NOTE: Middle East Eye just published my latest piece on Israel’s attack on Iran’s Natanz centrifuge production facility. Please give it a read.
As Christians will know, the founder of the Church, Paul, had a “conversion” on the road to Damascus, (the ‘Damascene Conversion’), which led him to break with his Jewish past and found a new religion. Though Peter Beinart’s new essay in Jewish Currents, Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine will not mark the founding of a new religion, it does mark a radical step in his journey from the leading American Jewish defender of liberal Zionism to a supporter of a one-state solution.
His is a vision of a secular New Jerusalem akin to Ezechiel’s in the Holy Book. Of course, the Biblical prophet’s is a religious vision of a restored Third Temple and the Messiah ruling a restored Davidic kingdom. Beinart’s vision is no less radical, but it responds to the needs of today and a secular solution to the century-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The importance of his essay cannot be overestimated. Before publishing it, he was perhaps America’s pre-eminent liberal Zionist public intellectual. His arguments, problematic though they were, buttressed American Jewry’s liberal Zionist faith. Now that he has renounced it, those who respected him will have some profound soul-searching to do. This will not kill liberal Zionism, but it will begin an inevitable process of unraveling which has been long in the making.
The new essay offers the same sort of radical break that Saul (later Paul) underwent after he had a vision of blinding light and heard Jesus’ voice asking why he (Paul) was persecuting followers of his new faith. It was this revelation which turned the Apostle away from his previous allegiance to the Jewish Pharisees. Though Beinart never “persecuted” anti-Zionists or Palestinians, he served as a bulwark defending the two-state solution and the notion that Israel must be a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. His defense played a major role in upholding a suffocating two-state status quo, which held sway over American Jewish supporters of Israel for the past thirty years or more.
Beinart’s “conversion” was caused by the overwhelming burden of maintaining a liberal vision of Israel as the State careened down a path to Judeo-fascism. Unless he writes a book and tells us, we may never know what was the moment that Beinart saw that flash of light and realized he could no longer defend the indefensible. Nevertheless, we must be thankful that he had the intellectual integrity to realize he was fighting for a lost cause. Not every person who has invested years in upholding a conception of self and nation has the courage to question those beliefs and jettison them.
Tracing his professional odyssey, you will find that he has followed a path that began with writing for the New Republic, where the prototypical liberal Zionist intellectuals, Martin Peretz and Leon Wieseltier, reigned supreme. After writing his seminal book, the Crisis of Zionism, he founded a forum for liberal Zionist critics of Israel called Zion Square, which was a project hosted by the Daily Beast. While it was a home for some critical thought, it offered few Palestinian voices and also offered the voices of right-wing academics like Gil Troy. As a result of criticism from some quarters (including me), Beinart changed the project’s name to Open Zion, given that the former name, an actual geographical location at the heart of Jewish west Jerusalem, situated the forum firmly in Israel-centric discourse. But Open Zion never embraced any voices outside of what is known in Israeli politics as “left-Zionism.”
After it shut down in 2013, Beinart moved on to The Atlantic, where right-wing liberal Zionist (and former disciple of Meir Kahane), Jeffrey Goldberg, ran the show. He also wrote columns for the Jewish Forward and Haaretz. These publications, like Open Zion, are firmly anchored within liberal Zionist discourse. Though they offer a periodic platform to Palestinian or anti-Zionist writers, the overwhelming ideological perspective endorses a two-state solution and the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
But the real break came earlier this year when he announced that he had joined a reinvigorated Jewish Currents as editor-at-large. I confess when I heard this news I feared that the new editors were steering their ship rightward to meet Beinart’s politics. I had no idea that it might be precisely the opposite: that Beinart’s views might be moving leftward and that Jewish Currents would be a perfect home for them. This has proven to be the case with his new essay.
A pro-Palestinian twitter follower wrote that Beinart’s op-ed is hasbara writing its own requiem. I don’t think Beinart is a hasbarist. I’d say, rather, that it is liberal Zionism writing its own requiem.
The idea that his intellectual gravitas was employed in maintaining the fiction that Israel was both a Jewish and democratic state, seemed not only offensive, but profoundly damaging to those of us who saw clearly the monster that apartheid Israel had become. It also was maddening that Beinart never seemed to grapple with the inconsistencies of his argument, never admitted weakness, and never engaged in any substantive way with his critics on the left. He seemed much more solicitous of his critics on the right within the mainstream Jewish community. He appeared to crave their approval far more than he craved honest appraisal.
But Yavne has blown all this away. And he has done so in a powerful, persuasive way, which will be difficult for his right-wing critics to rebut, try as they might. One of the most moving elements of the piece is his admission that he is a “child” of the mainstream community. He was brought up and nurtured in its heart. That he knows its shibboleths and taboos. He understands that what he’s done here is, if not to cut ties entirely, to radically reconfigure his relationship with it. One of the most powerful aspects of his struggle is that he refuses to do it outside the community. But rather he stands within it and demands that the community meet him on his terms. This of course is a difficult choice to make since, as he notes himself, the majority of American Jews are not there yet. It leaves him in a lonely position of insisting on being within the tent, while those on the inside might just as soon see him leave it entirely.
