After Beinart

Three contributions to the issues Peter Beinart raised in his recent, decisive break with his own liberal Zionist past.

Tony Lerman gently chides Beinart for the time he has taken to reach his current position. But the race is not always to the swift and – just possibly – there is an audience willing to listen to Beinart now that wouldn’t had been receptive to these arguments in the past.

The Magnes Zionist writes: “My view is that the immediate issue is not one state vs two-states, but how to empower Palestinians so they can live freely and securely  in their homeland, Palestine, whatever the political configuration. And, of course, I am referring to all Palestinians who choose to live there. Moreover, as an Israeli Jew, my own issue is what collective responsibility we Israeli Jews have to the people whose land we possessed, and whose lives we have controlled. Short answer: plenty.”

And Jonathan Cook looks at the reactions to Beinart’s articles – especially those trying to save liberal Zionism from Beinart’s critique.


Foundation for Middle East Peace, Annexation map, September 2019

If only Peter Beinart had heeded my words on the death of liberal Zionism in 2015

Antony Lerman website, 8th July 2020

Following the publication of Peter Beinart’s article in Jewish Currents, ‘Yavne: a Jewish case for equality in Israel-Palestine’, on 7 July, I was reminded of a panel discussion I participated in with him and Mira Sucharov at the University of Chicago, on 10 March 2015. It followed the publication of my op-ed in the New York Times, ‘The end of liberal Zionism’ in August 2014.

My opening presentation at the panel anticipated many of the arguments Peter shows he now accepts in his Jewish Currents article. I welcome his ‘conversion’ to ‘equality in Israel-Palestine’, while not agreeing with all he writes. Had he, and other prominent liberal Zionists heeded the arguments that I and many others were making for some years, perhaps the barriers to achieving equal rights would have been less elephantine than they are now. Then again, perhaps not.

What is certain is that the far right governing forces in Israel have made good use of the fig leaf liberal Zionism has been for the fundamental injustices inherent in Zionist ideology.

I publish my panel presentation here for the first time: for the historical record and to gently chide Peter for taking so long to see the truth.

10 March 2015

Opening presentation at panel discussion with Peter Beinart and Mira Sucharov

University of Chicago

Is Liberal Zionism Dead?

With the peace process at a standstill, no major party in the Israeli election ready even to mention the word ‘occupation’ and self-styled king of the Jews Bibi feted by Republicans as if he were a demi-god, I don’t think it can be much fun to be a liberal Zionist today. But, to be fair on liberal Zionists, they’re not in it for the fun. They intend their beliefs and proposals to be a Zionist politics of the Jewish diaspora that has serious agency and can influence political outcomes in Israel.

But it’s my contention that liberal Zionism has failed, and will continue to fail, to have any significant influence on Israeli government policies, for two fundamental reasons: first, because of its internal contradictions and second because its prescriptions simply don’t address the key problems and political realities in Israel-Palestine. Therefore, as an idea with political agency, liberal Zionism has no future. But having no future doesn’t mean that its present impact is neutral. On the contrary, by acting as a fig leaf for the only Zionism that does have political agency today—right-wing, messianic, ethnonationalist settler Zionism—it’s positively harmful. It acts as a barrier to a truly liberal and just resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict that brings peace and reconciliation.

This is not to say that liberal Zionism is dead. I think it was JFK who said: ‘Ideas have endurance without death.’ After all, there are still people who believe that the earth is flat. So I argue that it will continue to exist, but as a means for a shrinking number of diaspora Jews to relate to a nostalgic view of Israel. In other words, as a means of Jewish self-expression, a choice that gives cultural content to diasporic Jewish life for some, but that has nothing to do with influencing Israel’s political or ideological direction.

But where does this phenomenon come from? Contrary to the impression given by some of its promoters, liberal Zionism was never a stream of Zionist ideology. It’s a modern phenomenon that only emerged in the late 1990s when the Oslo Accords came increasingly under attack from right wing forces inside and outside Israel and therefore unlikely to result in a just and lasting peace settlement. Jews who clung to Oslo as the expression of their liberal principles—2 states for 2 peoples; land for peace—came to cluster around the liberal Zionist position. The last chance to defend their humanist, romantic, Zionist ideal.

