Outspoken Stanford prof supports 2-state-solution

Among the many epithets hurled at Joel Beinin is the old standard, "self-hating Jew." Ask the Stanford professor though whether the label is accurate, and he says it's quite the opposite.

"I very much embrace my Jewishness," he said. Then comes this retort: "Am I a self-hating American for expressing criticism of the Vietnam War?"

Embrace his Jewishness, he does. Which is why many in the Jewish community cannot fathom how a Jew can be such an outspoken critic of Israel.

A few months ago, Beinin was elected president of the Middle Eastern Scholar's Association, which has been criticized by many as having a pro-Arab bias.

Not only has Beinin been a constant critic of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but also he believes U.S. aid to Israel should be cut.

Yet he does not consider himself anti-Zionist. "I would say I am not a Zionist, not an 'anti-Zionist,'" he said, adding that since the early '70s he has supported a two-state solution.

Beinin would prefer one democratic state for both peoples and if that were to exist, he would even consider living there. "But the great majority of Palestinians and Israeli Jews do not want it, so I don't think it's my place to tell them this is what they should have."

Since joining the Stanford faculty as a history professor in 1983, he has taught a class on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When he first arrived, he said, Hillel and the Israel Action Committee urged students to boycott his course. In the late 1980s, when the first intifada began, he became a highly sought expert, and he remains in demand as a speaker.

To Yitzhak Santis, director of the South Peninsula branch of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Beinin is not just a professor but an activist.

The fact that he is a history professor at Stanford "implies a scholarly view of matters — that you're being objective and trying to take a step backwards to understand the historical processes that took place on all sides," said Santis. "But as an activist, he is not doing that. He's presenting a propagandistic point of view, but using the facade of being a scholar, and that's what concerns us."

Beinin, for his part, has never claimed objectivity. He does not hide that he is a member of the left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace. And he says he has never tried to pass off his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the sole truth.

As a professor, his job is "to speak the truth as I see it," Beinin said. Noting that Stanford has been exemplary in defending his right to do that, "I knew at a certain point what I was saying was unpopular, but I thought I should say it anyway because I thought it was right."

Indeed, noted Steven J. Zipperstein, chair of the Jewish studies department at Stanford, "It's said that Joel Beinin doesn't believe in balance as an intrinsically crucial goal in academic life. The charge is accurate, and he would acknowledge it, I think."

Nevertheless, Zipperstein said his colleague's views were not that different from those of many American Jews who opposed the creation of a Jewish state in the 1950s and '60s.

"His is one of several, very different, authoritative voices at Stanford that speak about and teach about Israel and Zionism," Zipperstein continued. "His is a particularly resonant voice, but a first-rate university is a place where many resonant voices compete in a vigorous intellectual marketplace."

Many in the Jewish community who oppose Beinin's views might be surprised to learn about his background. His American-born parents were members of the left-wing Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, and moved to pre-state Israel in the 1940s.

But because Beinin's father had been an officer in World War II, the Haganah wanted him to fight in the War of Independence. He felt he could not return to combat, and the family left.

Beinin himself grew up in Hashomer Hatzair in New York and considered moving to Israel.

He went to Israel after graduating high school, for a stay on Kibbutz Rahav in the Negev. But unlike his fellow teens, Beinin was already fluent in Hebrew. So he asked if he could learn Arabic instead. A kibbutz member from Iraq began to teach him.

"No one thought it was a weird thing to do," said Beinin, whose uncle was a founder of a kibbutz near a Palestinian village on the Lebanon border and had learned Arabic to supervise the Arab builders.

During his undergraduate years at Princeton, Beinin went to Cairo in 1969 to further his study of Arabic. And it was there that he had an awakening. In the dorms, he met people who called themselves Palestinians.

"In all of my years in Hashomer Hatzair, we never spoke about Palestinians. But here were these people, and it was clear to me they weren't making it up…This was very confusing for me, as it didn't fit with anything I thought I understood."

From 1970 to '73, Beinin and his wife lived in Israel. But he found that no one he spoke with wanted to hear about Palestinians. Frustrated, he returned to the United States.

He began to study for a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. But it was the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and his outspokenness about the roots of the conflict between Israel and Egypt, he believes, caused Harvard to reject him when he applied to its doctoral program.

He ended up at the University of Michigan, where he spent time doing some political work among the Arab autoworkers in Detroit.

Beinin says his treatment by certain elements of the organized Jewish community is akin to McCarthyism.

In the early '70s, when he was advocating a two-state solution, saying that Israel should be talking to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, "that was completely unacceptable to the great majority of Israelis and American Jews."

Then, when Israel began to talk to the PLO, "nobody came to me and said you've been right for 20 years. Maybe two or three people, but none of the people who have vilified me."

So how does all this make him feel?

"It does and it doesn't bother me," said Beinin, who doesn't belong to a synagogue but his son celebrated his bar mitzvah. "It fundamentally doesn't bother me because I've always strongly identified as a Jew. I feel very attached to my understanding of Jewish culture."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."