Beinart does not seek to found a new anti-Zionist religion. Rather, he seeks to radically redefine Zionism in a fashion that permits it to fully engage, recognize, and affirm its long-time Palestinian enemy [italics mine]:
This doesn’t require abandoning Zionism. It requires reviving an understanding of it that has largely been forgotten. It requires distinguishing between form and essence. The essence of Zionism is not a Jewish state in the land of Israel; it is a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world. It’s time to explore other ways to achieve that goal—from confederation to a democratic binational state—that don’t require subjugating another people. It’s time to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.
Remember, the Balfour Declaration did not recognize a Jewish state. Rather, it recognized a “Jewish national home.” A home, not a state. If you abandon the idea that Israel must be a Jewish state in which the religious majority reigns supreme, and the Palestinians exist as a tolerated minority; if you recognize that the 2-million Palestinian citizens of Israel and 2-million Palestinians under Occupation deserve the same home, and recognition of their rights; then you need not be an anti-Zionist. Your Zionism may not be one that David Ben Gurion would accept. And it is certainly not a Zionism that Bibi Netanyahu would accept. But it remains a powerful Jewish response to the classical version of political Zionism.
Beinart’s ideas, well-articulated as they are, are not revolutionary. He has not created anything new or spawned an entirely new vision of Israel and Zionism. It’s not so much what he says, but rather the person saying it. After all, Israeli and Diaspora Jews have expressed these views for decades. They have mostly been voices calling out in the wilderness. But they have existed and persisted. It is certainly frustrating for many of us who have advocated these positions, only to have the communal Establishment reject them summarily, to see that it took someone like Beinart to make our ideas at least somewhat kosher.
As an example, the New York Times, a bastion of traditional liberal Zionism in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has republished a slightly different, scaled-down version of Yavneh, I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State. I can’t recall any previous op-ed by a Jewish writer which endorsed a one-state solution and renounced the concept of a Jewish state. What took them so long? Perhaps it was Beinart’s intellectual stature. Perhaps it took the firing of James Bennet, the embattled Times Opinion editor who, with a few exceptions, toed a strict liberal Zionist line in his choice of writers and topics. Whatever the reason, we should be thankful that the dam has burst and that discourse should gradually widen to admit more of us with the tent.
An indication of the impact of the piece on liberal Zionist discourse in the media is the overwhelmingly favorable response it has found amongst the pillars of the media Establishment. Jonathan Freedland, the dominant UK foreign policy analyst writing for the Guardian; Matt Yglesias, another timid, vacillating figure on Israel issues; and Max Fisher have all written at least respectful, if not rapturous tweets about it. Had any other figure written Beinart’s essay they would, no doubt, have ripped it apart limb from limb. That they feel they can’t in this case, indicates both Beinart’s stature, and the growing credibility of these hitherto radical views.
Similarly, Palestinian figures like Yousef Munnayer and even Ali Abunimah have tweeted their appreciation for Yavne. This may be the only such instance in which liberal Zionists and Palestinian nationalists have been able to find consensus in favor of such a radical document. All of which makes this a watershed moment.
Encouraging Change Within the Democratic Party
Perhaps the most significant overall impact will lie in the realm of American politics. Polls consistently show views among Democrats gradually moving in favor of Palestinian rights. They show increasing numbers of Democrats willing to sharply criticize Israel in fundamental ways. In fact, younger Americans show majority support for a one-state solution. Increasingly, this is the direction that public opinion will move. The handwriting is on the wall. That is why the Party’s left-wing represented by The Squad, most notably Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilan Omar have championed views hitherto anathema in national politics: support for one-state and BDS. Though there has been pushback from the Israel Lobby, it has not been able to “collect scalps” of those who defy it as it did in the past when it ran candidates against its opponents and drove them from office.
A Democratic left-wing critique of Israel is here to stay and will only get stronger as new insurgent candidates like Jamaal Bowman win seats in Congress. Eventually, we will also have Democratic senators joining Bernie Sanders to voice sharply critical views on Israel and endorsing cuts in military aid in response to Israeli apartheid policies like annexation. As for Sanders himself–his policies, while the most progressive of any senator, are incremental rather than radical. He and his foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss, who remain solid liberal Zionists, will now be challenged to move left on these issues. The question is whether they will do so willingly and embrace this as an opportunity; or whether they will do so grudgingly despite the clear winds of changing blowing across the American political landscape.
In the likelihood that Sanders does not run a third time for president in 2024 or 2028, it gives an opportunity for an even more progressive candidate on Israel-Palestine to step forward and carry the mantle on this issue. In that sense, Beinart’s essay is a rallying cry for change in the Party.