There was always something anachronistic about this. ‘Zionist ideology today subsists largely only as a historical relic’, Zachary Braiterman writes. After the establishment of the state, determining the nature of Jewish nationalism became the prerogative of those who held political power. And let’s be clear: there was never anything particularly liberal about Zionism. It’s true that both Herzl and Jabotinsky espoused forms of liberal Zionism, but it wasn’t their liberalism that appealed to the Jewish masses. It was the passion of their Zionism. The political giant who shaped the Yishuv and the state in its first 3 decades—Ben Gurion—was a dirigiste socialist and an illiberal nationalist—not a liberal Zionist.

So, anachronistic, full of internal contradictions and failing to address illiberal political realities, it’s not surprising that everything that liberal Zionists stand for is in doubt and some of their leading commentators know it.

Central to how liberal Zionists see Israel’s future is the 2 state solution. They recognise that Palestinians have a right to self-determination in an independent Palestinian state; it’s restorative justice for dispossession; and they know the occupation must end before it can happen. But the entire edifice is flawed. The ‘2 states for 2 peoples’ recipe is based on notions of national homogeneity and demographic separation; while the truth is that, despite extreme separation measures—unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the security fence and wall, the absorption into Israel of huge settlement blocs in any peace deal—Palestinians and Israelis are living together in a reality of spatial and binational heterogeneity. There is no symmetry or justice in this reality, however. Almost all the power resides on one side. The liberal Zionist idea that equal entities negotiate over state-oriented partition is a fiction.

We have known for a long time now that, as a deliverable political option, the 2-state solution is practically dead—Bibi and the right reject it; the so-called ‘Israeli left’ offer no more than a Palestinian Bantustan; and no outside power has been able to deliver it. But more to the point—and I think liberal Zionists have a hard time acknowledging this—all theoretical talk of an ideal 2 states or 1 state arrangement, freely chosen, is moot: a de facto single, unequal and undemocratic state exists; one single sovereign entity, under Israeli political, military and economic dominion, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. In it, rights for Jews are guaranteed, while rights for Palestinians are curtailed or virtually non-existent.

Liberal Zionists largely accept that Jews dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to make way for the establishment of a Jewish state, but believe that it was an acceptable price others had to pay to satisfy overriding Jewish needs. This means that securing Palestinian rights to national self-determination will always be subordinated to liberal Zionists’ insistence on prioritizing Jewish ethnoreligious preferences over full equality. So, no acceptance of the right of return as demanded in UN resolution 194; no full acceptance of responsibility for the Nakba; and no allowing Palestinians to commemorate the Nakba in the state of Israel. Palestinians are told to forget their history; Jews are told to remember theirs.

Liberal Zionists are convinced that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, but they fail to explain how the derivation of authority from God in Judaism can be reconciled with the sovereign power of the people in a democracy. A state founded on what it claims to be Jewish principles can have the trappings of democracy, but it can still have laws and practices that discriminate against non-Jewish minorities. And as we have seen, the power of inflexible, racist and narrow-minded orthodox religious authorities, supported by right-wing legislators, to determine what’s Jewish about the ‘Jewish state’ makes a nonsense of a Jewish and democratic symbiosis—and makes Israel an ethnocracy. (A state that privileges [Jewish] ethnicity over democracy.)

Such a conclusion is reinforced by liberal Zionists’ insistence that Israel must have a Jewish majority in perpetuity. Yet to achieve this inevitably implies policies of exclusion and discrimination, epitomised by the Law of Return—for Jews only. A belief that Israel will be a morally defensible democratic and Jewish majority state if it returns to the pre-67 borders is a false idealisation of pre-67 Israel. Discrimination against the Palestinian minority 20 per cent is endemic. Liberal Zionists may support Palestinian rights in a separate state; they don’t accept acknowledging Palestinian demands for national rights in Israel. (The Declaration of Independence promises equal ‘social and political rights’ for all, but not ‘national rights’.)

