Peter Beinart waves the Zionist flag in JCCSF talk

Political pundit Peter Beinart sounded like a moderate at the JCC of San Francisco on April 16 — a moderate Israeli, that is.

In the American Jewish community, his views place him sharply left of center. But in the Jewish state, he would be kind of dovish.

The former editor of the New Republic, senior political writer for the Daily Beast-Newsweek  and author of “The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart was in town touting that recently published book. But audiences, including the crowd of about 200 at the JCCSF, have been more piqued by his controversial call for a “Zionist BDS,” a boycott of goods manufactured in West Bank settlements — a proposal that took up just three pages in his book, noted Janine Zacharia, former Mideast correspondent for the Washington Post, who engaged him in conversation onstage.

Peter Beinart (left) and interviewer Janine Zacharia at the JCCSF photo/george altshuler

What Beinart made clear in his talk is that he’s a Zionist. Got that? He said it a few times. The guy isn’t out to hurt Israel — heck, he loves Israel, and he’s a member of an Orthodox shul, for heaven’s sake. His goal, however lofty it sounds, is to save Israel’s soul, which he describes as a combination of American-style democracy and the best of the Jewish ethical tradition, which itself stems from the Israelites’ experience as “strangers” in Egypt.

“That tradition should inform your life as a Jew as much as your parents’ and grandparents’ lives were informed by the great privilege of being alive to see the creation of the Jewish state,” he told the audience, after he described his grandfather breaking down in tears upon hearing the 1947 radio announcement of the U.N. vote for Israel’s statehood.

Beinart calls his proposal a “Zionist” BDS to distinguish it from the pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that targets goods made in anywhere in Israel, a campaign he strongly opposes. While that distinction may not satisfy some American Jewish supporters of Israel, it’s very clear in Beinart’s mind.

That’s why he cancelled his April 27 talk at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, which was to have been hosted by KPFA radio. The JCC of the East Bay pulled its sponsorship in mid-March after learning that the moderator, Penny Rossenwasser, was a board member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Beinart then cancelled because he didn’t want his appearance misconstrued.

“I would have liked to do the KPFA event and regret that the East Bay JCC pulled out,” he told j. by email.  “But once they did — and there was no sponsor that shared my opposition to full BDS and my commitment to Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state — I felt that speaking under those auspices would send the wrong message given that the core argument of my book is that we need to help Israel survive as a democratic Jewish state.”

It’s a shame that the KPFA crowd didn’t get a chance to hear Beinart, because his JCCSF talk was full of love for Israel, a strong commitment to Jewish education, and a hope that the next generation of American Jews will share both.

Beinart’s central message, in his book and recent essays, is a call for Israel to honor the pledge it made in its founding documents to be a Jewish and a democratic state, with equal rights for all its citizens. That hasn’t happened yet, he says repeatedly, but as he reminded the JCCSF audience, Israel is a young country, “and remember, America was very much a work in progress 60 years in, as well.”

He also calls upon the American Jewish establishment to “stop sleepwalking” and demand that both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership get back to the negotiating table and cement a two-state solution. And even though he doesn’t live in Israel, he claims the right to criticize Israeli policy “because I want the right to criticize the Palestinian Authority and I don’t live in Ramallah.”

JCCSF officials seemed somewhat nervous at the outset of the talk, but there were no disturbances, no protests. Everyone listened respectfully.

“The question we should ask young American Jews is, how do we make this a state worth waiting 2,000 years for?” Beinart asked, to the loudest applause of the night. “I want to be able to tell my children that I did something to fight for this.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].