Peter Beinart

JVL Introduction

“I’ve been thinking about Jewish disloyalty recently because I’ve been accused of it,” writes Peter Beinart, author last July of an oped piece in the New York Times headed I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.

Recently he agreed to appear on a platform which included Rep Rashida Tlaib and Professor Marc Lamont Hill – and the floodgates of criticism opened.

Here he explains why he did so, and discusses “the perverse way in which charges of anti-Semitism often function in the contemporary American debate over Israel. Frequently, they serve not to combat bigotry but to excuse it…”

Peter Beinart’s thoughts on loyalty below are reprinted from his newsletter, which you can sign up to here.

This article was originally published by Peter Beinart's newsletter on Mon 14 Dec 2020. Read the original here.


Chanukah, the holiday that began last week, celebrates an ancient Jewish victory over the oppressive Seleucid Greeks. But it also celebrates an ancient Jewish victory over renegade Jews—Jews so desperate to be like Greeks that some tried to uncircumcise themselves. Chanukah celebrates the victory of loyal Jews over disloyal ones.

When you’re a small people with a history of oppression, disloyalty breeds a special kind of contempt. In 1236, a Jewish convert to Christianity named Nicholas Donin convinced Pope Gregory IX that the Talmud slandered Jesus. In Paris, church authorities responded by burning twenty-four wagon loads of Jewish sacred texts. It was treachery like Donin’s that led Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher, to declare that the penalty for being a moser—an informer or traitor—was death. That no ruling no longer applies. Still, moser was the label Yigal Amir affixed to Yitzhak Rabin to justify taking his life.

I’ve been thinking about Jewish disloyalty recently because I’ve been accused of it. I’m participating in a December 15 panel—featuring Representative Rashida Tlaib, Professor Marc Lamont Hill, Professor Barbara Ransby and moderated by Rabbi Alissa Wise—on the struggle against anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. A lot of people I don’t know, and some I do, have told me I’m betraying my people.

I’d been lying if I said the accusation doesn’t bother me. It bothers me immensely. For years, I’ve tried to criticize Israel in a way my fellow Jews can hear. I’ve tried—not just in my work, but in the way I live my life—to be what Michael Walzer has called a “connected critic”: someone who shows love and loyalty to the community with whom he disagrees. The attacks make me worry I’ve failed. I’ve frittered away whatever communal goodwill I had left by sharing a panel with not just one but two people—Tlaib and Hill—who have been labelled anti-Semites. It’s hard enough to defend myself. Why associate with them?

Answering that question requires understanding the perverse way in which charges of anti-Semitism often function in the contemporary American debate over Israel. Frequently, they serve not to combat bigotry but to excuse it. In the West Bank, which Israel controls, millions of Palestinians live alongside hundreds of thousands of Jews. The Jews enjoy citizenship, free movement, due process and the right to vote for the government that controls their lives. The Palestinians enjoy none of these rights. (Defenders of the Israeli government sometimes claim that West Bank Palestinians actually live under the control of the Palestinian Authority. But the PA is not a government; it is Israel’s subcontractor. When PA officials do things Israel doesn’t like, Israel arrests them).

Two peoples live in the same territory under a different law. That’s legalized bigotry. Former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both likened permanent Israeli control of the West Bank to apartheid. But, with every passing year, Israeli control grows ever more permanent. In 1982, the then-deputy mayor of Jerusalem warned that 100,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank would make a viable Palestinian state impossible. Today the number is close to 650,000, and rising. Last week, the Associated Press reported that the Israeli government was planning a new network of roads connecting the West Bank to Israel proper, which would “pave [the] way for massive growth of Israeli settlements.”

As Israel has bound the West Bank every more tightly into a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—a state in which millions of Palestinians lack basic rights—Israel’s defenders have claimed ever more vehemently that questioning the Jewish nature of that state constitutes anti-Semitism. It’s Kafkaesque. The very people who are making a two-state solution impossible label anyone who imagines one equal state—the only alternative for granting West Bank Palestinians citizenship in the country in which they live—Jew-haters. Thus, if you believe an independent Palestinian state is no longer possible, the only way to avoid being labelled a bigot is to accept the bigoted status quo.

Fundamentally, this is why Tlaib and Hill are labelled anti-Semites: Because they support replacing the current one state—in which millions of Palestinians lack citizenship and the right to vote—with one state in which Jews and Palestinians live under a common law. Because they hold this view, and because they are people of color, their statements are interrogated in ways that the statements of American politicians and commentators who support one unequal state rarely are. I’ve sat on many panels with supporters of one unequal state, people who openly justify denying Palestinians equal rights to Jews. Yet my presence at such events has never garnered significant controversy.

Anti-Black racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, rests upon a double standard, “a broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” Some people’s actions receive harsh scrutiny, others do not. So it is with racism towards Palestinians. Tlaib and Hill are excoriated for supposed offenses that, when practiced by Israel’s defenders, pass almost without notice.

Take, for instance, Tlaib and Hill’s declarations that Palestine should be free “from the river to the sea.” By employing this phrase, their critics allege, they are signaling that they want a single state that denies Jews safety and freedom. But Israel is, today, a single state—from the river to the sea—that denies millions of Palestinians safety and freedom. Mike Pompeo celebrates this reality. Joe Biden pledges to fund it, no matter what Israel does. America’s most prominent politicians support, in practice, the ethno-religious domination that Tlaib and Hill are chastised for supporting in theory. Yet if you search for “Tlaib” or “Hill” and “anti-Semitism,” Google will cough up an unending series of references. Google “Pompeo” or “Biden” and “anti-Palestinian bigotry” and you’ll find almost nothing at all.

