thus be rejected by those who support a two-state solution.

    3. Israel’s settlement policy would lead to the same end as the One-State policy mentioned in (2) above since it would leave Israel ruling over a majority Arab population which would require Israel to either give up on democracy or give up on being a Jewish-majority state

    Therefore, both the One State solution and Israel settlements are equally problematic (both politically and morally) and thus should be shunned with the same vigor and opposed for largely the same reasons and with the same arguments

    While I find fault with several of the premises above and the logic used to generate the conclusion, the biggest problem for Beinart and others who support such an argument is premise 3. For this only makes sense if the goal of settlements is to settle the entire West Bank, annex it and apply Israel law to the entire territory.

    But Jewish settlement could end in any number of other ways, from their elimination (as in Gaza) to a limited expansion of Jewish sovereignty to less than the entire West Bank, with a Palestinian polity ruling in the rest. Now I am not making the claim that Israeli settlement policies are either wise or foolish, fair or unjust. I’m simply stating that they could (and would most likely) serve a different role than one that would put Israel in the same tenuous position as the imposition of a One-State solution.
    There are, in fact, dozens of plans that go back decades that show the territory divided in different ways, many of which assume Israel will hold onto territory that goes beyond the 1948 borders. And each of them involves Jews living in land now termed “settlements” by someone contributing to this debate.


  9. But the only way one could claim that such settlements put a two-state solution in peril is if the Palestinian side is unwilling to conceded a single inch of territory they feel entitled to, which makes Jewish presence in what they consider to be “their” land a show stopper to any negotiations.

    If that is the case, then it is not settlement per se that imperils a two-state solution, but Palestinian unwillingness to conceded anything in negotiations (or, indeed, to negotiate at all until their territorial demands are met in full before such negotiations begin). But this would mean that the Arabs (who you take out of the equation in your last paragraph) are the ones standing in the way of a two-state settlement by insisting that all Israeli claims to lands beyond the Green Line are inherently illegitimate, requiring intervention by international legal bodies rather than direct negotiations.

    Israel’s settlement policies are certainly worth debating. But claiming that they must be eliminated before a two-state solution is possible requires accepting one side’s arguments, claims and demands in advance before discussions can start. If a final solution to the dispute is going to involve compromise on both sides, the Palestinian refusal to even consider compromise should be considered as much or more of a roadblock to a two-state solution as Israel’s decisions regarding how it wants to handle lands that remain in limbo pending negotiations that would settle competing claims to the territory.

  10. Apologies for the … delay — I misread your prior comments and was looking for a response in a new post, and when one didn't come I just assume you got distracted by other things (understandable!).

    One thing that is important to stipulate — and is implicit in both of your comments — is that even under the most optimistic scenario the settlements clearly aren't helpful to the cause of a peaceful, just resolution. The most we can say is that they're neutral — they won't have any effect on a final agreement, they're irrelevant. The worst case scenario is that they're catastrophic. So those are the poles — from the vantage point of a two-state solution the settlements are something between fatal (worst-case) and irrelevant (best-case). This is important, because it means if we think there is any probability that we're in anything but the most pollyannaish scenario, settlements are a net negative, and thus worthy of opposition (not to an infinite degree, and not to the exclusion of all other factors, but they are “bad things” with respect to Israel's long-turn vitality).

    The critical point is that settlements are bad for Israel, and Israel shouldn't do bad things to itself even if we can quibble about where we are between “a little bad” and “suicidal”. If I see you doing something dangerous, and shout “don't do that — you'll kill yourself”, and you respond “don't be ridiculous — I'm far more likely to only lose a limb, and I may come out of it with just a sprained ankle!” — we're still entirely in the realm of “reasons not to do it.” From that vantage point, anyone standing on the sidelines cheerleading the action is a malignant actor and should be treated as such.

    Now, of course, where exactly the settlements will fall on this continuum is speculative and probabilistic. But there are reasons why you're a little too sanguine for my tastes. First, yes, theoretically settlements can always be removed. But it's difficult — the Gaza pullout exacted a hefty political toll, and the Migron evacuation is proving to be nightmarishly difficult in what by all rights should be the easy case (concededly illegal outpost, not in an area Israel claims to want to keep, built on private Palestinian land, explicit court order for demolition). The possibility that Israel can demolish the settlements has to be balanced against possibility that they won't be able to. And of course, the more settlements there are, the stronger the political constituency for resisting such an act becomes. (cont)

  11. (…cont) Second, the threat of the settlements is not predicated either on Palestinian or Israeli maximalism. For starters, that Palestinians may/should be willing to accept something less than 100% of the West Bank doesn't mean that they will or should be asked to accept infinitely less, or any territorial arrangement at all. At some point, Palestinians are justified in drawing a line; the more settlements, the closer we get to that line. Moreover, the general thrust of “based on '67 borders” has been to admit land swaps — Israel can keep some settlement blocs, in exchange for territory (of at least close to equivalent value) elsewhere. But Israel doesn't have that much territory to give; particularly territory of value, particularly territory comprised of residents who want to be moved into Palestinian jurisdiction. The more settlement, the harder that swap is to pull off. While you cast the problem as entirely being about unreasonable Palestinian demands, even perfectly fair and reasonable Palestinian demands are potentially rendered unmeetable by settlement expansion.

    Third, fine, let's accept arguendo that Palestinian's first-best preference is not “reasonable” — it's a maximalist position that desires a one-state solution with a Palestinian majority. In that case, you say, the possibility that Israel will be ruling over a Palestinian majority without voting rights will be the Palestinians “fault”. Sure. So what? That doesn't make it any less true, and between the choice of (a) having a Jewish, democratic state of Israel and (b) not having one but being wholly justified in blaming Palestinian intransigence for its demise, I choose option “a” every time. Israel can't count on Palestinian beneficence as the guarantor of its Jewish, democratic state. Obviously, Palestinians should be pressured not to behave this way; but ultimately Israel has to wrest responsibility for its own fate. It has to do whatever it can to put its destiny in its own hands. If that means making an offer so generous Palestinians can't refuse, so be it. If that means unilaterally adopting a sufficiently Palestinian-friendly solution (akin to Gaza) that fiats a democratic outcome with or without Palestinian consent, again, so be it. Complaining about the unfairness of at all doesn't matter when the Zionist dream has already withered (see Robert Mnookin, Bargaining with the Devil, for more on negotiating with parties who are clearly “in the wrong” but nonetheless possess leverage). The insistence — by both sides — in adopting a “blame frame” where we look for the evildoer and try to exact just punishment against them is (absent overt bigotry and prejudice) the single most destructive outlook to actually solving the problem amongst people who think of themselves as pursuing justice and fairness.

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