Similarly, BDS will come out of this even stronger. Though the Israel Lobby has passed anti-BDS legislation in 28 states, Yavne offers defenders of BDS a powerful argument against such punitive laws. It strengthens the inevitable court challenge which should find them unconstitutional. And it offers further credibility to the notion that Israel is a pariah state deserving of ostracism. This is, in turn, will encourage BDS to help transform these attitudes into policy and law. We can expect a far more robust response from American governments to Israeli apartheid in future including defunding settlements, denying tax-deductible status to settlement charities, denying military aid, and supporting official government sanctions, as we do against Iran.
What Did Beinart Miss?
There are weaknesses in Beinart’s prescriptions for the future: he favors a binational state. For him, it seems part of an evolutionary path from a two-state solution to a paradigm that offers two peoples a tempered form of independence within a single state. He seems to believe there is a need to guarantee in some ironclad fashion the separate rights of each people within a single entity. Personally, though I have enormous respect for the binational vision of the founders of Brit Shalom, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and others, I don’t believe such a solution will work today. It would be too complicated to devise a system in which two peoples would co-exist in a single state yet have separate realms of authority. How do you define what those separate realms are and their specific powers? How do you then meld those two separate entities into a single entity as a state of its own?
It is far simpler to have a single state in which each citizen has a single vote in a single parliament ruled by a single prime minister. Yes, there will be some ethnic conflict and tension in terms of the distribution of power. Whichever group is the minority might feel shut out of the perquisites of power. Unless of course, it could craft a coalition by allying with a portion of the majority ethnic group. But of course, this is the essence of politics in a society like Canada, Switzerland, Belgium or Lebanon, composed of competing ethnic groups within a democratic system.
While Beinart has offered some models of governance for his envisioned binational state, he has not offered a path to get there. In other words, given that Israel itself is irrevocably entrenched in the status quo; and international bodies have neither the inclination nor sustained will-power to intervene; and the U.S. remains locked into the two-state dead-end–how do we get from here to there? What needs to happen in order to break this logjam? There are precedents in recent history showing that a seemingly stable political system disintegrates relatively quickly and suddenly. This happened with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It happened over a longer term in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and with Kosovo’s break-away from Serbia.
By what scenario might the same happen to Israel-Palestine? It certainly will not arise spontaneously within Israel itself. Its population is too comfortable with the status quo and too fearful of change. Nor do Palestinians alone have the capacity to force such a change on Israelis. The United Nations and European Union have too many other crises on their agenda to offer the sort of ongoing, intense engagement required to transform the region. While the U.S., given the right circumstances might possess that sort of capacity, it does not now and will not for the near to medium term. Perhaps for these very reasons, Beinart has hesitated to suggest a way forward.
Despite his radical break with his past views, there were a few lingering linguistic echoes of his liberal Zionist past. Take this passage:
Only by helping to free Palestinians—and in the process coming to see them as human beings, not the reincarnation of our tortured past—can we free ourselves from the Holocaust’s grip.
There is something uncomfortable in the notion that Jews should “help free” Palestinians from their subjugation. It reminds me of the Boston statue of Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, which features a newly liberated Black slave kneeling at his feet.
Finally, I was struck by the concluding paragraph of his essay:
Imagine a country in which, at sundown on the 27th of Nissan, the beginning of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—Jewish and Palestinian co-presidents lower a flag in Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem as an imam delivers the Islamic du‘a’ for the dead. Imagine those same leaders, on the 15th of May, gathering at a restored cemetery in the village of Deir Yassin, the site of a future Museum of the Nakba, which commemorates the roughly 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled during Israel’s founding, as a rabbi recites El Malei Rachamim, our prayer for the dead.
That’s what Yavne can mean in our time. It’s time to build it.
While it is true that the preponderance of Israeli and Palestinian reality concerns the dead–and acknowledging them and the suffering endured by both sides–I’m struck by how much of Beinart’s vision concerns acknowledging death, and how little is dedicated to a vision of life and how to move it forward. Of course, suffering cannot be shoved under the carpet. In fact, a good deal of the early years of such a state will be absorbed in the equivalent of reconciliation commissions investigating and holding accountable those who committed crimes. But beyond this, how do you create a national identity based on positive, shared values?
A major engine of integration will be economic. Huge commercial opportunities will become available that were hitherto restricted due to the apartheid nature of what were two separate entities of Israel and Palestine. Those economic projects must be available equally to both Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Collaborations between them in which responsibility and financial reward are shared must be guaranteed. But economics alone will not create a single state.
Certainly, education can start this process. A curriculum which teaches truth and facts of history, rather than propaganda, will ensure that children will grow up appreciating the narrative of both sides.
Though the envisioned single state will have a reduced military footprint, since it will no longer be arrayed against a threatening Palestinian enemy, the army will remain a unifying force in society. If both Jews and Palestinians serve together in an integrated military, this would offer a huge step forward.
Undoubtedly, others have sketched out such visions in academic studies. I would like to have seen more of this from Beinart’s essay.