The impression liberal Zionists give of understanding Palestinian aspirations—as if liberal Zionism promises them what they want—is false. In my reading of Palestinian views and discussions with Palestinians, it’s clear they do not see liberal Zionism as a viable path to peace and reconciliation. Liberal Zionists may want something ostensibly liberal in the future, some Palestinians believe, but they never set a deadline—so all the while they accommodate themselves to the ongoing colonialist policies of the state. Effectively they are saying that ‘there is no Palestinian minimum (or Zionist maximum) they would not accept’ (Yousef Munayer).

Liberal Zionism is becoming increasingly isolated. It’s challenged ever more strongly from the diaspora Jewish left and it can’t distinguish itself sufficiently clearly from the Zionist extreme right. It may speak more softly about its commitment to Jewish ethno-religious preferences, but that commitment places it less distant from Zionist supremacism than it likes to think it is. So it ends up functioning as a fig leaf for the very form of Zionist colonial expansionism it seeks to oppose. But only this Zionism has political agency. And the degree to which liberal Zionists continue to want to occupy the Zionist space acts as a barrier against more widespread realization that this all that Zionism is really about today.

In short: liberalism is inclusivist; Zionism is exclusivist. Liberalism is about equal rights, human rights, regardless of ethnicity or creed; Zionism is about securing Jewish rights, at the expense of the non-Jewish native inhabitants of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.


After Beinart — What American Progressive Jews Can Do Now

Jeremiah Haber, The Magnes Zionist, 16 Jul 2020

Reaction to the essay and op-ed by Peter Beinart has been predictable. The usual suspects who support a so-called “two-state solution” — in other words, any two-stater who doesn’t believe in an equitable division of Israel/Palestine’s geography and resources into two sovereign states, each with a strong military capacity– are gnashing their gums (after spending decades gnashing their teeth). Those on the center-right and right have accused Beinart of all sorts of things that I won’t bother to repeat. That’s to be expected from folks  who would easily expel or exterminate Palestinians if they thought that equality between the two peoples were a live option. And can you blame them, from their point of view? Granting equal rights to Palestinians equals national suicide in their eyes. Jewish supremacy needs to be maintained at all costs.

Many have pointed out that Beinart’s proposed one-state solution is as much a dream as an equitable two state solution.  Israel as a state will never cede any real power to Palestinians unless it is forced to, and the odds of that are slim. Annexation, de facto or de jure, is eminently sustainable, for the foreseeable future. The reason for this is that the Zionism that is the life-blood of Israel is inherently illiberal, discriminatory, and, to be blunt, immoral — unless one considers as moral  a tribalist morality that understands the good  as what is good for the tribe. Making arguments that  “in the end, annexation will hurt Israel”  and thinking that Israelis will one day buy it is laughable. The whole Zionist enterprise was based on illiberal premises (unless we exempt, to a large extent, people like Magnes, Kohn, Buber, etc.), and that includes the European liberal Theodore Herzl.

I am not going to comment on the specifics of Beinart’s piece. My view is that the immediate issue is not one state vs two-states, but how to empower Palestinians so they can live freely and securely  in their homeland, Palestine, whatever the political configuration. And, of course, I am referring to all Palestinians who choose to live there. Moreover, as an Israeli Jew, my own issue is what collective responsibility we Israeli Jews have to the people whose land we possessed, and whose lives we have controlled. Short answer: plenty.

How should a progressive American Jew, one who believes in equal rights, a nation of its citizens, one law for all, etc. relate to the present State of Israel? The first response is to simply distance oneself from the state.  Don’t celebrate its holidays or mourn the loss of its soldiers who fell in wars of conquest. Don’t support it politically. Don’t wax poetic about it.  Don’t see it as a place of refuge for Jews from persecution, because when a refugee needs to dominate and discriminate against  others — and that is exactly what the Zionist state has done for the entire length of its existence — then being persecuted is the better option.

“Better to be offended against, than to give offense to others,” says the Talmud, which Maimonides codifies as law.  That’s may not be good Zionism, but it is good Judaism.