If Tlaib and Hill really did desire a single state that oppresses Jews, that would constitute anti-Semitism—and would absolutely merit condemnation. Critics note that some who use the phrase “Palestine from the river to the sea,” such as the leaders of Hamas, have advocated an Islamic state that subjugates Jews. But the phrase long predates the birth of Hamas, and has historically encompassed a variety of Palestinian visions, including a secular democratic state. Luckily, we don’t have to guess whether the one state that Tlaib and Hill desire would offer equality to Jews. They have both told us. In the very 2018 speech in which he used the phrase “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” Hill repeatedly cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as his guide for the rights that a single state should safeguard. He subsequently explained that he supports a “single bi-national democratic state” that offers “peace, safety, security, and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. Justice requires that everyone, not just a single side, is free and equal.” When justifying her support for one state, Tlaib has often cited the civil rights movement, which she says proves that “separate but equal doesn’t work.” She also invokes stories of Jewish-Arab coexistence from her grandfather, who remembers an integrated “neighborhood, Arab-Jew” where “we picked olives together.” She envisions a country that is a “safe haven for anyone who needs to be protected.” She’s even said she opposes displacing West Bank settlers who live on stolen Palestinian land because “some of the Israeli families have been in those communities for almost five decades, is the solution to push them out and recreate that kind of hurt? I just don’t know how you uproot people yet again.”

This doesn’t mean Tlaib and Hill’s visions are infallible. Critics might argue that, given the nationalist desires of both Palestinians and Jews, it’s worth holding out hope that partition is still possible. If there is one equal Israel-Palestine, I believe, like Hill, that it must a binational state that recognizes the communal, as well as individual, rights of both peoples—something “Palestine from the river to the sea” does not convey.

But Hill and Tlaib’s detractors don’t want to debate them. They want to ostracize them. They want to delegitimize support for a single, equal, state even as they defend the legitimacy of a single, unequal, state. Thus, Hill is excoriated for having met with Louis Farrakhan. But so has Barack Obama. So has Representative Gregory Meeks, whose ascension to the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee AIPAC last week celebrated. Like Meeks, Hill has repudiated Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. If it’s OK for Meeks to meet Farrakhan but disavow his Jew-hatred, why isn’t OK for Hill to do the same? Because it’s not Hill’s meeting with Farrakhan that truly bothers his critics. It’s his support for Palestinian rights.

The final criticism of Hill, Tlaib, and Barbara Ransby, another panelist, is that they should not be speaking at an event on anti-Semitism because they are not Jews. But there is nothing wrong with Jewish organizations—like Jewish Voice for Peace Action, If Not Now and Jewish Currents, which are among the sponsors of the panel—inviting non-Jews to speak about anti-Semitism. To suggest otherwise is to commit the very error leftists are often accused of: Believing that someone’s identity determines the merit of their arguments. When justifying his reliance on non-Jewish sources in his philosophical investigations, Maimonides argued that “one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.” That principle remains correct today. What matters is not whether Hill, Tlaib and Ransby are Jews but whether they have something valuable to say. I believe they do, both because anti-Semitism is often interwoven with other forms of bigotry—as manifested in Pittsburgh, where a white nationalist attacked a synagogue because he believed it was facilitating immigration from Central America—and because, tragically, charges of anti-Semitism are often deployed to excuse bigotry against Palestinians.

Whatever our differences, Tlaib, Hill, Ransby and I share a belief in the infinite value of human dignity. So central is human dignity to Jewish tradition that, according to the Babylonian Talmud, it supersedes all rabbinic commandments. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, it supersedes most Torah commandments as well. For me, therefore, participating in a conversation aimed at defending human dignity—including the dignity of Palestinians—constitutes not an act of betrayal but an act of loyalty, loyalty to ethical principles that the Jewish people, my people, have helped bequeath to the world.

Peter Beinart is professor of journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and professor of political science at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is editor-at-large for Jewish Currents.

Comments (5)

  • Keith Veness says:

    Great article – this is the only way forward.

  • Amy Antonia Aloy says:

    A great article and thank you JVL.

  • Jaye says:

    I wouldn’t call you disloyal Peter but probably well meaning although your views are naive and and divorced from the realities of the ME and somewhat forgetful of Jewish history. I doubt that you would be willing to risk your life and those of your family by living in this implausible secular ME state, in fact I don’t know of any Jews who would volunteer, but many posters on JVL are happy to suggest this for nearly 7 million Jews in Israel. The aim of most of those who propose a so-called secular democratic state, including those with whom you shared a platform, is to deny Jewish self-determination, ie it’s antisemitism.

  • goldbach says:

    Nothing wrong with any of us having self-determination ……………
    …………. as long as it doesn’t deny self-determination to others.
    Deny that self-determination to others and you are repudiating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which sprang from, amongst other considerations, a determination that nothing like the Holocaust should ever happen again.

  • DJ says:

    Jaye. How can the struggle for equal treatment of the Palestinians in a single secular state be described as antisemitic? The status quo is simply untenable unless you support Jewish supremacy over the Palestinians. Supporting the self determination of one religious/ethnic group at the expense of another can never be justified!

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