Old-school thinking on Israel Not from Peter Beinart

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Israel cannot remain both a Jewish and a democratic state unless it ceases growth of its West Bank settlements and supports the creation of a viable Palestinian state. This was the theme of Peter Beinart’s message to an audience of about 100 at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon on Dec. 8.

Peter Beinart speaks at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon on Dec. 8. photo/bernie robinson

The self-described “enfant terrible” of the American Jewish establishment appeared at an event sponsored by the Conservative synagogue’s Bridges to Israel speaker series, which aims to promote respectful dialogue on a wide range of issues pertaining to Israel.

Beinart, the son of Jewish immigrants from South Africa, is a former New Republic editor who will leave his “Open Zion” blog at the Daily Beast in January to become a senior columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and a contributing editor at the Atlantic.

His 2010 New York Review of Books essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” ruffled feathers throughout the Jewish community, with many decrying what they viewed as anti-Israel sentiments. His morning talk at Kol Shofar echoed themes from his 2012 book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” based in part on that essay.

Beinart, 42, found an appreciative audience, with many people giving him a standing ovation. The Bridges to Israel program, said Kol Shofar Rabbi Susan Leider, provides a “safe space” for “open discussion and reflection in a religious context.” Former KGO radio host John Rothmann spoke in the series last month, and future speakers include Rabbi Brian Lurie, president of the New Israel Fund, and Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs.

Last year, Beinart canceled a talk in Berkeley, co-sponsored by radio station KPFA, after the JCC of the East Bay pulled its co-sponsorship.

But the event at Kol Shofar went off without a hitch. The New Israel Fund’s New Generations group assisted in supporting the talk, with the group’s Bay Area director, Orlee Rabin, 30, saying many young American Jews feel “shut out of the conversation,” and that her group challenges “established models of engaging with Israel.”

Beinart also addressed that topic in his talk, wondering “why so many young Jewish kids feel so alienated from our community’s discussion of Israel.” He said young people deserve an affordable Jewish education that also prepares them for higher-level study at elite universities.

“In many cities in the U.S., the Jewish community has built better Holocaust museums than schools,” suggesting that the community is “more comfortable mourning the Jewish dead than providing for the Jewish future.”

Peter Beinart in Tiburon on Dec. 8. photo/bernie robinson

He said students deserve to be “fascinated” by Jewish learning. They also deserve, he said, something beyond “Disney-fied” Birthright Israel trips, so that their knowledge will be informed by the lives of “the 50 percent who live under Israeli control who are not Jewish.”

He wants to instill in young Jews the belief that fighting for equality in Israel represents a call to action paralleling previous generations’ activism in the U.S. civil rights movement, and he encouraged them to bring this perspective to mainstream Jewish organizations. “Every generation hears the voice of Sinai anew,” he said.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian question, Beinart addressed it by saying he found Palestinians to blame for some of the failures of peace negotiations, by denying “the historic Jewish connection to the land of Israel,” refusing to compromise on the right of return and committing “grotesque” acts of terror.

But he also chastised Israel for “paying Jews to move to the West Bank.” The government’s subsidies that support settlement growth are in effect “pushing Palestinians in a direction Israel does not want to go” by forcing those who might be reluctant peace partners into extremism.

Beinart cited instances of detention without trial and other injustices against Palestinians, including findings from the group B’Tselem, which works to expose what it deems Israeli human rights violations. Within the Green Line, he said, “Israel is the most democratic county in the Middle East … In the West Bank, Israel is a lot more similar to its neighbors.”

Beinart  also focused on the American Jewish establishment’s “fear” of discussing Israel-related issues.

Establishment figures are most comfortable, he said, discussing “threats from outside,” such as Iran or global anti-Semitism, which ties in with a narrative that sees Jews as “a weakened, menaced and reviled people” and continually flaunts Jewish “victimhood.”

Yet, he stressed, “in fundamental ways, the Jewish condition has changed” as Jews have gained real power in the world.

In an interview after the talk, Beinart insisted that his book “is a much more fundamental challenge to the Palestinian narrative than to the Jewish narrative,” adding, however, that “the most fundamental challenge is that I call myself a Zionist at all.”

As for his recent call to boycott products made in the West Bank — but not those made on the Israeli side of the Green Line — he does not see it as impractical or anti-Israel. The BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, he said, makes no distinctions about where in Israel a product is made and seeks to delegitimize the entire state. However, a boycott of West Bank–made products only promotes a clear distinction and supports a democratic Israel against BDS forces.

Though Beinart certainly does have his critics, he seems to remain affable toward them. At Kol Shofar, he told the story of receiving an expletive-laden text message that he didn’t see until after Yom Kippur. Noticing the date stamp as 8:29 p.m. the previous night, he texted back that he “didn’t think that was the best way to spend Kol Nidre.”