But distancing and living a Jewish life minus Israel is not enough The second answer is to join forces with Palestinians in a multitude of ways, including endorsing their civil rights movement, the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement, contributing money to Palestinian causes, publicizing their plight, etc. That means inter alia building coalitions with Palestinian Americans, crossing tribal boundaries. The Torah says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” which is glossed by the commentator Rashi as “your brother in commandments”, i..e, not your blood brother, but those who observe the commandments with you. What commandments? Minimally, the moral imperatives that we as human beings, and as Jews, are commanded by God, the source of goodness, such as all men are created in the image of God.  An unthinking love and loyalty to the Jewish people simply because they are Jews — the love of the Jewish people that Scholem accused Arendt of lacking — is not a traditional Jewish concept, but a Hasidic invention based on kabbalistic reification of the Jewish people as an attribute of God (Knesset Yisrael.) And when you subtract God from Judaism without a commitment to universalist morality the result is a degeneration  into tribalism and chauvinism. Family is family, but if your uncle is a wife abuser, you don’t excuse him or keep your criticism within the family — unless your morality is that of the mafia.

Progressive American Jews should give up on the State of Israel, but not on Israelis or those who support them. Those righteous Israelis, Jews and Palestinian citizens, who are trying to change things for the better need support (just as the American Jewish progressives need support from their progressive Israeli cousins.) As for the other Israeli Jews, they should be treated as disapproved family members who range from relatively harmless bigots to  condemnable segregationists and supremacists. To be more charitable, they may be viewed as children who have grown up captive to a ethno-nationalist morality and who need to be reeducated.

A final thought: Peter Beinart has always been motivated in his publicist writings on Israel by his moral convictions, and yes, his understanding  of Torah and what that requires of the Jews  I say that even when I was impatient with him in the past, when we argued precisely on the question of Palestinian equality, which he is now willing to accept as a goal. Rebecca Vilkomerson is correct to point out that much of what Peter is saying now has been said by Jewish Voice for Peace, and he has been, in my view, a bit uncharitable, or overly strategic, in not crediting his acceptance of his opponent’s positions in part to their arguments. He certainly can correct that impression if he likes.

But that is a quibble.  Beinart has been accused of  arguing from the comfort of his New York apartment. Well, I live in Jerusalem, on top of a house that was stolen by the state from its rightful owners in a war of conquest.  And yet I don’t think the moral predicament that he wrestles with is  any more comfortable for him than mine is for me.

Being on the side of the victim sucks — but being on the side of the perpetrator sucks even more.  Peter Beinart gets that. Many of his critics do not.

Liberal Zionism begins the journey towards a one-state solution

Peter Beinart, a bellwether for American Jews, has provoked a storm by renouncing the two-state solution and urging equality for all

Jonathan Cook, website, 17 July 2020


Peter Beinart, an influential liberal commentator on Israel and Zionism, poked a very large stick into a hornets’ nest this month by admitting he had finally abandoned his long-cherished commitment to a two-state solution.

Variously described as the “pope of liberal Zionism” and a “bellwether for the American Jewish community”, Beinart broke ranks in two essays. Writing in the New York Times and in Jewish Currents magazine, he embraced the idea of equality for all – Israelis and Palestinians.

Beinart concluded: “The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades – a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews – has failed. … It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.”

Similarly, the Times article was headlined: “I no longer believe in a Jewish state.” Beinart’s main point – that a commitment to Israel is now entirely incompatible with a commitment to equality for the region’s inhabitants – is a potential hammer blow to the delusions of liberal Jews in the United States.

Long journey

His declaration is the apparent culmination of a long intellectual and emotional journey Beinart has conducted in the public eye – a journey many American liberal Jews have taken with him.

Once the darling of the war-mongering liberal establishment in Washington, he supported the illegal attack on Iraq in 2003. Three years later, he wrote a largely unrepentant book titled The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.

There is no heavyweight publication in the US that has not hosted his thoughts. Foreign Policy magazine ranked him in the top 100 global thinkers in 2012.

But his infatuation with Israel and Zionism has been souring for years. A decade ago, he published a seminal essay on how young American Jews were increasingly alienated from their main leadership organisations, which he criticised for worshipping at the altar of Israel even as Israeli governments lurched ever further rightwards. His argument later formed the basis of a book, The Crisis of Zionism.

The tensions he articulated finally exploded into physical confrontation in 2018, when he was detained at Israel’s main airport and nearly denied entry based on his political views.

Beinart has not only written caustically about the occupation – a fairly comfortable deflection for most liberal Zionists – but has also increasingly turned his attention to Israel’s behaviour towards its large Palestinian minority, one in five of the population.

Recognition of the structural racism towards these 1.8 million Palestinian citizens, a group whose identity is usually glossed over as “Israeli Arabs”, was a clear sign that he had begun poking into the dark recesses of Zionism, areas from which most of his colleagues shied away.

Disappointment and distrust

Beinart’s two essays have been greeted with hesitancy by some of those who might be considered natural allies.

Understandably, some Palestinians find reason to distrust Beinart’s continuing description of himself as a Zionist, even if now a cultural rather than political one. They also resent a continuing western colonial mentality that very belatedly takes an interest in equality for Palestinians only because a prominent liberal Jew adopts the cause.

Beinart’s language is problematic for many Palestinians too. Not least, he frames the issue as between Palestinians and Jews, implying that Jews everywhere still have a colonial claim on the historic lands of Palestine, rather than those who live there today as Israelis.

Similarly, among many anti-Zionists, there is disappointment that Beinart did not go further and explicitly prescribe a single democratic state of the kind currently being advanced in the region by small but growing numbers of Israelis and Palestinians.

Tested to breaking point

But the importance of Beinart’s intervention lies elsewhere. He is not the first prominent Jewish figure to publicly turn their back on the idea of a Jewish state. Notably, the late historian Tony Judt did the same – to much uproar – in a 2003 essay published by the New York Review of Books. He called Israel an “anachronism”.

But Judt had been chiefly associated with his contributions to understanding European history, not Zionism or Israel. And his essay arrived at a very different historical moment, when Israelis and Jews overseas were growing more entrenched in their Zionism. The Oslo Accords had fizzled into irrelevance at the height of a Palestinian uprising.

Beinart’s articles have landed at a problematic time for his main audience. The most fundamental tenet of liberal Zionism – that a Jewish state is necessary, verging on sacred – is already being tested to breaking point.

The trigger for the articles is the very tangible threat from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, backed by the Trump White House, to annex swaths of the West Bank.

Meagre alibi lost

The significance of Netanyahu’s position on annexation, as Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard has noted, depends not simply on whether annexation is realised on the ground, now or later. The declaration itself crosses a Rubicon.

Netanyahu and the right-wing faction who now control Israel unchallenged have made it explicit that they do not consider the occupation to be a temporary arrangement that will eventually be resolved in peace talks.

The intent to annex, whether or not the US allows such a move, now taints everything Israel does in the occupied territories. It proves beyond any doubt – even to liberal Jews who have been living in deep denial – that Israel’s goal is to permanently seize the occupied territories.

That, in turn, means that Israel has only two possible approaches to the Palestinian populations living in those territories as long as it denies them equality: It can either carry out ethnic cleansing operations to expel them, or rule over them in a formal, explicit arrangement of apartheid. That may not constitute much of a tangible difference on the ground, but it marks a legal sea change.

Occupation, however ugly, is not in breach of international law, though actions related to it, such as settlement-building, may be. This allowed many liberal Jews, such as Beinart, a small comfort blanket that they have clung to tightly for decades.

When challenged about Israel’s behaviour, they could always claim that the occupation would one day end, that peace talks were around the corner, that partition was possible if only Palestinians were willing to compromise a little more.

But with his annexation plan, Netanyhu ripped that comfort blanket out of their clutches and tore it to shreds. Ethnic cleansing and apartheid are both crimes against humanity. No ifs, no buts. As Sfard points out: “Once Israel began officially striving for annexation – that is, for perpetuating its rule by force – it lost this meagre alibi.”

Apartheid state

Sfard makes a further important legal observation in a report written for the human rights group Yesh Din. If Israel chooses to institute an apartheid regime in parts of the occupied West Bank – either formally or through creeping legal annexation, as it is doing now – that regime does not end at the West Bank’s borders. It would mean that “the Israeli regime in its entirety is an apartheid regime. That Israel is an Apartheid state.”

Of course, one would have to be blind not to have understood that this was where political Zionism was always heading – even more so after the 1967 war, when Israel’s actions disclosed that it had no intention of returning the Palestinian territories it had seized.

But the liberal Zionist condition was precisely one of willful blindness. It shut its eyes tight and saw no evil, even as Israel debased Palestinian life there for more than half a century. Looking back, Beinart recognises his own self-inflicted credulousness. “In practice, Israel annexed the West Bank long ago,” he writes in the New York Times.

In his two articles, Beinart denies liberal Jews the one path still available to them to rationalise Palestinian oppression. He argues that those determined to support a Jewish state, whatever it does, are projecting their own unresolved, post-Holocaust fears onto Palestinians.

In the Zionist imagination, according to Beinart, Palestinians have been reinvented as heirs to the Nazis. As a result, most Jews have been manipulated into framing Israel’s settler-colonialism in zero-sum terms – as a life-or-death battle. In that way, they have been able to excuse Israel’s perpetual abuse of Palestinians.

Or as Beinart puts it: “Through a historical sleight of hand that turns Palestinians into Nazis, fear of annihilation has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew.” He adds that “Jewish trauma”, not Palestinian behaviour, has ended in “the depiction of Palestinians as compulsive Jew-haters”.

Forced into a choice

Annexation has forced Beinart to confront that trauma and move beyond it. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of Israel’s supporters have been reluctant to follow suit or discard their comforting illusions. Some are throwing tantrums, others sulking in the corner.

The Zionist right and mainstream have described Beinart as a traitor, a self-hating Jew, and a collaborator with Palestinian terrorism. David Weinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security called Beinart “a shill for Israel’s enemies” who “secretes poison”.

Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, described Beinart’s advocacy of equality as a “disaster in the making”, while Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York, accused Beinart of wanting Israel to “drop dead”.

The liberal Zionist establishment has been no less discomfited. Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East envoy, warned that Beinart’s prescription was “an illusion tethered to a fantasy wrapped in an impossibility”.

And Beinart’s friend, Jeremy Ben Ami, head of the two-state lobby group J Street, snatched back the ragged remains of the comfort blanket, arguing that peace talks would be revived eventually. In a standard Zionist deflection, Ben Ami added that Israel was no different from the US in being “far from perfect”.

But to understand how quickly liberal Zionist reasoning may crumble, it is worth focusing on a critique of Beinart’s articles by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s in-house liberal Zionist, Anshel Pfeffer.

Collapse of support

Pfeffer makes two highly unconvincing arguments to evade Beinart’s logic. Firstly, he claims that a one-state solution – of any variety – is impossible because there is no support for it among Palestinians and Israelis. It is, he argues, a conceit Beinart has absorbed from Jews and Palestinians in the US.

Let’s overlook Pfeffer’s obvious mistake in ignoring the fact that a single state already exists – a Greater Israel in which Palestinians have been living for decades under a highly belligerent system of apartheid, laced with creeping ethnic cleansing. Still, his claims about where Israeli and Palestinian public opinion currently lies are entirely misleading, as is his assumption about how Beinart’s attack on liberal Zionism may impact regional possibilities.

The views of Palestinians in the occupied territories (Pfeffer, of course, ignores the views of refugees) have been undergoing radical and rapid change. Support for the two-state solution has collapsed. This is far from surprising, given the current political context.

Among Palestinians, there are signs of exasperation and a mirroring of Israeli Jewish intransigence. In one recent poll, a majority of Palestinian respondents demanded a return of all of historic Palestine. What can be inferred from this result is probably not much more than the human tendency to put on a brave show when faced with a highly acquisitive bully.

In fact, increasingly Palestinians understand that, if they want to end the occupation and apartheid, they will need to overthrow their compromised leaders in the Palestinian Authority (PA), effectively Israel’s local security contractor. It is an uprising against the PA, not polls, that will seal the fate of the two-state solution. What may inspire Palestinians to take on the risk of a major confrontation with their leaders?

A part will be played, however small, by Palestinians’ understanding of how a shift from a struggle for statehood to a struggle for equal rights in one state will be received abroad. Liberal Jewish opinion in the US will be critical in changing such perceptions – and Beinart has just placed himself at the heart of that debate.

Journey to ‘self-immolation’

Meanwhile, a majority of Israeli Jews support either Greater Israel or an “end-of-the-rainbow” two-state solution, one in which Palestinians are denied any meaningful sovereignty. They do so for good reason, because either option perpetuates the status quo of a single state in which they prosper at a heavy cost to Palestinians. The bogus two-state solution privileges them, just as bantustans once did white South Africans.

The view of Israeli Jews will change, just as white South Africans’ did, when they suffer a harsher international environment and the resulting cost-benefit calculus has to be adjusted.

In that sense, the issue isn’t what Israeli Jews think now, when they are endlessly indulged, but what Israel’s sponsors – chiefly the US – eventually demand. That is why Beinart’s influence on the thinking of liberal American Jews cannot be discounted. Long term, what they insist on may prove critically important.

That was why Beinart’s harshest critics, in attacking his two essays, also warned of the current direction of travel.

Jonathan Tobin, editor of the Jewish News Syndicate, argued that Beinart’s views were “indicative of the crisis of faith within much of American Jewry”. Weinberg described the two essays as “frightening” because they charted liberal Jews’ “intellectual journey towards anti-Zionism and self-immolation”.

Both understand that, if liberal Jews abandon Zionism, one leg of the Israeli stool will be gone.

Mocked as utopianism

The other problem Pfeffer inadvertently highlights with liberal Zionism is contained in his mocking dismissal of Beinart’s claim that the justification for a “Jewish home” needs to be rooted in morality.

Pfeffer laughs this off as utopianism, arguing instead that Israel’s existence has always depended on what he vaguely terms “pragmatism”. What he means, once the euphemism is stripped out, is that Israel has always pursued a policy of “might is right”.

But Pfeffer’s suggestion that Israel does not also need to shape a moral narrative about its actions – even if that narrative bears no relation to reality – is patently implausible.

Israel has not relied solely on its own might. It has needed the patronage of western states to help it diplomatically, financially and militarily. And their enthusiastic support has depended on domestic perceptions of Israel as a moral agent.

Israel understands this only too well. It has presented itself as a “light unto the nations”, a state that “redeemed” a barren land, and one that has the “most moral army in the world”. Those are all moral claims on western support.

Beinart has demonstrated that the moral discourse for Israel is a lost cause. And for that reason, Israel’s chief allies now are states led by covert, and sometimes overt, antisemites and proud authoritarians.

Beinart is doubtless ahead of most liberal Jews in the US in rejecting Israel as a Jewish state. But it would be foolish indeed to imagine that there are not many others already contemplating following in his footsteps.


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Comments (3)

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    Three great pieces – I am going to respond to each in turn.

    Re Tony Lerman – I think the issue is timing. Beinart has helped to create the changes now happening, and is catching the moment and exploiting them. 2015 – he almost certainly wouldn’t have been heard.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    Jerry Haber is the first Jewish commentator who I have read who has – like me – concluded that the issue is not the one/two state argument, even though it has secured the headlines and allowed some to triumphalise. However, what Beinart is about is how to change the mindset of American liberal Jews.

    Beinart does engage in some discussion on specifics, which is chiefly important for showing that he is thinking about practicalities, not just fantasising. But it is his focus on human rights, equality, justice and morality that is actually the most important part of his article.

    He is saying to Diaspora Jews (and mostly to American Jews) – this Israeli state cannot, must not be defended right or wrong. The security arguments Israel makes are false, the abuse and misuse of Holocaust terrors are just that – abuse and misuse. A new morality has to take over.

    Though I don’t necessarily go along with all Haber’s arguments about what American (and other diaspora Jews) should do now – though I do think he provides an immensely helpful discussion list – I like his reminding us that our role is to send a moral message to Israel, and to put pressure on from outside – it is the role of the Palestinians to decide what they really want in Israel/Palestine, and for Israel’s Jews to negotiate with all the representatives of the Palestinians to achieve a just and sustainable outcome.

  • DJ says:

    Three very good and challenging articles. I’m still trying to fully digest them. I suspect many others are doing the same.

Comments are now closed.